Six questions journalists should ask Barack Obama when he visits (enter your country name)

President Obama will be visiting Sweden in early September. These are a list of questions I would hope journalists in Sweden (and elsewhere) would ask Obama when he comes. Hope…but I doubt they will. I also know that if asked, his answers would tell us nothing. But, they must be asked. Repeatedly. Apologies for the writing, but this was a quick post!

Six Questions Journalists Should ask Barack Obama When he Visits (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY NAME)

by Christian Christensen

1. Mr. President, one of your election promises in 2008 was to close Guantanamo. It is still open, housing inmates who have not been charged with a crime and denied the basic right of habeas corpus. A large number of those inmates have been on a lengthy hunger strike in protest at their inhumane treatment. Can you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) how this prison, which you have failed to close, stands in relation to US claims to be a country which respects human rights and the rule of law?

2. Mr. President, you will accept, I hope, that a fundamental element of a functioning democracy is the presence of vibrant, critical journalism. That journalism is often fueled by whistle-blowers who release information they feel shows illegal or unethical behavior. Given the aggressive prosecution of Bradley Manning, Barrett Brown and Edward Snowden in the US, as well as the Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, can you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) why the US is going to such lengths to stifle the work of journalists, as well as prosecute individuals who engage in an act that is fundamental to keeping an eye on those in power, namely whistle-blowing?

3. Mr. President, the US is ranked 5th globally in the number of executions behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and ahead of North Korea, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. The US is also the only country amongst nations with advanced economies to still have the death penalty. How can the US lecture other nations on human rights when it engages in an act so many countries consider barbaric?

4. Mr. President, citizens of (ENTER COUNTRY NAME) might be confused as to how the US can justify the killing of its own citizens via the use of drones without judicial oversight, as well as the well-documented killing of scores of innocent civilians globally via the use of the same technology. Could you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) how drones, like Guantanamo and the death penalty, square with a US commitment to the right of fair trials, basic human rights and the rule of law?

5. Mr. President, do you feel it is appropriate for a person to be held for 9 hours, without access to a lawyer, under counter-terrorism laws simply because he is the partner of a journalist who broke the NSA story? Was the US involved in any way with his detention? Should journalists throughout the world who report on US national security now be worried when they travel, in case they are questioned at the request of the US government at random international borders?

6. Mr. President, one of the hallmarks of the former Soviet Union and current authoritarian regimes is the use of widespread surveillance under the guise of protecting “national security.” Can you explain how secret, widespread surveillance of the US population, done in cooperation with private corporations, can be justified in a nation that proclaims to be “the freest in the world”? Should Americans not be able to send an email without fear of it being read by the government?

Advertisements

DN, WikiLeaks and Assange

I was recently interviewed via email and telephone for an article that came out in DN today regarding the 1st anniversary of Julian Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. I was asked to reflect on this, as well as how things stand today for WikiLeaks and their relationship with the mainstream media. This email was followed with a 30-minute conversation with the journalist on the same topics. Unfortunately, the result of these two interactions was two short quotes in an article that essentially focused on why people might be leaking material elsewhere. The quotes from me in the piece are accurate, and I stand by them. However, I was under the impression that the article would be far more wide-ranging, and, as someone who has written about WikiLeaks, I feel that it is important to post the email I had written to the DN journalist on June 7 in response to the issues I outlined above, as it touches upon things that I think are vitally important. During the phone interview I was at pains to point out that the tension between WikiLeaks and the media was, in part, due to WikiLeaks beating journalists at their own game, and that the focus on the Assange personality was a media construction (something I have written about earlier).

So, here is what I wrote:

Hej:

First of all, I think it very important to note how the recent revelations about the Obama administration spying on US citizens (the “PRISM” case) relate to WikiLeaks. First, the information was obtained by The Guardian as a result of a whistleblower, and, second it shows the extent to which the US government are engaged in highly detailed surveillance. WikiLeaks is a whisteblowing organization and has critiqued US abuse of power. The PRISM case has, I feel, helped WikiLeaks by reminding people how important leaks can be to the functioning of a truly democratic society. This is the ultimate goal of WikiLeaks.

