Wednesday, July 06, 2005

“Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.” - Walter Konkrite

It is only a couple of days after the 4th of July. While our legislative and judicial branches have recently been busying themselves ammending the constitution to protect symbols, it is one of our oldest existing rights that some say is under fire at the moment. The 1st amendment states grants not only the Freedom of Speech, but also the Freedom of the Press. Unfortunately, the founding document of America's legal system is pretty damn vague, and what exactly a free press entails is being heavily debated; a few months ago spurned by the Newsweek scandal and most recently because of the imprisonment of New York Times journalist Judith Miller.

[I am assuming everyone else has also been sorta following this story, but if you haven't or would like a recap, BBC has a great Q&A rundown.]

Miller's sentence is related to the New York Times article, which revealed that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. Plame is the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a retired career diplomat and the former American ambassador to Gabon, in west Africa. Wilson was asked by the CIA to go to Niger and investigate whether Iraq had attemtped to buy uranium there. Wilson found nothing to substantiate the reports and when Bush still decided to refer to them in his speech, Wilson became an outspoken critic of the president - a fact which has lead some conspiracy theorists to believe that the White House planned the CIA leak as a form of revenge.

The situation is sticky. It is arguable that the New York Times should have never printed the name of a CIA agent, but at the end of the day confidentiality is confidentiality. Since reporters are protected from federal laws against leaking the names of undercover CIA operatives, when they are leaked to them, Miller cannot be held for this offense. Instead she is being jailed for not breaking her promise of confidentiality, thus setting a dangerous precedent for similar cases. Reporters rely heavily on anonymous news sources and without ample protection important news relevant to the wellfare and repsonsibilities of U.S. citizens could be lost. A poll from the First Amendment Center shows that 86% of jorunalists believe that confidential news sources are essential to their ability to report some news stories to the public, although only around 10% of the news relies on these sources. While the Valerie Plame case may not have been of essence for democracy's well-being, many other news stories are. [Dare I say Watergate? Or we can dredge up the Newsweek koran story again, with the reminder that koran abuse does seem to have taken place in Guantanamo.]

Many state governments have so-called shield laws in place to protect the rights of confidential sources and the journalists who use them. Even some higher courts have recognized the concerns regarding Freedom of the Press, which comes when the government tries to demand that a journalist reveal their source. In Baker v. F&F Investment, The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that compelling a newsgatherer to disclose confidential sources “unquestionably threatens a journalist’s ability to secure information that is made available to him only on a confidential basis." However, other federal courts has followed the same reasoning being used in the current case and have argued that journalists derserve no more freedoms than any other citizen who can be subpoenaed to testify.

The freedoms, rights and responsibilities of the U.S. media must remain an issue as long we have an politicians in office who evade the truth at all costs. While I hesitate to blame the White House for the Valerie Plame leak, there are certainly many cases of right wing politicians distoring and averting anything resembling honesty. Take Bill Frists claims that HIV can be conducted via tears. Or Rumsfeld's statements that the insurgency in Iraq is in its "last throes"; a statement which was defended through the use of much twisting and waffling by Rumsfeld and Cheney. Look at right-wing media personalities such as Bill O'Reilly and the enrtire Fox news staff, who are continually pushing the boundaries of reality and dizzying us with their spin, while other radio hosts are actually being paid by the Bush administration to tow the party line.

If there is one institution we should be protecting right now it is a free and honest press.

On Comedy Central's The Daily Show a couple of nights ago, journalist Bill Moyers states that the lies of the political right prevail not because they lie, but because there exists such a cacophany of news at the moment, that the average person no longers knows how to recognize the truth. This is a problem that can only be corrected by an educated and discerning public, not intervention or restriction of the freedoms of jorunalists by th federal government.

Thomas Jefferson once said that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers. In this case I say, better to risk the security of one CIA agent, than the security of an entire free press.


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