The Fight for the Freedom of Information
Jeff Cohen discusses several Freedom of Information issues, including a new campaign encouraging whistleblowing, the case of journalist James Risen, and net neutrality
ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore. And here to give us a report on recent freedom of information and media issues is Jeff Cohen.
Jeff Cohen is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and he’s the cofounder of the online activism group RootsAction.org.
Thanks for joining us, Jeff.
JEFF COHEN, FOUNDER, FAIRNESS & ACCURACY IN REPORTING: Nice to be with you.
WORONCZUK: So what have you been following this week?
COHEN: Well, one of the exciting developments is a bunch of glossy six-foot billboards have gone up around Washington, D.C., outside the State Department, outside defense information, outside Capitol Hill. And the idea is to encourage whistleblowing.
We’ve got 4 million people who have security clearances in the federal government. It’s unprecedented. And I remember when 9/11 happened, the terror attacks in our country, all the citizenry was told, if you see something, say something; you know, if you see something suspicious, say something. Well, this is a campaign, a freedom of information campaign to encourage federal employees, if they see something wrong or unethical or unconstitutional in their office, say something. Go to a journalist and say something. Or go to the new group that was just founded called ExposeFacts.org and say something anonymously or send documents, because on that six-foot billboard that’s around Washington, D.C., in various places is the picture of one of the most famous whistleblowers in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, and it’s got a quote of Ellsberg on the billboard that says, “Don’t do it I did.” Don’t wait. Speak out. So it’s an exciting thing to actually–this is the first movement–ExposeFacts.org is the new group. RootsAction.org is the group that went out and asked people, send in donations so we can rent billboard space all over Washington, D.C. And more than 600 sent in donations averaging about $20. So we were able to put up these billboards all over Washington, D.C., and at the bottom of the billboard it says, “whistleblowers welcome” here.
WORONCZUK: So, Jeff, what would you say to those who say that encouraging government employees to blow the whistle outside of official channels is going to disrupt the ability of the government to do this kind of surveillance that it needs to protect American citizens against terrorism?
COHEN: Well, what we’ve learned from Edward Snowden and William Binney and Thomas Drake and all these NSA whistleblowers is, if you go through official channels and just complain to your supervisors, you get reprimanded, that the only way anything changes is if you go outside the system and go to journalists and tell the American public. Edward Snowden’s revelations have led to a huge national debate. He tried to go within channels. Earlier NSA whistleblowers did.
You know, we live in a free society still, and journalism is a key check on power. And journalism has always relied on confidential sources who saw something wrong and went to a journalist and said something. We’re trying to protect freedom of information, freedom of the press with this campaign to tell whistleblowers–. I mean, to me, if you’re an active citizen, it’s not enough to vote, it’s not enough to back candidates, it’s not enough to maybe organize a protest. Part of being an active citizen today in an era of secrecy, surveillance, constant war, part of being an active citizen is getting people inside government, inside big corporations, who see something unethical, see something wrong, see something criminal, to go to a journalist and say something.
And remember, this the campaign of billboards in Washington, D.C., this is just the beginning. Ultimately there’ll be billboards outside of Wall Street. There will be billboards in Silicon Valley. Our hope one day is there’ll be billboards in state capitals. The only check on corporate power and government power is a free press and a free citizenry getting the information they need.
WORONCZUK: Okay. And how do you see this–do you see this as linked to the case of New York Times reporter James Risen?
COHEN: No doubt, because James Risen’s a very exceptional investigative reporter ten cuts above the average mainstream reporter. The CIA hates him. He’s constantly developing sources inside the intelligence agencies who know there’s wrong things going on. Risen’s filled up articles and books with this information. And the federal Justice Department–it started under Bush, continued under President Obama–they’re trying to put James Risen behind bars unless he gives up the name of a confidential source who told him of a botched CIA operation that happened a decade ago. This is information the American public needs to know. It didn’t help any foreign enemy or foreign power. It’s information that the U.S. people, the U.S. public needs to know. And James Risen is being punished.
