I am an activist with a predilection for supporting progressive causes the world over. From tortured prisoners to under-funded public schools, I'm prepared to walk the walk. So it was with great interest that I read the report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists in The Nation (Sri Lanka) last week. The report, "Ten Most Censored Countries," did a roll call of serious offenses being perpetrated in North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus. Oddly enough, for someone like me who lives in America, the United States was not listed.
Of course, CPJ -- an organization whose mission I support -- would argue that they were talking about censorship of the press. Well, in my book, censorship takes many forms. After all, what the press covers is driven very often by what is happening. And if only certain events are allowed to happen, and only certain news is approved for printing, if "balance" means that the truth must be watered down by equal space afforded the lies, then my friends we are living in a country where censorship is rife and growing.
Some might argue that we live in the land of the free, but those voices are getting increasingly less certain. The Fourth of July parades are almost upon us and what is uppermost on my mind is which floats will be banned from the parade this time around. Last year it was a peace float organized by a unionist and community activist friend of mine. The parade organizers said he was "being disrespectful of our troops." Our Troops is a catch-all phrase to mean Anything Done By Mr. Bush. Anytime he is in hot water, and the man has been in so much hot water that he should be squeaky clean or at least wrinkled like a prune by now, Our Troops are held up as a mortal shield. He doesn't attend any of their funerals, and he ignores the fact that many military families throw his canned condolences in the trash, but by God Mr. Bush loves Our Troops.
We are a land full of patriots, and our patriotism is nothing more than a red white and blue flag. We don't know any history, we couldn't care about how we got Here from There or where we might be headed, but we are proud of It. Whatever It is. These days, if we aren't proud of It, we are liable to be shipped to Guantanamo and held without charges and without access to legal representation. If someone were to get wind of our incarceration, we can be shipped to other illegal detention centers sprinkled throughout Europe where we may be subjected to torture. Not much freedom there, and lots and lots of the "c" word.
The very term, patriot, has become such valued currency that the Bushites came up with the USA-PATRIOT Act. When it is bandied about, it is spoken of as the Patriot-Act. 99.9% of Americans don't know what that means. They think it means being a patriot, so they support it. What it stands for is: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorists. Yes, someone worked very very hard to come up with that acronym. Here's just one sample of what that Act permits: Section 215 modifies the rules on records searches so that third-party holders of our financial, library, travel, video rental, phone, medical, church, synagogue, and mosque records can be searched without our knowledge or consent, so long as the government says it's trying to protect against terrorism. When we watch our behavior because we don't know who might be watching, and I'm not talking about God, that too is censorship.
The CPJ faults these ten countries for a litany of wrongs. And yes, they are wrongs. But let's compare and contrast. In Belarus, says CPJ, "broadcast and print outlets are owned by the government." In the United States, broadcast and print outlets are owned by a handful of media moguls who have been lobbying to dismantle guards against media monopolies, most recently through the machinations of Colin Powell's son, Michael Powell, who was Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
In Belarus, "nominally independent radio and television stations avoid politically sensitive subjects." In the United States, the Bush administration has worked tirelessly to cut public radio and TV programming, attacking National Public Radio and Public Television at the heart of those organizations by placing conservative right-wingers to oversee them. The Bush administration prevented CBS from showing an anti-Bush ad by MoveOn, a grassroots internet-based political organization, at the SuperBowl on the grounds that it was a political ad, but managed to have a pro-Bush ad shown during that same segment. This is censorship.
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It is true that in the United States we have privately funded alternative media that covers the stories that the mainstream press does not. Mother Jones, Common Dreams, Move On and so forth, all do a good job of keeping us already politically active people informed of what is happening on the frontlines. But we are the choir. We don't need the sermon. The people who most need alternative information are kept from it first through Republican control of major mainstream news sources, second through reframing journalism as being a responsibility to display allegiance to Our Troops (i.e. the administration) in A Time Of War, and finally through under funding public schools so that generation after generation grows up believing that patriotism has everything to do with red white and blue napkins, butt-patches and condoms, and nothing to do with civic engagement or voting. This too is censorship.
In the United States, we are afraid to criticize the government, and with good cause. The government has been collecting records of private citizens who have participated in peace rallies. Local police have been sent to locations, including right here in Portland, Maine, to photograph such gatherings. If we have no freedom of association, then we have no freedom of speech. If we have no freedom of speech, what can the press write about? Oh, yes, Michael Jackson's face cream and Brad Pitt's new girlfriend. I'd say we are being censored.
Our latest scandal? The National Security Agency (NSA), has, under the orders of Mr. Bush, eavesdropped on the domestic and international phone calls of American citizens without warrants and against the law. Furthermore, the three biggest phone companies in this country, AT&T, MCI and BellSouth, willingly gave up the private records of their customers to the government. (Only Qwest, the smallest of the four companies approached by the government, stood its ground -- maybe because it was small and small is beautiful). According to officials, it is the largest database ever assembled. Most frightening of all? The New York Times, that bastion of independence, held on to that report for a year, a year! under the orders of this administration before it printed it a few weeks ago. This is censorship.
On May 30th, the Supreme Court of the United States, an office much maligned over its circumnavigation of the electoral process and the appointment of a president in 2001, and subsequently crippled by partisan appointments to the bench of a justice and a chief justice whose racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, religious fundamentalism, commitment to the torture of prisoners in full-flout of international law, support of unwarranted domestic spying on citizens, and advocacy of executive privilege (translation=if George Bush wants to do it, then it doesn't matter what the law says), were well documented, dealt another blow to the rights of the American people. It ruled to dismantle the constitutional protections afforded by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech to those whistle-blowers who are public employees and who expose corruption and injustices discovered during the course of their official duties.
The government of course came out in force to endorse the ruling. Why wouldn't they? After all, the benefits go to an administration whose reign has been marked by a scandal-of-the-month on a scale so large that at last people are ashamed to mention that little business of a smeared blue dress worn by a gal named Monica Lewinsky. Oh for the bliss of a presidential peccadillo from those good old days! As Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union put it, "it is fair to say, in an era of excessive government secrecy, this makes government cover-ups easier by discouraging whistle-blowers." No kidding.
I suggest that the CPJ does its next report right here at home. They could talk to me, but it would be just as easy for them to ask the NSA for my file.
This article first appeared in The Nation, Sri Lanka.