This brings us to the year Assange has spent in the embassy. What has happened, I feel, is that Assange the personality has overshadowed WikiLeaks the organization. This is a shame, given the importance of the material WikiLeaks has revealed. Clearly, after Assange sought asylum, things were not looking good for WikiLeaks: they were short on money, and the negative press was growing. But, with the (partial) lifting of the economic blockade, and the PRISM revelations in The Guardian, I feel that WikiLeaks might, perhaps, regain some of its former importance. It should be noted that even though WikiLeaks ended the formal relationship with major newspapers, these papers continue to use WikiLeaks material in their reporting. It has been an important resource.

As far as the documentary about WikiLeaks (We Steal Secrets) by Alex Gibney, I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on the contents. But, what we can see from the reaction to the film is what I discussed above: that the personality of Assange has tended to overshadow WHAT WikiLeaks has done. This isn’t to say that a resolution of the Assange case in Sweden isn’t important (it is), but rather that WikiLeaks is more than just Assange.

mvh, Christian

Failed Journalism and the Rise of WikiLeaks and Anonymous

THE FOLLOWING IS A WRITTEN COPY OF MY PROFESSORIAL “INSTALLATION TALK” GIVEN AT STOCKHOLM UNIVERSITY ON APRIL 17, 2013. THE INSTALLATION TALK IS A PUBLIC LECTURE INTENDED TO BE BOTH OF INTEREST AND UNDERSTANDABLE TO ACADEMICS AND NON-ACADEMICS ALIKE. ALSO, THIS WAS A TALK, SO THERE ARE NO LINKS! I MIGHT ADD SOME LATER.

“Failed Journalism and the Rise of WikiLeaks and Anonymous”

Christian Christensen

I would like to begin with a brief bit of self-plagiarism, quoting a portion of a talk I gave at Uppsala University in 2011 about the role of the academic in contemporary society which I feel is an ideal lead-in to what I will be discussing today: the failure of journalism and the rise of groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks.

So, this is part of what I said two years ago. And I quote:

Despite the many problems that we see within academia (from the dominance of certain paradigms to restrictive publishing and financing models), the university world is one which should depend upon the questioning of authority: be it authority in the form of theory, intellectual positions, but also the hierarchies of power within society in general. It is the role of academic, as I see it, to take the things that we take for granted and to ask: Why? Whose interests are best served in taking these things for granted? Are the benefits spread equally throughout society via our commonsense ideas? If not, how might we remedy this imbalance? These are the intellectual points of departure that made universities such crucial centers for dissenting intellectual opinions in relation to issues as varied as equal rights for women, for minorities, and for the working classes; and a wide variety of anti-war movements from Viet Nam to Iraq.”

To this, I would like to add the following from Michel Foucault, and I again quote:

The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play).

(…)

The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

So, what does this have to do with journalism? A lot, I would argue. Many of the issues which we associate with academia – freedom of speech, freedom of expression, critical thinking, keeping an eye on authority, education – are issues which we have historically linked to journalism. Thus, just as it is important to ask to what extent we as academics have investigated, questioned and challenged the distrIbution and use of social, economic and military power in society, so, of course, should we ask the same of the news organizations so eager to describe themselves as the ”Watchdogs” and ”Guardians.”

The premise of my talk today, as should be obvious from the title, is that the mainstream press in countries such as Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom, have failed to engage in critical investigations into, and analyses of, the accumulation and utilization of power. And, it is this failure which has created a vacuum subsequently filled, in part, by activist groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

There is, however, a second premise, and that is that in our discussion of groups such as WikiLeaks or Anonymous, the emphasis is often placed squarely upon their use of technology, rather than the socio-political and cultural reasons behind their evolution. This techno-centrism, I would argue, deflects a measure of critique away from mainstream journalism, and ”explains” the rise of groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous as predominantly technological phenomena. In other words, they exist because the technology allows them to exist.

This is connected to a concept I have discussed in a few of my recent academic papers: that of ”technology discourse” (or, the ways in which our understanding of technology is shaped by the language we use to discuss it).  One of the leading scholars in the field of technology discourse, Eran Fisher has noted that there is a prevailing assumption in contemporary discourse on technology: namely that a new technology enables a new society, and, thus, that technology ”makes” society. This discourse, in turn, is defined as inherently transparent and unproblematic: to propose the emancipatory power of digital technology, for example, is not seen as the proposition of a subjective opinion, but simply the presentation of fact. As Fisher notes, this is important because within contemporary discourses on technology and globalization, ”the assumptions become even broader, encompassing societal values, development models and trajectories, and the means of fostering democracy, literacy and human well-being.” In short, technology discourse contributes to an uncritical celebration of technology, devoid of social or economic contextualization.

