Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

James Risen and the Obama Administration's Attack on Free Press

Created: 22 August, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
6 min read

The first time I participated in a political protest was in Istanbul, Turkey in 2012. Protests were nothing new to me. In fact, witnessing thousands of Spaniards in Barcelona in 2003 protest their government’s involvement in the Iraq intervention was the first time I, at age 13, seriously considered being a journalist.

Nine years later, I was in Istanbul working as one and observing the massive protest marches that regularly occurred near Taksim Square, just a few minutes walk from my apartment. I treated the marches like I did the protests in Spain. I just observed and remained objective, precisely as reporter manuals instruct. Report the story, don’t be part of the story.

Then I read about the mass incarceration of journalists; Turkey has more journalists in jail than China does. I learned about the assassinations of oppositional journalists Onder Babat, Yasar Parlak, and Hrant Dink, about which government inquiries turned up conspicuously nothing. World-renowned composer Fazil Say was arrested under charges of blasphemy and “inciting hatred” after he tweeted criticisms of the government and religion.

I met with Turkish journalists in crowded cafes where they would tell me in hushed tones how the government was actively working to replace the editors at major outlets with crony apologists who would squash critical journalism internally. CNN Turk, I learned, had already fallen into government hands.

While Turks protested in Gezi Park, CNN Turk creepily looped a documentary about penguins for days while the protesters were beaten and tear gassed and incarcerated by security forces. When CNN finally did start showing images, their anchors portrayed protestors as “terrorists” and foreign agents, exactly the talking points used by Prime Minister Erdogan and his henchmen.

I asked my editor if I could start covering the government’s actions against journalists and was promptly treated to hand-wringing and a “don’t rock the boat” talk.

The cause of freedom of expression and freedom of the press was taken up by activists and political dissidents, the strongest voices among them being members of the Socialist International and Turkey’s disbanded Communist Party.

A march was organized. I showed up as I usually did, camera and notepad in hand, the reporters manual in the back of my mind. But this time was different.

Report the story, don’t be part of the story. That’s what the manual ordered. But I am as much a journalist as the ones in jail, as the ones now resting easy in their premature graves.

Freedom of speech, freedom of the press: they don’t just provide me a living; they are who I am and strive to be.

It occurred to me that I was already a part of the story. I put my notepad away and joined my comrades, clapped when they clapped, whistled and jeered when they did, treading proudly on the government, on my editor, and on the manual.

I thought I would only share this story as a reminder and celebration -- a reminder of the people and places still struggling for political rights and a celebration of the good fortune Americans have of being governed by a constitution that plainly secures freedom of expression and the press.

The American record is certainly not unblemished, however.

During World War I, the government imprisoned protestors who urged Americans not to involve themselves in the meaningless slaughter between European imperialists. The FBI, under Hoover, had entire divisions dedicated to surveilling and intimidating dissident journalists and activists (most famously Martin Luther King, Jr.) during the Cold War.

Instead, I find myself sharing this story because I am, once again, in a country that is openly hostile to journalism. Plainly speaking, James Risen is utterly correct about the Obama administration, and it’s a travesty:

“A lot of people still think this is some kind of game or signal or spin. They don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistle-blowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

Risen is a veteran New York Times investigative national security reporter who is the target of a Justice Department investigation over leaks about “a bungled CIA operation during the Clinton administration in which agents might have inadvertently helped Iran develop its nuclear weapons program. The tale made the CIA look silly, which may have been more of a sore point than a threat to national security.”

Risen thought the investigation would end after Obama was elected promising a reversal of the Bush administration. Instead, the investigation was reopened in 2009. The Supreme Court refused to hear Risen’s case.

His legal options exhausted, Risen still refuses to testify. He could be sent to prison, but that hasn’t shaken him; he already picked out the Civil War and World War II history books he would take with him to his cell.

Risen is rough in the journalism world and has a reputation of bulldozing editors and government officials. In short, he’s exactly the type of journalist Americans deserve.

He uncovered the illegal NSA wiretapping approved by the Bush administration while Bush was running for re-election in 2004. Bill Keller, at the time the executive editor of the Times, quashed the story after meeting with Bush.

Over a year later and after Bush won re-election, Keller allowed the story to run, but only after Risen threatened to reveal the story in his book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. It’s in that same book he reveals the “bungled CIA operation” (is there any other kind?) that led to Eric Holder chasing him with subpoenas.

Risen is not the only journalist that has been openly targeted by the Obama administration. The Justice Department surveilled and obtained phone records of Associated Press reporters. The FBI labeled Fox News journalist James Rosen a criminal co-conspirator under the Espionage Act.

The Obama administration has prosecuted more people, usually whistle-blowers, under that ill-gotten law than all previous administrations combined.

The military’s case against Chelsea Manning is aiming to establish the precedent that whistle-blowers, whether government or civilian, can be charged with “aiding the enemy” (which carries the death penalty) if they leak information to the press.

When his administration is not attempting to make journalism illegal, Obama openly displays his contempt for journalists and, by transitive property, the intelligence of the public.

Obama appears obsessed with image control. In “manifestly undemocratic” fashion, the administration systematically prevents photojournalists from doing their jobs while flooding the Internet and social media with staged and carefully vetted (i.e. propaganda) photographs.

“Repressive governments do this all the time,” the Times pointed out.

Obama also rarely holds press conferences. Instead, he releases scripted video addresses, which prevents anyone from challenging him and asking questions. His press secretaries, meanwhile, have set a new gold standard on how not to answer questions.

All this and Obama had the audacity to say, in response to the arrests of journalists reporting on the protests in Ferguson:

“Here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”

If I may ventriloquize Maureen Dowd: Yes, Barry, but here, in the America you govern, federal police are bullying and arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people what their government is doing ostensibly on their behalf.

The U.S. government is not just prosecuting James Risen. The U.S. government is prosecuting me and every journalist for the crime of being a journalist. A petition is making the rounds. Marchers, like my comrades in Istanbul, should be making theirs.