So RootsAction.org, the activism group that I cofounded, has set up a campaign–and it’s been joined by all these other journalism groups and freedom of information groups. The campaign is called “We Support James Risen because We Support a Free Press”. And pretty soon we’ll have 100,000 people who will have signed our petition that’s going to Attorney General Holder and President Obama asking the attorney general to drop all efforts to put the journalist James Risen behind bars because he won’t reveal the name, the source who came to him confidentially and gave him important information that appeared in a 2006 book. Again, these were elementary issues of freedom of the press, freedom of information in the 1970s, ’80s. We’ve gone backward. The United States is just dropping as a country. We invented freedom of the press with the First Amendment. Now there’s 45 countries ahead of us in the World Press Freedom Index that have a freer press. So this is an effort by people in the country to fight to defend freedom of information, freedom of the press, and in this one case, the brave journalist James Risen.
WORONCZUK: Okay. Let’s shift to a different topic, the recent news that the FCC had to extend its comment period on its net neutrality proposals for an additional three days, due to an overwhelming activity on its website. Do you think there’s anything of significance here?
COHEN: Oh, this is one of the biggest–this is the biggest campaign ever waged against the FCC over some rule. There was a huge insurrection 2003 when the FCC was, you know, trying to allow the big media fatcats to get even bigger, the conglomerates. But this is the biggest. And, you know, I saw a quip that said the FCC cracked the internet, and now the internet has cracked the FCC. The FCC’s computers melted down. They couldn’t handle the million people that have left official comments.
And the fight to keep net neutrality is really a fight for freedom of information. You know, the mainstream media–with exceptions like James Risen at The New York Times, the mainstream media has grown more and more corporatized, conservative, timid over the years, and the independent media have boomed. And it boomed because of the internet. And what the FCC chair tried to do–and he was appointed by President Obama, Tom Wheeler–he wants to–he made a move to move toward an internet where there’s fast lanes and slow lanes, where an internet provider like Comcast or Time Warner or Verizon or AT&T could take websites that they favor or that they own or that pay them and put them into a fast lane, and they would shove all this other stuff into a slow lane.
What would be shoved into a slow lane? Exactly those websites that have been behind the last decade of independent media, independent journalism booming. You know, without an open internet, there would be no Glenn Greenwald, there would be no WikiLeaks, there would be no AlterNet and Truthout and Truthdig and Common Dreams, there would be no The Real News. And so unless there’s an open internet with net neutrality, we will have all of these websites that have done so much to revitalize journalism in the last decade as mainstream media’s grown timid, they will be shoved into a slow lane and will become inaccessible. So the fight for an independent presses a fight for an open internet.
And besides the public uprising that’s been so great in these last weeks, 13 senators have sent a letter to the FCC demanding that the FCC reverse its mistake of 12 years ago when the FCC was headed by Michael Powell, Colin Powell’s son, and they classified internet broadband access provision, you know, the transmission of internet broadband access, they classified it at the FCC as an information service, and information services can’t be seriously regulated. So the senators and the public are demanding that the FCC reclassify broadband internet access as a telecommunications service. And that would allow the FCC once and for all to mandate net neutrality, that if you provide internet broadband, you cannot discriminate against websites, you cannot favor NBC news and disfavor The Real News. And so that fight is going on now to save the internet.
And it’s part of this–and remember, President Obama, who campaigned, in 2008, “I will take a back seat to no one” when it comes to protecting net neutrality–those were candidate Obama’s words–he’s appointed to head the FCC this guy, Tom Wheeler, who was the chief lobbyist, chief voice for two industries–not one, but two industries regulated by the FCC. He was the top lobbyist for the cable TV industry and the top lobbyist for the cell phone industry before Obama appointed him to head the FCC. That’s the problem, and there’s a real battle that’s been engendered by Obama’s appointee at the FCC. And let’s hope the public wins on this, because if the public doesn’t save an open internet, we can’t really save an independent press and independent journalism.
WORONCZUK: Okay. Jeff Cohen of RootsAction.org.
Thanks for that report.
COHEN: Thank you.
WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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