To get back to Foucault for a second, his suggestion that we need to ”criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent” is vital; in particular, his choice of the word ”workings”, because it points to a central idea in my talk: namely the importance of process. Where contemporary journalism has failed, I would argue, is in the lack of exposure and lack of analysis of the mechanisms of power that Foucault discusses. These are mechanisms that are neither sexy nor exciting, and can be mind-numbing in terms of the minutiae of political, legal, diplomatic or technological details. These details are, however, the building blocks of real power: blocks mostly obscured from public view under a veneer of PR, spin, infotainment and ”event”-based news coverage. Over the past few years, and to varied levels of success and impact, groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks have peeled back this veneer, exposing activities that are both shocking and banal.

Before I delve into some specific examples of process versus event, however, a few words regarding some of my earlier thoughts on WikiLeaks, technology and journalism might be in order.

After the leak of a significant volume of material on Afghanistan and Iraq (material for which Bradley Manning has been sitting in prison for three years), I published an article in Le Monde Diplomatique entitled, ”WikiLeaks: Three Digital Myths.” In this article I argued that the WikiLeaks phenomenon had raised a number of issues which I then came to define as ”myths.”

First, The myth of the power of social media. This relates to the idea that, somehow, all social media are created equal. When the term ”social media” is used, it often includes different platforms such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and so on, as if all of these can be neatly discussed under one technological umbrella.  They cannot, because different platforms allow for different uses, thus framing and shaping the type and form of the material posted (from message lengths on Twitter, to video lengths on YouTube to publication options and Terms of Use on Facebook). It’s a relatively simple concept which seems to be lost on a great many commentators.

Second, The myth of the dying nation state. One of the common statements one hears regarding groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous is the fact that they are rendering nation-states and national boundaries meaningless.  While it’s true that the WikiLeaks structure is set up to bypass the laws of certain countries (enabled by digital technology), it also makes use of other countries’ laws (such as Sweden, Iceland and Belgium). WikiLeaks isn’t lawless – it’s just moving the entire game to places where the rules are different. In other words, laws, and the nation-states who make those laws, still matter.

And, third, and most relevant to my talk today, the myth of the death of Journalism. Within this myth are the seeds of discussions that have taken place within university walls for the past 20 years: the idea that access to and use of technology by non-journalists – in various forms – will eventually lead to the downfall of professional journalism as we know it today. This has proved to be a myth, although one which is hard to kill. In the case of WikiLeaks,  what the organization did was not to replace mainstream journalism, but rather to force us to consider how the collaboration between WikiLeaks and newspapers such as The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais and The New York Times heralded a new era of large data sets and data mining, as well as mainstream-activist relationship.

In a follow-up article on WikiLeaks, I wrote the following:

As a researcher, it struck me that the period shortly after the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, the “Afghanistan War Logs” and the “Iraq War Logs” illustrated the potential impact of the WikiLeaks-mainstream media collaboration. This was a rare and exciting (albeit short) period of political, professional and cultural introspection, particularly in the United States. US foreign policy and military spending, civilian deaths and possible war crimes in Iraq, journalistic under-performance after 9/11, and government transparency were all thrust into the open as topics for consideration. It appeared, during this short time, that WikiLeaks may have done something that I had thought near impossible: inserting a radical critique of US military and geo-political power into mainstream popular discourse (particularly in the US). Granted, the Guardian and New York Times are not the newspapers of choice for many in the US and UK. Far from it. Yet the very presence of the material on their front pages opened up the possibility that the murky world of US power might now be forced to concede ground to transparency advocates.

In retrospect, this admittedly brief analysis comes off as somewhat naive and short-sighted. As we now know, the relationship between WikiLeaks and these news outlets turned sour. But, the broken relationship between WikiLeaks and the mainstream news media does not change the fact that the relationship marked a shift in how activist organizations might collaborate with their mainstream counterparts, to the benefit of readers.

