After British authorities detained the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald for nine hours and forced the Guardian, where Greenwald works, to destroy its computers, the Columbia Journalism Review declared this a “DEFCON 2 journalism event” — a reference to the code used when the country is one step away from nuclear war.
And they weren’t alone. A number of leading journalists have weighed in over the past week arguing that we have reached a crisis moment for global press freedom. Amy Davidson, in the New Yorker, writes that the events of this week remind us that we are “lucky in this country to have a press with a better shot at avoiding prior restraint.”
However, she argues, both the Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden cases raise doubts about that “better shot.” Indeed, many saw Manning’s 35-year sentence, handed down this week, as yet another effort to chill the newsgathering process. All of this comes on the heels of a long string of press suppression and intimidation that came to light in the United States this summer. Taken together, argues Davidson, these cases show “why it’s worth pushing back, and fighting.”
That sentiment was echoed by Philip Bump at the Atlantic Wire: “In the battle with the security state, those who might commit acts of journalism have three choices: acquiesce, push back or step away.”
Building Momentum: Fighting Back
Historically, the way to push back against press suppression has been through the courts. David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, announced that he will seek legal recourse against the U.K. government over his detention (and he will likely have a good case). His lawsuit will be a critical test of the U.K. government’s willingness to use anti-terror laws to intimidate journalists and intercept their communications.
In the United States a collection of strange bedfellows — including public interest groups (such as Free Press), churches and gun owners — are suing the National Security Agency for infringing on their First Amendment right to assemble and organize.
As important as these lawsuits are, it’ll take more than court cases to push back on the criminalization of journalism. That’s because what is at stake here is not just a law, but the fundamental American idea of an informed public and the consent of the governed.
As New York University’s Jay Rosen argued recently: “People who make a career in journalism cannot pretend to neutrality on a matter like that. If a free society needs them — and I think it does — it needs them to stand strongly against the eclipse of informed consent.”
Building Solidarity: A New Global Coalition
This week, Rosen went even further. In a new post, he describes the need for a new, global “sunlight coalition” of “large and small pieces, loosely joined” that can push back against the combined forces of secrecy and surveillance:
“This battle is global. Just as the surveillance state is an international actor — not one government, but many working together — and just as the surveillance net stretches worldwide because the communications network does too, the struggle to report on the secret system’s overreach is global as well. It’s the collect-it-all coalition against an expanded Fourth Estate worldwide.”
Rosen’s emphasis on the global nature of this fight is important because, while the intimidation and attacks on the press we’ve seen recently are troubling, they are just a sliver of what citizen and professional journalists around the world face daily.
Joel Simon, the director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote earlier this year: “Freedom of expression groups need to raise the stakes with governments that are increasingly asserting that speech should be curtailed to accommodate culture, heritage and threats to national security.”
This week, the International News Safety Institute reported that so far more than 40 journalists and support staff have been killed in 2013. There is an incredible network of organizations working globally to support and protect people who are trying to bear witness and tell their story. Their struggle is our struggle, too.
Building a Movement: From Audience to Allies
We are facing a critical juncture in terms of press freedom, and this moment demands a new approach to fighting back. It’s time for journalists, digital rights, press freedom, civil liberties and open government groups across the United States and around the world to come together to make the case that the surveillance state, and the actions this and other governments will take to protect it, are threatening the foundations of democracy.
But it is also time to organize, mobilize and build a movement. The cultural changes happening across media, that have built the scaffolding of a new networked, participatory Fourth Estate, have not also been reflected in the culture of press freedom advocacy. This is evidenced in the recent debates over the Justice Department’s new guidelines for investigating the press and the Shield Law, where the question of who is a journalist continues to reinforce outdated notions and risks excluding bloggers and citizen journalists from new protections.
Our government’s increased willingness to conflate leaks to the press with espionage and acts of journalism with acts of terrorism has real consequences for all of us. The fact that anyone can commit acts of journalism now should be a turning point in how we advocate for press freedom.
“You post a video of police detaining a suspect to your Facebook wall, and you’re committing an act of journalism,” writes The Atlantic’s Bump, “one that authority figures may not see as subject to First — or Fourth — Amendment protections.”
Changing the politics of press freedom will demand changing the culture of press freedom advocacy. This movement has to begin by opening up to the people formerly known as the audience, who are already making media, committing acts of journalism and covering their community in a range of ways. Newsrooms are already bringing citizens into the reporting process and engaging communities more deeply, but we also have to build solidarity with our communities as allies.
People will stand up for journalism they value; they will defend it. But we have to ask them, we have to listen, and we have to stand with them. Journalists must understand that if we don’t engage the broader public in the fight for press freedom, then we have already lost.
Josh Stearns is a journalist, organizer and community strategist. He is Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director for Free Press, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization working to reform the media through education, organizing and advocacy. He was a co-author of “Saving the News: Toward a national journalism strategy,” “Outsourcing the News: How covert consolidation is destroying newsrooms and circumventing media ownership rules,” and “On the Chopping Block: State budget battles and the future of public media.” Find him on Twitter at @jcstearns.