When a former U.S. army private awoke in her jail cell just over a week ago — some 17 months into a 35-year jail sentence — she could have been forgiven for thinking, in the immediate aftermath of the terrible Paris magazine attacks, that the commutation of her punitive sentence for exercising freedom of speech and conscience was about to be placed on President Obama’s desk. Obama, like many world leaders, had just issued stunning, passionate statements about freedom of the press, human dignity, and all the great things that make countries like Canada and the U.S. just so undeniably terrific.
For the now 26-year-old Chelsea (previously known as Bradley) Manning, though, it was not to be. She had had the audacity to challenge terrorism by exposing it, not in a manner that humiliated or denigrated her targets, but simply to inform the public, generate discussion, bolster democracy and hold accountable those who had committed atrocities. “If you had free reign over classified networks…and you saw incredible things, awful things…things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC…what would you do?” she had asked in an online chat room.
Her answer was simple: copy those documents and videos on a flash drive and share them with the world through Wikileaks. What she revealed threatened no one’s national security, but certainly put the lie to the notion that wars of “freedom and liberation” being led by our great democracies were shams built on massive repression, indiscriminate bombing and torture. Most people outside of the “free world” knew this, usually from first-hand experience, but here were cold hard facts, government cables, and the shocking “collateral damage video” in which two Reuters journalists and nine other civilians are ruthlessly gunned down by laughing American soldiers.
But unlike the global reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Manning’s picture (and most of her revelations) rarely appeared front and centre in newspapers around the world in a show of defiance against those brutal authorities that were punishing her for speaking out. Her case was not trumpeted by brave media and mass rallies of global citizens chanting “Je Suis Chelsea”; her revelations were not printed by the millions and funded by government (the French government spent over a million euros to print the post-attack issue of Charlie Hebdo, knowing that the front cover would be flipping the bird to many of its Muslim citizens); the symbol of the flash drive was not held aloft as the real way to defeat terrorism (as pencils were in the Hebdo case); self-righteous publishers and columnists were not saying “if you don’t like her revelations, just don’t look at them” (most preferred to either ignore them, treat them as isolated instances or make personal attacks against Manning).
Instead, Manning was hustled away for three and a half decades while those whose crimes she exposed (including Bush and Cheney) continued gloating about their decisions, even after the damning U.S. Senate report on torture, one whose revelations were quickly banished to the back pages after the Paris attacks. (Manning herself was subjected to over three years of pre-trial solitary confinement, often refused clothing, in conditions that the UN concluded constituted “cruel and inhumane” treatment.)
French government terrorism
Manning’s plight is worthy of consideration in the wake of the Paris attacks, since it reminds us of a basic truism: when our side commits the terrorist acts, they aren’t seen as terrorist, and are always justified (if they are even deemed worthy of justification) for reasons ranging from support of oppressed women to bringing democracy to foreign lands. But when somebody else does it against us (read the “free world” or the Eurocentric “West”), they are simply cruel, barbaric and evil. Neither can be justified or defended, whether it is the terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo offices and kosher Paris grocery or any number of a lengthy series of terrorist acts committed by the French government: the French terrorist bombing of a Greenpeace ship in New Zealand, the French government’s criminal open-air testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific (knowing such actions were leading to the slow but sure genocidal destruction of the region’s residents), or the 1961 Paris police massacre of over 200 demonstrators calling for peace in Algeria, after which over 11,000 demonstrators were detained in, among other locations, the same stadium where two decades earlier, Jews bound for Nazi extermination had been held.
Another truism that arises is that such attacks will inspire a barely contained sense of joy in the offices of intelligence agencies like CSIS, the RCMP and their brother agencies across the planet. In addition to blanket coverage that unquestionably parrots their opinions and press releases (and helps to deflect from their blood-stained reputations for complicity in torture), these agencies will see new legislation passed at home and abroad that further legalizes the dangerous practices in which they have long engaged, placing human rights in grave peril through increased surveillance, kidnapping, rendition to torture, drone strikes and other insidious tools of repression. In an Orwellian moment, the attacks on free expression will allow governments to suppress free expression with new laws resulting in more pre-emptive arrests for alleged thought crime.