While it would be a stretch to say that September 11, 2001 was the genesis date for groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, it would nevertheless be fair to suggest that the range of domestic (in the US) and geo-political events that followed those attacks 12 years ago had a profound effect upon global activism: from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the occupations of those two countries, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Bush presidency, the London and Madrid bombings, the global War on Terror, The Patriot Act.  In all of these cases, from the attacks themselves to the passage of restrictive censorship and privacy legislation, an understanding of ”workings” and ”process” was and is fundamental to understanding them.

The global media coverage of the attacks of September 11, 2001 is perhaps one of the best examples of how events can supersede process.  Broadly speaking, the attacks were framed as ”terrorism” masterminded by Osama Bin Laden, with Bin Laden himself the by-product of the a rather simplistic ”Islam versus The West” storyline. In popular terms, an understanding of Al Qaeda’s evolution, raison d’être and relationship to 1970s and 1980s regional politics (particularly in Afghanistan) was bypassed in favor of a recounting of 9/11 as an ”event.” As a PhD student at the University of Texas, I was scheduled to teach a class of over 500 students on the morning of September 12, 2001. In the class, we discussed the attacks, with many students asking the rhetorical question, ”Why do they hate us so much?”

This seemingly inane question was, actually, rather complex. But the fact that many university students (and a fair number of US adults) had little or no idea where to begin to look within geo-politics for the answer was an indictment of the US press, which for years has remained uncritical of US military interventionism and policy vis-a-vis Israel. The way in which the global media focused on the issue of WMD in Iraq, for example, spoke volumes about the power of the ”event.”

As the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, it became clear that citizens also had little understanding of the mechanisms of the politics of war or the US legal system. As hundreds of billions of dollars were spent by the Bush and Obama administrations on the war effort, media still focused on surges and attacks, not corrupt no-bid contracts offered to former business partners of Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, as the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Prison now enter their second month of hunger strikes, the limited amount of time spent by the media addressing the very legality of the prison, and the treatment of the prisoners, has become painfully apparent.

I do not wish this to be a lecture about the United States only, however. Here in Sweden, a number of recent stories have illustrated the tendency of the news media to only scratch the surface, rather than dig deeper. A few particular cases come to mind.

The first is the steady political rise of the Sweden Democrats. A number of months ago the party became the third most popular in the country: an unimaginable political reality only a few years ago. Yet, in large part, the news media in Sweden have avoided deeper discussions about how and why the party achieved this dubious honor, focusing instead upon poll numbers, and ”events” such as the ”iron bar” incident filmed in Stockholm last summer. This coverage is critical, of course, in the sense that it exposes a ”dark side” to party members. Yet these stories tend to remain at the level of the individual and the party, and never address the underlying tensions within Swedish society which have led to 10% of the population voting for an openly xenophobic party.

Similarly, the story broken a few days ago on TV4’s Kalla Fakta that 750 million kroner of Swedish taxpayer money had gone to Saab to finance the development of the Neuron attack drone was good, important journalism. As was the story broken by Swedish Radio some months back about Swedish state support for the construction of a weapons factory in Saudi Arabia. Yet, to once again return to the question of process, these stories expose singular (sometimes corrupt or illegal) activities, but do not address the fundamental role of weapons manufacture within the Swedish economy, the role played by the Swedish state in the promotion of the weapons industry, nor the inherent contradictions found when such promotion is combined with state discourse trumpeting Swedish diplomacy and commitments to human rights.

In light of the failure of mainstream journalism to tackle the issues I have just discussed, the void was at least partially filled by the actions of WikiLeaks and Anonymous. The two are somewhat different – WikiLeaks is a semi-structured whistle-blowing  website/organization while Anonymous is a a more free-floating collective of hactkivists who, ”publicize various wrongdoings, leak sensitive data, engage in digital direct action, and provide technology assistance for revolutionary movements” (Coleman). Of the two groups, WikiLeaks has identified itself more as a journalistic organization, although Anonymous, via the popularity of the @YourAnonNews Twitter feed, has begun to enter the news market.

Anonymous is best-known for activism opposing child pornography, surveillance, and extremist religious groups, various US government agencies, and even against Swedish government websites and businesses in response to the Assange case.  As Gabriella Coleman put it:

Anonymous is a distinct, emerging part of (a) diverse and burgeoning political landscape. Its real threat may lie not so much in its ability to organise cyberattacks but in the way it has become a beacon, a unified front against censorship and surveillance.

