Netzpolitik and Free Press Under Fire Worldwide

Michael From our Perspective

Last year was a tough one for free press. It seems the ever growing surveillance capabilities of nations is aimed at squeezing the life out of press freedom. The ability to see over anyone’s shoulder stifles free speech in general.

Surveillance measures are getting increasingly better at identifying the sources of information. Being able to do this not only allows the government to seek out whistle blowers after information has been released; but the fear of the insurmountable capabilities- especially those of the NSA and GCHQ- is a whistleblower deterrent in itself. Using a show of force is just as effective as actually charging someone with a crime.

The Constriction of Free Press

According to a Reporters without Borders report released February of this year, every populated continent experienced a general decline in press freedom in 2014. In their report, Reporters without Borders blamed not only oppressive regimes who love censorship too much, but also non-state operatives like ISIS and Boko Haram who make it a point to go after journalists.

Finland, Norway, and Denmark are at the top (best) of the list; the US fell three spots to 49th, Japan fell two spots to 61st, and China fell down one spot to 176 (there are 180 countries on the survey list).

Some countries such as France, Brazil, Mexico, and several countries in North Africa were able to gain a few spots.

Censorship In the Name of…

The report also points out a few other popular models of censorship. Royal and Sacrilege prohibitions– rules that prevent anything negative from being printed in order to protect a government founded on religious or royal principles- is used in over half of the world’s nations.

Especially dreadful are violations in Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia the founder of Saudi Liberal Network website as convicted of just that. His punishment was 10 years prison confinement, 1,000 lashes (to be given in 20 sessions of 50 lashes), and the equivalent of 230,000 euros.

2014 continued the uptick in the dangers to reporters, and netizens, attempting to cover ongoing demonstrations. It seems that they became targets of both sides: the police and demonstrators. Ukraine was the epicenter of this in early 2014. Journalists were routinely and systematically targeted by the ‘Berkut’ or riot police. Beatings, rubber bullets, and stun grenades were all deliberately used against journalists.

In Hong Kong, during the “Occupy Central” protests aimed at creating more separation between Hong Kong and mainland China police were physically aggressive and harassing- in some cases, sexual harassment. There have also been reports that the police used the organized crime syndicate known as the Triad to do their dirty work and disrupt the protests through violence.

The Holy Grail for those of us in the West, though, is the model of free press suppression in the name of national security. To go against it is unpatriotic. If you question the direction of the government or the powers that it holds then you are guilty of treason.

For this, look no further than the United States, described by New York Times investigative reporter James Risen as “an Orwellian state claiming to be the most transparent”. Mr. Risen has been victim to judicial harassment and imprisonment threats if he did not testify against his supposed source, former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling,  under oath- for seven years.

At least eight whistleblowers have been tried under the espionage act since President Obama took office. Compared with three  since the enactment of the law in 1917.

Et tu, Deutschland?

Even a country that had to have been shocked when it found out it’s closest ally was doing some in-depth eavesdropping is getting in on the act. Germany was officially investigating a few of its own journalists at a publication called for treson.

Coming from a country that (1) has recovered marvelously after an incredibly oppressive and violent regime, (2) had its top leaders privacy infringed by an ally (the US) very recently, and (3) hasn’t charged a journalist with treason since the 1960’s this  comes as a surprise. Not to mention that many of Germany’s citizens revere Edward Snowden: unofficially naming an intersection in Dresden after him- an honor usually reserved for long dead figures.

Nevertheless, the investigation started after a criminal complaint by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, known as the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). The complaint mentioned two articles publish by Netzpolitik on February 25 and April 15 of this year in which, the BfV claims, leaked information was released.

[This case] infuriates me and is a constitutional disgrace… if there were no investigative journalism, we would know nothing.

-Renate Kuenast of the Greens party

These articles reported on the expansion of Germany’s domestic surveillance, including the addition of a special unit solely dedicated to monitor social media. And reporting that the BfV was seeking additional funds from the government in order to achieve this.

Netzpolitik Saved by the People

Thousands of protesters then took the streets in support of the digital civil rights news organization. Holding signs that read slogans like ‘R.I.P. Democracy’.

This is an attack on the freedom of the press… We’re not going to be intimidated by this… We see this as clear attempt of intimidation by the federal government — or our security agencies, backed by the federal government — against investigative journalists and their sources

– editor-in-chief Markus Beckedahl

After such a show of support for journalism, as well as drawing similarities between this case and the last treason case against a journalist in 1962 (that did not end well for the government- especially the Defense Minister who subsequently stepped down), the federal prosecutor decided to halt to the investigative probe into the case.

Harald Range, the federal prosecutor for Germany that initiated the probe, said he would stop the investigation “in view of the great good of freedom of the press and expression”.

This goes to show, that a large amount of power still resides in the hands of the people. If no one had protested and instead had sat at home and stewed in the injustice of it all this could have gone a completely different direction. Two journalists could be facing 15 years in prison- or worse.

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