The U.S. State Department has just launched a Free the Press campaign. "This year, the Department will profile journalists or media outlets that are censored, attacked, threatened, or otherwise oppressed because of their reporting. The Department will direct the world’s attention to their plight and call on their governments to protect and promote the universal human right to free expression."
Good for them! Did you know that there are countries where powerful officials demonize whistleblowers who leak inconvenient truths to the press? Where a reporter can be detained by the police, just for trying to ask a powerful federal official a question?
But as Boing Boing notes, the timing of the Obama administration's free press campaign seems to be a little off. The same day that the State Department launched its campaign, Obama's Justice Department filed a legal brief at the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for permission to toss a New York Times reporter, James Risen, into jail for refusing to answer questions about a confidential source.
Risen has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, in 2006 for stories about President George Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, and in 2002, as part of a team writing about 9/11 and terrorism.
Speaking of the Department of Justice, the guy who runs it, Attorney General Eric Holder, recently was caught giving false statements to a federal judge about a case involving a Stanford University graduate student named Rahinah Ibrahim. In a wheelchair after just having a hysterectomy, she was attempting to fly to a conference in Hawaii to give a paper on affordable housing when she was arrested at a San Francisco airport, handcuffed and denied pain medication before finally being released, according to this important news account by Wired magazine's David Kravets.
Ibrahim filed a lawsuit to clear her name. It turned out that she was accused of being a dangerous terrorist and placed on a "no fly" list because an FBI agent checked the wrong box on a form.
OK, mistakes happen. Sorry about that, Rahinah! No hard feelings, huh?
But this is where the case gets interesting: Obama administration officials, instead of admitting the mistake, spent years covering it up.
Holder filed a signed declaration last year, declaring under penalty of perjury that based on his own personal knowledge, revealing any information about the case would harm national security.
In the same signed statement, Holder even said that the secrecy complies with an Obama administration policy that information will not be concealed to conceal an error or prevent embarrassment to a federal agency.
Kravets wrote that Holder's statement is "now nearly impossible to square with the facts." He asked the Justice Department for comment but didn't get a response.
The ruling by the federal judge in the case, William Alsup, shows that the government continued to harass Ibrahim and her family. Her daughter, a United States citizen, was placed on the "no fly" list and prevented from flying to the U.S. to attend her mother's trial. Ibrahim herself was denied a visa to attend the trial. And that's just the stuff that isn't blacked out. (The judge's ruling is here.)
Alsup ordered the government to correct its error, and referred in his judgment to "the frustrating efforts by the government to shield its actions from public view."
The judge also wrote in his order that, "In short, public release of this entire order will reveal very little, if any, information about the workings of our watchlists not already in the public domain. Public release would reveal no classified information whatsoever."
The order was pretty heavily blacked out, anyway.
Maybe as the State Department talks about a free press, it can talk about government censorship.