For both WikiLeaks and Anonymous, there is a commitment to expose corporate and state abuses of power, often by exposing the very mechanisms by which such power is exercised. The leak/hacking/publication by the two groups of emails, internal documents and memos, military videos, diplomatic cables, bank accounts in the service of increased transparency, as well as the assisted bypassing of surveillance or censorship, has caused great concern for corporations and state institutions.

In the case of WikiLeaks, a series of significant leaks pointed to the potential of the organization to act as an independent watchdog, as well as raising the possibility that WikiLeaks should be considered a journalistic/news organization in its own right.

While they are most famous for the files on Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worth noting that WikiLeaks also released a number of important documents detailing corporate and governmental abuses of power, some extremely serious, including:

  • the leak in 2009 of World Health Organization draft reports showing the influence within the organization of large pharmaceutical companies, and the their forcing developing nations to raise drug prices beyond the means of most citizens;
  • the leak of stories from 2009 on Trafigura: a company that engaged in illegal toxic dumping in Cote d’Ivoire, leading to serious health damage;
  • the leak of documents on the 2009 Copenhagen Climate summit outlining how the US threatened and bullied other countries to follow US line on climate change;
  • the leak of 2008 documents from Swiss bank Julius Baer suggesting money-laundering in the Cayman Islands (a California judge initially blocked WikiLeaks.org as a result, but later overturned on 1st Amendment grounds);
  • and, the 2008 and 2009 leaks of the membership list of the far-right, xenophobic British Nationalist Party.

In response to the WHO documents, James Love, the Director of Knowledge Economy International, said the following:

After reading these cables, it is difficult to stomach the defenses of US secrecy. Forcing developing countries to raise the price of drugs has predictable and well known consequences — it kills people, and increases suffering. Many people could care less — including reporters and editors of newspapers. How much of this ends up in the Washington Post, the New York Times or the Guardian these days? But others who do care now have more access to information, and more credibility in their criticisms of government policy, because of the disclosures of the cables.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous are an expression, a crystallization of a dissatisfaction with the extent to which primarily commercial, but also public service, news organizations have willingly absorbed elite discourses in relation to socio-economic, legal and military issues. Stories which expose political or corporate misconduct should not to be seen as the antithesis to these discourses. Often, such instances are simply defined as ”the exceptions that prove the rule” while the greater meta-story of capitalism and western power remain unchallenged. For example, the rhetoric of Sweden as a neutral country with a primary interest in diplomacy hides, to a certain extent, the economic and political power held by large corporations in this country: corporations involved in business activities antithetical to both democratic development and peaceful resolutions of disputes.  The cloudy role of the Swedish government in protecting Ericsson’s interests in Syria last year, for example, while covered by Dagens Nyheter and Swedish Radio, received relatively little press coverage given how it clashed with so much of the political discourse coming out of Stockholm regarding a commitment to freedom of speech and the rule of law.

But, this talk is not about the ”death” of journalism, but rather a particular failure: the failure to address process and context. Yet, the work of both Anonymous and WikiLeaks should be seen as positive developments for journalism, as they introduce new elements into the informational and democratic landscape. As Coleman also writes:

…the work of politics and social transformation requires a diverse toolkit – from fine-tuned government interventions to rowdy subversive tactics – and we should be wary of christening any particular tactic a magic bullet. (…) Distinct formats need not be mutually exclusive or even in competition; they can and do often cross-pollinate. We need compelling stories that dramatise the issues the government would like us to forget, and that make people care. We need investigative journalists who dedicate years to tracking down sources and putting the pieces of a difficult puzzle together. We need independent Internet Service Providers committed to the privacy of their users. And we need advocacy groups with lawyers, lobbyists, and policy strategists.

Ultimately, what is challenged by WikiLeaks and Anonymous, at the core, is not so much the mode of news and information production and distribution, but rather the relationship between mass media and those holding political-economic power. Anonymous and WikiLeaks force us to rethink a number of core democratic relationships: the one between citizens and the state (impacted by providing access to sensitive intelligence previously hidden from view); the one between citizens and the media (impacted by exposure of the shortcomings of an uncritical commercial media system); and, the one between media and governments (impacted by challenging the mantle of “watchdog” proudly trumpeted by major mainstream news outlets). This is not to say that these relationships altered dramatically, but rather that Anonymous and WikiLeaks, through an determination to challenge global hegemonies, have thrown down the gauntlet in front of those in power by laying bare (some of) the practices of authority hidden from public view.

