Bradley Manning trial is threat to press freedom

10 June 2013

Bradley Manning trial is threat to press freedom

It seems very much as if the United States government is using the trial of whistle-blower Bradley Manning to limit the role of the media as the watchdog of democracy , argues Harry van Bommel.

Harry van Bommel, Member of Parliament and the SP’s spokesman on foreign affairs.

Harry van BommelLast week the trial began of the whistle-blower Bradley Manning. This trial, of the U.S. soldier who leaked thousands of secret documents to WikiLeaks, is of importance to all potential whistle-blowers.

The Obama administration is determined to make a daunting example of Manning. The president pronounced him guilty as soon as he was arrested, immediately undermining a fundamental right, the right of an accused to be seen as innocent until the opposite is proven. Because Obama is also the Commander-in-Chief of all of the US military, his public declaration will influence in addition the position of the judge and of the prosecution. After an extremely long period of more than thirty-three months remanded in custody, some of it under inhumane conditions, the trial will now ensue.

If Manning is found guilty of the charge of having aided the enemy by making public thousands of official US reports and logbook entries from Afghanistan and Iraq, future whistle-blowers will think twice before they do the same. The argument from the prosecution is as simple as it is dangerous: by placing the information on the Internet via WikiLeaks, they also made it available to terrorists. Given that information distributed by WikiLeaks went directly to Osama bin Laden’s computer, there was clearly aid to the enemy and ‘therefore’ a clear case of treason.

If Manning is found guilty, it will have created a dangerous precedent. Anyone in future who places leaked information on the Internet could be prosecuted in the same manner. Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe, who once taught Obama, was quoted in the Guardian as stating that this trial could have "far-reaching consequences for chilling freedom of speech and rendering the internet a hazardous environment, well beyond any demonstrable national security interest." Such a decision would affect not only the whistle-blower but also the media, which because of their intermediate role could be accused of the same crime. Or as another American professor, Jon Heller, has argued, ‘if Manning has aided the enemy, so has any media organization that published the information he allegedly stole.’ As you will know, this would apply to rather a lot of such organisations, including within the Netherlands.

Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 leaked secret reports on the Vietnam War – the Pentagon Papers – to the New York Times – has stated that Manning has done just what he himself did, but is being treated much more harshly, criminalising investigative journalism. This is a serious matter which should give cause for a great deal more disquiet. The possibilities for whistle-blowers to bring suspect matters to the public attention are being undermined.

The Manning affair is no one-off. The Obama administration is, to a far greater extent than its predecessors, actively moving against the media. The Justice Department, for example, has seized data files of telephone traffic involving Associated Press journalists as well as a reporter from Fox News, James Rozen. Such actions affect not only those directly involved but also, as a result of the deterrent effects, the whole of the media.

In many reports of the trial, the question has been posed as to the extent of Manning’s guilt in revealing state secrets. Was he arrogant and did he misuse the information to which he had access, as the prosecution asserts? Or was he merely naïve and acting with the best of intentions?

Manning’s motivation is important, but the way in which the US government has reacted is just as important. It has every appearance of being a trial which is being used to limit the role of the media as the watchdog of democracy. That is a matter which concerns every parliamentary democracy..

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