We already see the results in Paris and throughout France, where tens of thousands of armed men patrol the streets and scores of individuals have been rounded up under suspicious circumstances. As the Globe and Mail’s European correspondent Mark MacKinnon reported earlier this week, “dark-skinned” individuals who allegedly say something viewed as “uncomfortable” are brazenly nabbed in Paris cafes by heavily armed police. Journalists who try to cover such kidnappings are told to stop filming and leave the scene, “That is, if you’re with us.” The us-versus-them dynamic is clearly as evident here as it was post 9/11.
Then there was the swift sword of vengeance from French authorities, who quickly tried and convicted a drunk driver of “glorifying terrorism,” for the uncomfortable, indelicate act of telling a police officer, while clearly under the influence of alcohol, that he allegedly agreed with the two brothers who spearheaded the Hebdo attack. He will be in jail for four years. Another individual received a one-year sentence for allegedly proclaiming, “I am proud to be a Muslim. I do not like Charlie. They were right to do that.” While certainly problematic and insensitive, do such statements seriously deserve draconian punishment? No one in France, or anywhere else on Planet Earth, was subjected to such punishment for publicly celebrating and glorifying the assassination of Osama bin Laden, a clearly illegal act of terrorism, especially considering he was unarmed and could have been easily arrested, detained, and put on trial to face the allegations against him.
Scores in France have been arrested for “defending” terrorism. They have also been picked up for alleged hate speech and anti-Semitism. One can guess with a certain probability the colour and religion of those who have been nailed. Rarely discussed is the problematic, selective use of free speech celebrations. Given that the definition of anti-Semitism is now so broad that it includes any criticism of Israeli government policies, it is a perfect way to clamp down on any discussion of Palestinian rights, especially at a time when the Palestinians are being punished for seeking a war crimes inquiry at the International Criminal Court. Indeed, Canada has been clear that Palestinians will face “consequences” for even pursuing a rule-of-law solution.
A racist magazine
If the French were really concerned about hate speech and images, why are they officially subsidizing Charlie Hebdo? As Teju Cole writes in The New Yorker, asking if it is not possible to condemn the terrorist act without condoning the activities of the victims:
“in recent years the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations, and its numerous anti-Islam images have been inventively perverse, featuring hook-nosed Arabs, bullet-ridden Korans, variations on the theme of sodomy, and mockery of the victims of a massacre. It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullying racist agenda, but it is necessary to try. Even Voltaire, a hero to many who extol free speech, got it wrong. His sparkling and courageous anti-clericalism can be a joy to read, but he was also a committed anti-Semite, whose criticisms of Judaism were accompanied by calumnies about the innate character of Jews… Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine’s cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defence is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations.”
Meanwhile, as Reporters Without Borders, among others, pointed out, many of the world leaders who rushed to take part in what, in some respects, uncomfortably resembled a Nuremberg-like rally — beware of mass gatherings organized with the support and participation of governments involved in war crimes — are responsible for grave violations against freedom of the press in their home countries. To take our closest neighbour, for example, the U.S. under Obama has cracked down with more uses of the Espionage Act to silence and jail whistleblowers and journalists than all presidents of the last century combined. For talking about U.S. involvement in torture and other crimes, folks like James Risen of the New York Times are facing time in prison.
These prosecutions are part of a larger pattern that has physically targeted media which seek to expose U.S. atrocities. It is no secret that the U.S. has targeted Al Jazeera outlets in Iraq and Kabul for bombing, even though the network always informs militaries of its exact coordinates. Six weeks after the network wrote to U.S. military officials in 2003 to inform them of their Baghdad office location, a U.S. missile hit the Al Jazeera office, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub. Former U.K. Home Secretary David Blunkett wrote in his 2006 memoir that he clearly advised Tony Blair to bomb Al Jazeera’s Baghdad TV transmitter in 2003. At the same time, Fox News called on the Bush administration to “take out Al Jazeera,” reminding viewers that, “To those who will decry this as censorship, they should be reminded of President Bush’s injunction shortly after we were attacked two years ago: In the War on Terror, you are either with us or with the terrorists.”
Assassinating Al Jazeera journalists
The assassination call emanating from Fox News was not simply wishful thinking. It was state policy. That strategy was confirmed in the infamous (though little discussed) Al Jazeera bombing memo, details of which had been published by the U.K.’s Daily Mirror. During the commission of U.S. war crimes in Fallujah in 2004, George W. Bush and U.K. PM Tony Blair apparently discussed the idea of bombing the Al Jazeera offices in Qatar in retaliation for their honest coverage of what had been taking place in Iraq. A memo relating to that discussion had been circulated but was ultimately quashed with the arrests of two U.K. men (one a Labour Party researcher, the other a civil servant), both eventually sentenced to three- and six-month jail terms for violating the Official Secrets Act, this following a completely secret trial. Meanwhile, the British government threatened most of the U.K. press with official sanction under the Official Secrets Act as well.
Reporters without Borders issued a statement at that time, declaring:
“We are also shocked by the British government’s decision to ban the British press from publishing any information about the content of this memo, classified ‘top secret.’ Invoking the 1989 Official Secrets Act and threatening to take newspapers to court is disturbing in a country that is usually careful to respect press freedom.”
Similarly, the British attempted to prosecute foreign office official Derek Pasquill for revealing information about the U.K. role in the rendition to torture program, but eventually dropped the case given the prosecutors’ conclusion that “documents to be disclosed as part of legal proceedings would have undermined its case that the leaks were damaging” in the first place. The New Statesmen’s editor concluded:
“This was a misguided and malicious prosecution, particularly given that a number of government ministers privately acknowledged from the outset that the information provided to us by Derek Pasquill had been in the public interest and was responsible in large part for changing government policy for the good in terms of extraordinary rendition and policy towards radical Islam [sic].”
The U.S. discussion about bombing Al Jazeera is part of that country’s long tradition of seeking to squelch a free press by whatever means necessary. Recall that President Richard Nixon, who kept an up-to-date enemies list for neutralization, fretted about what he should do with critical columnist Jack Anderson, whose stories about Nixon’s war crimes and illegal acts got under the impeached president’s skin. A White House memo reported, “We examined all of the alternatives and very quickly came to the conclusion [that] the only way you’re going to be able to stop him is to kill him.”
Canada’s new laws
Meantime, the Canadian government continues to provide all-out support for the Egyptian dictatorship, which has crushed any notion of press freedom, including the jailing for over one year of Canadian Al Jazeera correspondent Mohamed Fahmy. The Harper government has similarly supported post-coup regimes in countries like Honduras, where being a journalist can get you killed for questioning state abuses. Harper has also been less than willing to operate in the sunshine of transparency and freedom. In 2013, the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy ranked Canada 55th out of 93 nations, behind Colombia and Mongolia, among others, with respect to government openness and respect for freedom of information.
It is in this fearsome environment where the act of speaking certain words and writing of uncomfortable truths is becoming increasingly risky (though certainly no less necessary). In this context, the Harper government, whose leader declared an “international jihadist movement” has “declared war on any country like ourselves that values freedom, openness and tolerance,” is set to introduce even more repressive measures that mock those stated values. These include lowering even further the threshold to make preventive arrests, reducing personal privacy and easing the sharing of personal information with intelligence agencies (exactly the kind of thing that led to the torture of numerous Canadian citizens). Also on tap is having Canada’s national police force — one complicit in torture of Canadians abroad, harassment of and violence against female officers at home, and various other crimes — lead a campaign against those who are angry about such injustices (i.e., those who have become “radicalized.”)
Even before such legislation is on the books, growing numbers of young men are being picked up and charged with terrorism-related offences, three last week in Ottawa, for allegedly wanting to join the fighting in Syria. Details remain very sketchy, and it is likely the government will invoke “national security confidentiality” to prevent full disclosure of the case against them. The men have already been declared guilty by much of the media and unwelcome in certain communities as “radicalized” individuals.
In an eerie Kafkaesque moment, individuals under potential new laws against glorifying terrorism will likely face the prospect of secret trials for a very simple reason. If it becomes illegal to “glorify” terrorism (whatever that means, and however broadly that is defined), then receiving pubic disclosure of the case against you will become impossible, for said information will, if made public in court, violate the very law which brought you there in the first place.
The events of the past week also serve as useful arrows in the quivers of governments who need headline-stealing events they can point to as rationales for repression. Canadian officials in speeches and parliamentary presentations lovingly recall the convictions of individuals in the 2006 Brampton case every time they testify in favour of new restrictive laws (recall the one in which two government informers, paid between $400,000 and $1.5 million apiece, essentially entrapped a group of misguided men — some with some pretty sick opinions — into a bombing plot, resulting in numerous life sentences). Similarly, the French government, as it seeks Patriot Act-style legislation in the coming weeks, will also now have a fallback. In the words of Humphrey Bogart, they’ll always have Paris.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. ‘national security’ profiling for many years.