As academics, such challenges are worthy of deeper examination, as they cut to the heart of the very democratic ideals both academia and journalism profess to uphold.

Links to Collected Writings on WikiLeaks (Updated)

I have written some pieces over the past few years on WikiLeaks, Manning, Assange and related topics. Below is a list (most recent first), with links to each:

Five Years On, the WikiLeaks Collateral Murder Video Matters More Than Ever (Opinion Piece, CommonDreams, April 2015)

A Decade of WikiLeaks: So What? International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 2014, 10(3): 273-284. (Note: this is a pre-print version, and not the final version.)

WikiLeaks: From Popular Culture to Political Economy (Editor: Christian Christensen; collection of 16 essays by leading academics on WikiLeaks.) (e-book published by USC Annenberg Press, November 2014)

WikiLeaks and the Afterlife of Collateral Murder (International Journal of Communication, October 2014)

WikiLeaks, Transparency and Privacy: A Discussion with Birgitta Jónsdóttir (International Journal of Communication, October 2014)

WikiLeaks: From Popular Culture to Political Economy (International Journal of Communication, Intro to Special Issue, October 2014)

WikiLeaks and Indirect Media Reform (Medium.com – Draft of 2015 book chapter, Uploaded October 2014)

Julian Assange Not Freed: 5 Issues to Consider (Opinion piece, CommonDreams, July 2014)

Collateral Murder and the After-Life of Activist Imagery (Medium.com) (April 2014)

WikiLeaks and the Personality Trope (Medium.com) (March 2014)

WikiLeaks and Anonymous respond to status quo journalism (Opinion piece, Al Jazeera English) (July 2013)

Hacking & Whistleblowing: The New Crack Cocaine of Activism (blog, later published in Le Monde Diplomatique & Counterpunch) (February 2013)

Covering Assange: We Have Taken our Eyes Off the Prize (British Journalism Review, blog & print version) (September 2012)

WikiLeaks vs. Sweden (blog post) (May 2012)

WikiLeaks, Assange & Feminism: Base and Superstructure (blog post) (May 2012)

WikiLeaks Supporters: Thinking Right? (blog post) (May 2012)

WikiLeaks and Celebrating the Power of Mainstream Media (Global Media Journal – Australian Edition) (2011)

WikiLeaks: Losing Suburbia (Le Monde Diplomatique) (September 2011)

WikiLeaks: Three Digital Myths (Le Monde Diplomatique) (August 2010)

Hacking and Whistleblowing: The New Crack Cocaine of Activism

Hacking & Whistleblowing: The New Crack Cocaine of Activism

(This article appeared in the February 2013 edition of Le Monde Diplomatique)

Christian Christensen

At the height of the purported cocaine “epidemic” in the United States in the 1980s, politicians and law enforcement officials felt something had to be done. What Congress did was to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: one of the most draconian, overtly racist pieces of legislation in US history. The law introduced mandatory minimum sentences, including an astonishing 5 years in federal prison for the possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine. What moved the law from the medieval to the outright racist, however, was the fact that in order to spend the same 5 years in prison for possession of powder cocaine, one would have to be caught with 500 grams of that substance. In other words, there was a 100:1 sentencing disparity between convictions for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. Expensive powder cocaine tended to be the drug of choice for upper-middle class suburban kids and white-collar bankers, while much cheaper crack was favored by poorer drug users. Despite such a blatant discriminatory factor, it took 26 years to pass Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which pushed the sentencing ratio down from an outlandishly racist 100:1 to an outrageously racist 18:1.

What does this have to do with hacking and whistleblowing? A lot.

At the most basic level, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 stripped bare any pretense that justice in the United States was blind, and that the scales were calibrated so that  no preference would be given to a particular citizen on the basis of race or socio-economic status. The law sent a loud, unambiguous message that there are two sets of rules in the United States: one for those with power and social capital, and one for the rest. Thus, when it was widely reported in the wake of his suicide that the hacker and programmer Aaron Swartz was facing 35 years in prison for illegally downloading academic articles from the JSTOR system, it became clear to many previously unfamiliar with the case just how skewed the US legal system is, and the extent to which prosecutors were willing to go to “make an example” of someone whose greatest crime was downloading articles that academics provide to publishers for free, which are then re-sold to those same academics for a healthy profit. JSTOR itself did not wish to press charges, but the prosecution went ahead, with a computer hacker facing more years in prison for downloading journal articles about Emily Dickinson and film theory than any Wall Street CEO, Blackwater executive or corrupt politician.

