The Real Threat to Press Freedom

Mainstream commentators have been fretting over Donald Trump’s hostile rhetoric towards the media. But Chelsea Manning’s recent jailing shows that there are much graver threats to press freedom happening right under their noses.

  • Branco Marcetic

There is an assault on press freedom. It is taking place in the United States as you read this. But if all you consume is mainstream news, chances are you haven’t heard much about it.

Donald Trump’s inauguration ushered in a seemingly ever-present alarm over the state of press freedoms in America. Trump’s labeling of US media as “the enemy of the American people” prompted many concerned responses and even a fruitless tête-à-tête between the president and the publisher of the New York Times. His revocation of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass late last year provoked similar consternation from fellow journalists, historians, and press freedom groups, with Acosta declaring, “This is a test for all of us.” The Washington Post adopted the motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” while Steven Spielberg dropped everything to rush out The Post (“This couldn’t wait,” he said), his paean to the American press that launched a thousand think pieces.

While these are certainly all things worth getting angry about, even more outrageous are the incidents that have passed by with comparatively little mainstream notice or uproar.

Most recently, Chelsea Manning, the whisteblower who was imprisoned for seven years and tortured by the Obama administration for releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010, is being re-imprisoned and held in contempt of court for refusing to testify in a grand jury appearance. (You can donate to her legal defense fund here). Manning cited her moral objections to the secrecy of grand juries, their historical use in going after activists for constitutionally protected speech, and that she’s already revealed everything she knew during her court martial.

Manning’s imprisonment is not in itself a direct assault on press freedoms. But the wider case she’s resisting is.

Manning was called to testify as part of the government’s now nearly decade-long pursuit of WikiLeaks, reportedly over its publishing Manning’s leaks as well as various other disclosures. While conventional wisdom has Trump and WikiLeaks in cahoots to subvert American democracy, in reality the Trump administration has filed secret criminal charges against Assange, which the WikiLeaks founder launched a legal challenge to unseal.

After a torrent of criticism, the Obama Justice Department in 2013 finally dropped its plans to charge Assange over the documents, realizing the threat such a prosecution posed to press freedoms. That the Trump administration now appears to be barreling ahead with this move anyway is unsurprising given the president’s hostility to journalists. More alarming is the relative silence this development has received in mainstream news reporting. …


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