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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Sudan follows Bush's lead

On Sunday, the Chicago Tribune reported that Paul Salopek, Mandasaurous's favorite reporter, has been arrested and charged with espionage in Sudan.
Paul Salopek, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, was charged with espionage and two other criminal counts in a Sudanese court Saturday, three weeks after he was detained by pro-government forces in the war-torn province of Darfur.

Salopek, 44, who was on a freelance assignment for National Geographic magazine, was arrested with two Chadian citizens, his interpreter and driver. If convicted, they could be imprisoned for years.

Chicago Tribune Editor and Senior Vice President Ann Marie Lipinski called Salopek "one of the most accomplished and admired journalists of our time. He is not a spy."
By all accounts, Salopek is a man deeply committed to using the power of the press to make a positive difference in the world. Which is why he was taking the risk of being in the Sudan in the first place. Committed reporters are natural enemies of corrupt and repressive regimes, and suppression of the press is one of the hallmarks of such regimes.

Unfortunately, the Sudanese government's position is not much different than that of the Bush administration. Attorney General Alberto Gonazles has asserted the administration has the power to imprison journalists who reveal "state secrets" (specifically citing the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping program), and prosecuting and imprisoning journalists is something of a crusade among many right-wing bloggers; Glenn Greenwald has written extensively on this.

When you find yourself arguing the positions espoused by African dictatorships, I suggest you might be on the wrong track. To the Sudanese government, espionage is defined as publishing or investigating anything the government doesn't want you to. If you embarrass the government, you're hurting national security.

This is essentially what the Bush administration is saying when it asserts its right to prosecute journalists for publishing stories about warrantless wiretapping. There is simply no legitimate argument to be made that revealing this program harms national security. None. Terrorists who view America as the all-powerful Great Satan threatening to take over the world already believe that our government will stop at nothing, certainly not warrants, to catch them. That's assuming that people who come from monarchies like Saudi Arabia even understand the concept of warrants.

Such stories do hurt the Bush administration, that's true — the public tends to look down on lawbreaking by their government. But hurting the current occupants of the White House is not the same thing as hurting the nation, and Bush's inability or unwillingness to make that distinction is more than a little scary. We've often been told that criticizing Bush only helps the terrorists — should that kind of speech be illegal too?

Perhaps this is why there has yet been no official response from the State Department on Salopek's detention; it's difficult to put pressure on people that are echoing your own words. Much like allowing torture and mistreatment of captured enemy soldiers puts our own soldiers at risk when they are captured, so does talk of prosecuting reporters hurt our ability to argue against the imprisonment of journalists by other governments (one of China's favorite things in the whole world.).

Sen. Barack Obama was speaking about Salopek in the Sudan, but he could as easily been talking about our own country: "Press freedom is like tending a garden; it's never done. It continually has to be nurtured and cultivated and the citizenry has to value it. It's one of those things that can slip away if we don't tend to it."

2 Comments:

Anonymous P. Pirx said...

I think that you've a bit a misunderstanding here.

You should note that most if not all European countries, for example, have state secret laws setting limits to what can be published, with provisions for the supression of unwanted publication and for the prosecution of media outlets or journalists who would run afoul of said laws. And, I doubt that you would consider these countries to be evil dictatorships. The fact of the matter is that the American concept of freedom of speech is unique in its breadth and, frankly, no quite sustainable in time of war.

Second, while we may argue whether this or other publication does, in fact, result in harm to national security, there is hardly any doubt that some publications may in did harm national security. What would've been the outcome, for example, would some newspaper have published a detailed plan for the Normandy invasion on June 1, 1944?

What ultimately distinguishes democracies from dictatorships, in this account, is not whether some limits to free speech exist because some limits must always exist. The difference lies with who has the authority to determine that a limit has been crossed. In a democracy, this authority is vested in an independent judiciary. In a dictatorship, the government will bring the charges, judge you and (most likely) execute you.

Blogger Mandasaurus said...

Oh Buck, you are so right. Paul Salopek is my favorite reporter. He's brilliant. I won't include my favorite paragraph to ever appear in a newspaper in this blog, though it's pretty effing sweet.

As far as this unfounded fear that reporters will leak secrets and destroy government plans, I can't see it as an issue. Free press doesn't entitle reporters access to classified information, like attack plans, for instance. And reporters aren't really in the business of being foreign policy spoilers.

Free press does need tending. Tending doesn't mean abuse or restraint. It means thoughtful discussion of policies, limits and the power of the press.

Paul Salopek is no spy. He's a storyteller, a reporter and a writer. He doesn't just put a face on the stories he tells - he puts feeling, perspective and heart in a story to make big issues come to life. Read his stuff.

If there's any journalist who makes free press worth tending, Salopek's the one.

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