When we speak of state violence, we tend to think of overt acts of physical violence against the body: the death penalty, police brutality or warfare being classic examples. Violence, however, is not relegated only to the application of pain, but can also include the limiting of physical and psychological freedom. As such, imprisonment is a significant act of violence, and is, along with the ability to take a life through capital punishment or warfare, a significant power afforded to states. Financial sanctions may cripple a person economically, but if they are still free to walk the streets, play with their children or engage in the many simple acts that make up the day-to-day existence of a human being, then that person still retains the core elements of dignity and humanity. I simply cannot fathom the idea that someone would be denied those elements for a quarter century for the crime of downloading academic articles; nor, for that matter, can I fathom the UK sending Anonymous hackers Christopher Weatherhead and Ashley Rhodes to prison for 18 and seven months respectively for the crime of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against PayPal, Visa and Mastercard. This, while the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Sir Fred Goodwin, walks free after taking home 1.3 million pounds in salary while overseeing the biggest loss in British corporate history: 24 billion pounds.

In addition to hackers we have whistleblowers, none more famous than Bradley Manning, who also faces the possibility of spending the better part of his life behind bars. Already confined for almost 1000 days, and initially placed in solitary confinement, Manning is accused of placing the security of the United States in jeopardy by providing classified documents to WikiLeaks. A portion of the information he leaked was footage (now known as the “Collateral Murder Video”) showing the killing of civilians by a US attack helicopter in Iraq. The irony is, were Manning a Chinese, Iranian or Cuban soldier who had exposed potential war crimes committed by his government, his solitary confinement and impending life sentence would be held up as evidence of the barbarity and anti-democratic tendencies of the “regimes” in question, and calls would be made for his release on “humanitarian” grounds. As it is, Manning (like Swartz) is being given the 1986 crack cocaine treatment by the US government: the threat of a wildly excessive prison sentence, at odds with both logic and law, for the purpose of crushing the individual in question.

If the message of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was that the poor and minorities needed learn their place in an America ruled by white elites, then what is the message being sent in relation to Manning, Swartz and the two Anonymous hackers in the UK? Much the same as in the case of crack versus powder, actually. While the US and UK make geo-political hay out of their commitment to free speech and democracy, dissenters and activists must learn their place. They are useful to the neo-liberal project in that they show that moderate dissent is tolerated; however, once that dissent crosses the line, and trespasses upon the sacred turf of corporate profits and military power, then action must be taken to rectify the situation. If that means sending a man to prison for life for exposing potential war crimes, or driving a man to suicide for downloading academic articles, so be it.

Covering Assange: We Have Taken our Eyes off the Prize

An article I have written entitled Covering Assange: We Have Taken our Eyes off the Prize has just come out in the British Journalism Review. You can read the piece either as a BJR blog post, or you can download a PDF of the article from BJR’s homepage at Sage.

Christensen, C. (2012). We Have Taken our Eyes off the Prize. British Journalism Review, 23: 48-53.

Nick Cohen, Assange and US Power

If there is a better response to Nick Cohen’s ill-conceived article on paranoid WikiLeaks supporters than yesterday’s New York Times Op-Ed by former US President Jimmy Carter, then I am not sure where to find it. To my mind, Cohen is correct when he notes that some elements of the defense of Julian Assange by supporters have been very troubling – none more so than direct and indirect attacks on “radical feminism” in Sweden. I myself have written on this issue, and, a result, have been accused (via Twitter) of being an anti-WikiLeaks, anti-Assange agent of US-Swedish power. I am not any of these things, but it is increasingly obvious that these types of attacks come with the territory when commenting on WikiLeaks. If Cohen had a serious point about the potentially negative impact of some elements of the Assange defense, however, then they have been lost in a problematic line of reasoning .

Problem 1: An Ill-Informed Belief in US Justice

Radical socialists don’t become President of the United States of America, so when a former Commander-in-Chief writes the following, it carries a fair amount of weight:

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.

