Wednesday, December 15, 2010

DANGER! CENSORSHIP AHEAD

Back in 2008, the United States Air Force quietly instituted a new rule banning troops from visiting any web site with the word “blog” in its URL. So, for example, if you enlisted in the Air Force, you would no longer be allowed to bring up www.GreenbergRants.blogspot.com on your computer. This was not highly publicized, but it was enforced. The Air Force published this statement at the time: "The idea isn’t to keep airmen in the dark — they can still access news sources that are primary, official-use sources. Basically … if it’s a place like The New York Times, an established, reputable media outlet, then it’s fairly cut and dry that that’s a good source, an authorized source.”

That changed this week when the Air Force revealed it has blocked 25 news and information sites from its troops. The purpose, it explains, is to make sure that troops do not have access to classified documents leaked by WikiLeaks. One of the sites blocked by the Air Force is none other than The New York Times. Somehow, between 2008 and yesterday, the New York Times is no longer deemed “an established, reputable media outlet.” So far, the Army and Navy have not followed suit. Foreseeing a possible PR fallout, the Department of Defense (DOD) was quick to issue a statement that makes it clear this was not ordered from the DOD. Access to the 25 sites is denied on all official Air Force computers, which means troops can still access anything they want to see on their home computers, but they are reportedly being discouraged from doing so.

So, what’s going on here? One could conjure thoughts of censorship, right? Right. The Air Force has made a largely symbolic move which only furthers its image as an operation that seeks to control the flow of information to American citizens. Those citizens happen to be the very ones who voluntarily signed up to serve their country – a country that thrives on its First Amendment rights. Where’s the logic? I agree with CNN’s legal analyst, Jeffrey Tubin, who responded to the news this way: "This seems like a rather pointless protest. Our enemies can see the documents, but not those whom we trust to defend our country."

The predictable outcome here is a wave of resentment among enlisted personnel, and under-informed masses of troops. The last thing we need is to have our own U.S. military not be allowed to access news and information about the very country they defend. As of today, the Air Force has not even released a full list of the 25 sites it has blocked. We do know that the New York Times is the only U.S. newspaper on the list. Will some activist enlistees go to court based on a denial of the First Amendment rights? Will the complex Freedom of Information Act be cited in protest to the ban? Too soon to tell, but I trust there are bright, thoughtful people in the enlisted ranks who will not take this lightly.

Meanwhile, in a related story, one of the incoming Congressional Tea Party-elects. Allen West (R-FL) is calling for American news companies to be censored for running stories based on the recent WikiLeaks cable dump. He refers to the publishing of information about the whole WikiLeaks debacle as “aiding and abetting of a serious crime.” Listen to what West had to say:

Let’s review: Here is the key part of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution that West seems unfamiliar with: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” I rest my case. Note to Mr. West: In the unlikely event that news organizations were to be censored, have you given thought to who would decide what can and cannot be reported, and who would set these standards? I think not. And even if you could somehow circumvent the First Amendment, who are you to decide what information is inappropriate for me?

In defending the Times’ decision to run the WikiLeaks information, Public Editor Arthur Brisbane wrote this on December 5:
“What if The New York Times in 1964 had possessed a document showing that L.B.J.’s intent to strike against North Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident was based on false information? Should it have published the material?
What if The Times had possessed documentary evidence showing that the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were unfounded? Should it have published the material?”
When government officials or military organizations start making noises about limiting the free flow of information, everybody loses. They lose respect and credibility because they are then perceived as practicing censorship. Citizens lose their most vital links to information that directly affects their lives. The U.S. loses the respect of other world powers because suddenly everything our country was built on is being compromised.

Brisbane summed it up best: “The Times, like other serious news organizations in democracies, exists to ferret out and publish information — most especially information that government, business and other power centers prefer to conceal. Arming readers with knowledge is what it’s about, and journalists are motivated to pursue that end.”

1 comment:

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