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Britain's War on Press Freedom

by Stephen Lendman Wednesday, Dec. 04, 2013 at 11:47 AM


Britain's War on Press Freedom

by Stephen Lendman

Press freedom is too important to lose. The right to express thoughts and opinions freely is fundamental. Without it all others are at risk.

It's being assaulted in America. It's at risk in Britain. Both countries are democracies in name only. Britain has no constitutional free expression right.

Police state ruthlessness threatens America's First Amendment. Waging war on freedom is official policy in both countries.

They're partners in crime. Modern technology makes it easy. Ordinary people are targeted. So are newspaper editors and columnists.

Alan Rusbridger is London's Guardian's editor-in-chief. Last August, he discussed real dangers reporters face. He was contacted by an official claiming to represent Prime Minister David Cameron's office.

Two meetings followed. Demands were made. He was ordered to destroy all material related to Edward Snowden revelations. Implicit threats were made.

Rusbridger called what happened "one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history."

At stake is press freedom. It remains so. Rusbridger got an ultimatum. He didn't risk its potential dark side by not complying.

Two Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) security experts oversaw the destruction of Guardian hard drives.

Whitehall appeared satisfied at the time. Rusbridger called what happened "pointless symbolism." Digital age technology makes cyberspace forever.

Once out, content can't be erased. It wasn't the end of the story. Parliament wanted its say. MP grilling followed.

Rusbridger was ordered to appear. On December 2, he did so. On December 3, the broadsheet headlined "Guardian will not be intimidated over NSA leaks, Alan Rusbridger tells MPs."

He said he "would not be put off by intimidation nor (would Guardian policy) behave recklessly."

Snowden documents generated a much needed debate. People have a right to know. Government officials need to be held accountable. Wrongdoing needs to be exposed. Press freedom is vital to do it.

Home affairs select committee MPs grilled Rusbridger for an hour. He confronted "MPs' bluster without raising a sweat, said the Guardian.

He was asked "Do you love your country?" Truth, full disclosure, adherence to rule of law principles, and equal justice for all matter most.

"We live in a democracy," said Rusbridger. "(M)ost of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country, who love this country."

"I'm slightly surprised to be asked the question but, yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things."

He said Snowden document disclosures generated much needed global debate.

"...I can't think of a story in recent times that has ricocheted around the world like this has and which has been more broadly debated in parliaments, in courts and amongst NGOs," he said.

It's a vital debate. Rusbridger said the Guardian consulted with US and UK officials more than 100 times before publishing stories.

Nothing damaged national security or put British lives at risk, he stressed. News organizations publishing Snowden documents provide a public service.

"It's self-evident," said Rusbridger. "If the president of the US calls a review of everything to do with this and that information only came to light via newspapers, then newspapers have done something oversight failed to do," he stressed.

The Guardian was put under enormous pressure. Intimidation was tough to take. These things are inconceivable in real democracies. Police states operate this way.

An unidentified US Senate intelligence committee member told Rusbridger:

"I have been incredibly impressed by what you have done...I have seen nothing that you have done that has caused damage."

Big Brother Watch director, Nick Pickles, said:

"Newspapers around the world, from the Guardian to the Washington Post and Der Spiegel, have done what our own parliamentary oversight committee and other oversight bodies failed to do: they exposed unprecedented surveillance being undertaken without the knowledge or approval of our elected representatives."

"Spies spy, but they should not be able to write their own rules, exploiting woefully out-of-date legislation to collect information on millions of innocent people."

"If the three intelligence chiefs had previously faced anywhere near as rigorous cross-examination then perhaps we would not have been so dependent on the Guardian and other newspapers to learn just how out of control surveillance had become."

Ben Emmerson is UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights. On December 2, his op-ed headlined "It's outrageous to accuse the Guardian of aiding terrorism by publishing Snowden's revelations."

Rusbridger "published nothing that could be a threat to national security," he said. He's launching an investigation. Recommendations will follow next fall before the General Assembly.

Serious issues are at stake. Free society rights are being challenged.

Emmerson said he "studied all the published stories that explain how new technology is leading to the mass collection and analysis of phone, email, social media and text message data; how the relationship between intelligence services and technology and telecoms companies is open to abuse; and how technological capabilities have moved ahead of the law."

"These issues are at the apex of public interest concerns."

"The astonishing suggestion that this sort of journalism can be equated with aiding and abetting terrorism needs to be scotched decisively."

"Attacking the Guardian is an attempt to do the bidding of the services themselves, by distracting attention from the real issues."

Responsible media need to hold governments accountable. It's a fundamental free press responsibility.

Wrongdoing needs to be exposed. Accountability must follow. Anything less is unacceptable. Law, order, justice and public interest matter most.

Frank La Rue is UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. Ahead of Rusbridger's grilling, he expressed alarm, saying:

"I have been absolutely shocked about the way the Guardian has been treated, from the idea of prosecution to the fact that some members of parliament even called it treason."  

"I think that is unacceptable in a democratic society."

"When you are in public office you understand that the role of the press is to investigate things that are done right or things that are done wrong and make it known to the public."

"And if you are in office you know that you come under public scrutiny and public scrutiny comes with public criticism and you cannot use national security as an argument and much less challenge as treason something that is informing the public, even if it is embarrassing information for those that are in office."

Vincent Peyregne heads the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

"We are concerned that these actions not only seriously damage the United Kingdom's historic international reputation as a staunch defender of press freedom, but provide encouragement to non-democratic regimes to justify their own repressive action," he said.

On November 14, New York Times editors headlined "British Press Freedom Under Threat," saying:

"Britain has no constitutional guarantee of press freedom. Parliamentary committees and the police are now exploiting that lack of protection to harass, intimidate and possibly prosecute The Guardian newspaper for its publication of information based on National Security Agency documents that were leaked by Edward Snowden."

"The New York Times has published similar material, believing that the public has a clear interest in learning about and debating the NSA's out-of-control spying on private communications. That interest is shared by the British public as well."

Rusbridger said the Guardian published 1% of Snowden provided documents. "I would not expect us to be publishing a huge amount more," he added.

He doesn't know if he or the Guardian is being investigated by police. Assistant Chief Commissioner Cressida Dick said investigations are ongoing.

They involve possible breaches of Britain's Terrorism and Official Secrets Act. It's draconian. It lets police detain anyone for any reason or none at all.

Confiscating their possessions is permitted. Detainees must answer questions with or without counsel. Tony Blair's government initiated the law.

It reflects police state harshness. Blair claimed it necessary to wage war on terror. He lied saying so. It helped turn Britain more than ever into a mass surveillance state.

Draconian US laws did the same thing. Law and order don't exist in either country. Police state repression replaced them. Terrorism is what both countries say it is. Lies substitute for truth.

Guilt by accusation is policy. Political imprisonments are commonplace. Democracy is more illusion than reality. Justice is a four-letter word. Mass surveillance threatens everyone.

Challenging free expression risks losing it altogether. Truth telling and dissent increasingly aren't tolerated. Whistleblowers exposing government wrongdoing are called threats to national security.

Obama heads the worst of rogue governance. Britain's David Cameron is a willing junior partner. Police states operate this way. Freedom is at risk of disappearing altogether.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago. He can be reached at

His new book is titled "Banker Occupation: Waging Financial War on Humanity."

Visit his blog site at

Listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network.

It airs Fridays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.

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