In addition to American citizens’ being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention, recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications. Popular state laws permit detaining individuals because of their appearance, where they worship or with whom they associate.

Carter’s article also reminds us that there are currently 169 prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay who are denied the minimal right of habeas corpus. By ignoring the gross violations engaged in by the United States government, and by labeling WikiLeaks supporters conspiracy nuts, Cohen actually confirms what many Assange and WikiLeaks supporters suspect: that the mainstream media have a short-sighted vendetta against Assange because he beat them at their own game.

Problem 2: Cohen’s Piece is Ahistorical

In addition to ignoring the issues discussed by Carter – drones, Gitmo, lack of oversight on presidential power – Cohen fails to address the fact that history books on the last 50 years of domestic US and international politics are hardly reassuring reading for a person with a fear of extradition to the United States. Salvador Allende, Cuba, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Iran-Contra, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II, Gitmo, Extraordinary Rendition, Water-Boarding, Bradley Manning. When you look at this laundry list, and consider the fact that within many of these events hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals have either died, been attacked or had their rights violated, then someone like Assange surely has cause to be worried for his own safety.

What makes a theory a conspiracy theory (as a pejorative term) is a perceived ludicrousness: a proposition so outlandish and technically unlikely (usually due to the involvement of multiple actors engaged in hidden activity) that the person who utters it must be divorced from reality. Can we honestly say that Assange’s fear of extradition to, and potential imprisonment in, the US falls into this category? Let me put it this way: if you had told me 12 years ago that Sweden would allow CIA agents to detain, assault and interrogate two Egyptian nationals on Swedish soil, then drug and fly them from Stockholm to Egypt on a private jet for interrogation and torture, only to have Sweden deny it, I might have called that borderline conspiracy talk. But it happened.

Problem 3: The Watergate/Journalism Argument is Very Thin

Ah, Watergate. Every time a question pops up about freedom of speech in the United States, Watergate, the Washington Post, Deep Throat, the Pentagon Papers, Woodward, Bernstein and Nixon are trotted out and put on display as evidence of the Fourth Estate at work. Well, Watergate was 40 years ago, and this is not your father’s America. In the 40 years since Watergate we have precious few examples of US mainstream media actively challenging US corporate and military power. In fact, quite the opposite. We live with (and some in) a post-9/11 America of Freedom Fries, Fox News, the Tea Party and the Patriot Act. Yes, the First Amendment is a fantastic piece of writing, but remember that in 2010 the Citizens United decision made by the US Supreme Court held that corporations have the same free speech rights as regular, human citizens. Even great political documents can be perverted.

Cohen also suggests that WikiLeaks and Assange will likely be protected under US law because WikiLeaks, “was in effect a newspaper.” That is a pretty loose legal hook to hang the hat of your life on. Whether or not WikiLeaks is classified as a newspaper or journalistic organization is far from decided. Again, some context from Sweden: one of the reasons why WikiLeaks initially used servers located in Sweden was the perceived protection offered to the organization under Sweden’s stringent freedom of speech and whistleblower protection laws. Interestingly, however, that logic was called into question when it was noted that WikiLeaks would not be classified as a journalistic organization because it did not have what is known as a “responsible publisher” (a person legally responsible for the content): a condition necessary for an organization to be considered journalistic in Sweden. In other words, lots of assumptions can be made about WikiLeaks being a news organization, but assumptions don’t hold up in court.

Problem 4: Cohen Conflates WikiLeaks Supporters

As a final point, although I have been subject to some accusations (some of which were re-tweeted to 1.5 million WikiLeaks followers on Twitter) in relation to my questioning some WikiLeaks arguments, I suspect that the number of supporters who adhere to these dogmatic lines of thought, and attack those who disagree, is relatively small, and that their voices have disproportionate strength as a result of echo-chambers like Twitter. I get the sense that many supporters of WikiLeaks are regular people who are tired of being used and lied to, and want to support an organization which has shown a willingness and backbone to challenge some big schoolyard bullies.

It takes guts to challenge the United States: just ask people who have done so and paid the price. By playing the “conspiracy theory” card in relation to extradition to the US, and dismissing legitimate fears when there is ample evidence to the contrary, Cohen throws the baby out with the bathwater. US power is real, and US justice has shown a willingness to bend to that power when needed. That isn’t conspiracy theory, that is reality.

%d bloggers like this: