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'Grave Threat to Press Freedom': Warnings Mount as Chelsea Manning Remains Behind Bars

"Whistleblowers must not be treated as criminals, and instead must be recognized for their critical role in maintaining a thriving democracy"

Free Chelsea Manning graffiti

"This ruling is clearly a punitive measure against Chelsea Manning," said Reporter Without Borders's Daphne Pellegrino after the whistleblower was jailed for refusing to answers questions before a grand jury. (Photo: duncan c/flickr/cc) 

Whistleblower advocates are expressing renewed concerns about threats to press freedom after Chelsea Manning was jailed for refusing to testify in a secret grand jury hearing.

Manning appeared last week before a grand jury believed to be investigating WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. Manning refused to answer questions under oath and was thrown in jail Friday after a contempt hearing, where she shall stay "until she purges or the end of the life of the grand jury," said U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton.

"This ruling is clearly a punitive measure against Chelsea Manning, who had already testified at length during her court martial in 2013 about the information she shared with WikiLeaks," said Daphne Pellegrino, advocacy officer for Reporters Without Borders's (RSF) North America bureau, in an alert sent to supporters on Monday.

"Rulings like these pose a grave threat to press freedom in the United States, where the bravery of whistleblowers like Manning inform some of the nation's most impactful reporting. Whistleblowers must not be treated as criminals, and instead must be recognized for their critical role in maintaining a thriving democracy," she continued.

Manning was promised immunity for her testimony, but as the Associated Press noted, that "eliminates her ability to invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination."

In a statement she released Friday, Manning said, "The grand jury's questions pertained to disclosures from nine years ago, and took place six years after an in-depth computer forensics case, in which I tesified [sic] for almost a full day about these events. I stand by my previous public testimony."

Manning's already spent extensive time behind bars. In 2013 she was given a 35-year sentence for leaking documents exposing U.S. war crimes to WikiLeaks—an act she's repeatedly said she took of her own accord. President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017 after she spent seven years in jail. 

What's happening "is really a grave threat to press freedom: the attempt to make it a felony to publish classified material—which is what WikiLeaks did," argued journalist Glenn Greenwald.

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Praising Manning for being "extraordinarily heroic," Greenwald told Democracy Now! that "what she's doing here is really remarkable, because the context is that the Trump administration is trying to do what the Obama administration tried to do but ultimately concluded it couldn't do without jeopardizing press freedoms, which is to prosecute WikiLeaks and Julian Assange for what it regards as the crime of publishing top-secret or classified documents."

Contributing to the problem, Greenwald continued, is the bipartisan hatefest for WikiLeaks.

"Between the Republicans, who have long hated WikiLeaks for exposing the war crimes of the Bush administration, and Democrats, who now hate WikiLeaks because they published documents that were harmful to or reflected poorly on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, very few people are willing to stand up to this very serious attack on press freedom. And thankfully, Chelsea Manning is one of those people."

Manning can count among her vocal supporters two noted whisteblowers.

Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg—who said of Manning, "I know no one more patriotic"—also spoke with Democracy Now! and called the jailing "a continuation of seven-and-a-half years of torture of Chelsea Manning."

"They want her to contradict her earlier sworn testimony many times, that she behaved in relation to WikiLeaks exactly as she would have to The New York Times or The Washington Post, to whom she went first, before going to WikiLeaks," Ellsberg said in the interview that aired Monday.

According to Ellsberg, "she's refusing to take part in basically a conspiracy against press freedom in this country, led by the president of the United States and the secretary of state."

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, for his part, called attention to Manning's courage, and said, "Compelling sources to testify against the journalists with whom they've worked threatens the independent function of the free press in an open democracy. She must be released."

As peace activist and author Kathy Kelly recently noted, "Chelsea Manning has already paid an extraordinarily high price for educating the U.S. public about atrocities committed in the wars of choice the U.S. waged in Iraq and Afghanistan." 

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