Attacks on Freedom of the Press Are Ramping Up

The state of democratic rights for journalists in some of the world’s leading Western powers is becoming increasingly worrisome.

A group protests in front of the British embassy in Paris to demand the release of French publishing employee Ernest Moret after he was taken into custody in London. (Telmo Pinto / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On May 17, journalist Kit Klarenberg was arriving at Luton Airport on a visit to his home country of the United Kingdom when a group of British counterterrorism officers detained him and interrogated him for five hours. With the threat of arrest hanging over him if he didn’t comply, the officers fingerprinted him and took his DNA while seizing all of his electronic devices and forcing him to unlock them. They returned the devices after a week but held on to one of his SD cards.

Klarenberg has written copious articles critical of the British government’s foreign and national security policies for a variety of left-wing outlets: Electronic Intifada, MintPress News, the Cradle. But the British officers were interested in one outlet in particular: the Grayzone. According to Klarenberg’s account of the detention for that outlet, the officers questioned him about his pay from the news website, his contact with its editor, Max Blumenthal, and any hypothetical links between the Grayzone and the Russian government.

Over the last year, Klarenberg has written several major stories highly embarrassing for the British government based on leaked documents. One series of stories showed the plans of British intellectual Paul Mason — who has, since Keir Starmer’s right-wing takeover of UK Labour, positioned himself as the leading nominally leftist supporter of the Labour head — to collaborate with the UK government and UK intelligence contractors as part of an “information war” campaign against the British left. Another revealed an April 2022 proposal to British intelligence to help Ukrainian forces destroy the Kerch Bridge in Crimea, which Ukraine successfully suicide-bombed last October. Still another exposed British involvement in training Ukrainian soldiers for other attacks on the disputed territory.

Given this, it’s not hard to see how Klarenberg ended up in the British government’s crosshairs.

Klarenberg was reportedly detained under Schedule 3, Section 4 of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Act, a controversial law criticized by human rights groups and the UN that was passed by the ruling Conservative government in 2019, ostensibly in response to the Skipral poisoning two years earlier. The law gives British law enforcement wide latitude to detain and harass individuals deemed to be taking part in a “hostile activity” on behalf of or in the interests of a foreign government.

In practice, this could mean almost anything. The law defines “hostile activity” as something that could threaten national security, threaten the British economy with implications for its national security, or is simply a “serious crime.” This applies whether or not the accused actually knows they’re carrying out a “hostile activity” — and even whether or not the foreign government whose bidding they’re supposedly doing is aware they’re doing it.

The harassment Klarenberg received at the British border seems to vindicate the warnings of the bill’s critics. But it would be a mistake to view this episode as being just about one particularly Orwellian British law. It’s part of a wider recent pattern in Western countries of government attacks on press freedoms and dissident speech.

Silencing Political Dissent

This past April, Ernest Moret, an employee of the left-wing French publishing house Éditions la Fabrique, underwent a similar ordeal, also in the UK. Detained in his case under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, Moret was questioned for six hours over his involvement in the protests against French president Emmanuel Macron’s deeply unpopular pension cuts, with officers asking him decidedly non-terrorism-related questions about his thoughts on the French retirement age, Macron, and COVID-19, and even asking him to name “anti-government” authors who had written for the publisher.

When Moret refused to provide the passwords for his seized electronic devices, he was arrested and held for nearly twenty-four hours, threatened with being banned from traveling to the UK. In this case, the British police never returned his devices.

This wasn’t the first time they’d used this exact law in a dubious way. Nine years ago, British police cited it to detain Glenn Greenwald’s late husband David Miranda while Miranda was carrying data leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that Greenwald was reporting on at the time. In 2017, they invoked it to detain the international director of CAGE, an NGO that advocates, ironically, against repressive “war on terror” policies.

British government officials have likewise been involved in a recent campaign to get the UK shows of former Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters canceled. Waters himself, Jacobin’s Chip Gibbons, and Electronic Intafada’s Asa Winstanley explain in detail how breathtakingly cynical and dishonest this effort has been, involving deliberately taking parts of Waters’s decades-old and beloved The Wall show out of context to present them as an endorsement of Nazism to unsuspecting modern viewers unfamiliar with his work. Waters has charged that the campaign is retaliation for his views on foreign policy, namely his criticisms of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians and of Western governments’ role in the war in Ukraine. (Incredibly, the US State Department has now also weighed in, absurdly labeling the show antisemitic.)

This smear campaign began in Germany, where Waters is currently being criminally investigated over his Berlin show. Waters’s critics contend that his dressing up in the style of a Gestapo officer and miming gunning down minorities is possibly antisemitic and runs afoul of the country’s harsh laws against hate speech and the promotion of right-wing extremism — despite the fact that not only is the spectacle quite obviously a condemnation of what it’s depicting, which is why an Israeli tribute band has performed the same show throughout Israel using virtually the same iconography that Waters is being condemned for now, but it’s been a part of the show going back more than forty years.

This is not the only dubious example of Germany’s famously strict laws against certain types of speech being weaponized against political dissent. This year also saw German peace activist Heinrich Bücker receive a criminal order and a fine of €2,000 for a twelve-minute speech he gave in 2022 on the anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in which he said that “Germans must never again be involved in any form of war against Russia” and accused the German government of collaborating with Ukrainian fascists. (He later made explicitly clear he wasn’t saying all Ukrainians are fascists, and that he was in favor of negotiations “so that the murder stops.”)

There’s much one could criticize about Bücker’s speech. But one doesn’t have to agree with all or even any of it to see the dubious nature of the central allegation — that he was publicly approving of a crime, specifically a war of aggression — or to understand the chilling effect of prosecuting someone for making what’s essentially a call for peace and strategic empathy, however flawed. Though Bücker successfully appealed the charge, the judge made clear he was only being acquitted because he had delivered his speech to a small audience that already largely agreed with him, leaving the door open to similar prosecutions in the future.

The Taxman

Despite its vastly more permissive constitutional protections for speech and press freedoms, the United States is also seeing a similar trend. Take the deeply strange IRS case against journalist Matt Taibbi, in which an IRS agent made the unusual move of physically visiting his home unannounced on the exact day he was testifying to Congress about his “Twitter Files” reporting.

Taibbi was later informed that his 2018 and 2019 tax returns had been rejected due to potential identity theft — even though Taibbi had documentation showing his 2018 return had been accepted, he hadn’t heard anything about these issues in the years prior, and the IRS owed him a refund. It later turned out that the IRS had opened their case against him on Christmas Eve last year, a Saturday, the very same day that Taibbi had posted a particularly explosive edition of his Twitter Files series.

If the IRS was being weaponized against Taibbi over his reporting, it would hardly be a first: the IRS has been used by Richard Nixon and the FBI in the past to harass the president’s political opponents and left-wing groups and activists, including Martin Luther King Jr.

But this followed several other menacing developments centered around Taibbi’s reporting on government-driven tech censorship. During Taibbi’s testimony to Congress, hostile Democratic lawmakers repeatedly pressured Taibbi and his colleagues to reveal their sources while suggesting they were not real journalists and, by implication, not covered by the First Amendment’s press protections. Later, when Taibbi was falsely accused of having invented the government’s role in pressing for tech censorship, one of his congressional critics threatened him with prosecution for perjury and a possible five years in prison.

Because of the widespread perception that Taibbi is now a right-wing reporter and that the “Twitter Files” are merely a PR stunt for billionaire Elon Musk, all this has been almost exclusively covered by conservative media. But given how damaging the reporting was to the growing national security–tech complex, it’s not a stretch to assume this was official retaliation or even intimidation related to Taibbi’s exposure of little-known government policy.

Recent reporting has added a new wrinkle to this. Back in April, a high-ranking official in the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) — the country’s equivalent to the FBI, which has been targeting left-wing dissidents in Ukraine and has been accused of torture — revealed to former Intercept reporter Lee Fang that it was collaborating with the FBI to pressure tech companies to censor alleged and broadly defined Russian disinformation. This has recently been corroborated by the Grayzone’s Aaron Maté, who obtained documents showing that he and other North American journalists were among the targets of this joint SBU-FBI pressure. Last year, several left-wing press outlets that were critical of US policy toward the Ukraine war had their accounts shuttered by PayPal, hindering their operations.

In fact, the United States fell three places this year in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, owing in part to what the organization called “a troubling pattern of harassment, intimidation and assault on journalists in the field.”

That has often involved the use of state power to attack journalists for doing their jobs, whether county officials caught on tape discussing killing a father and son reporting team in Oklahoma, reporters arrested by police in both blue and red states for trying to do their jobs, or the two North Carolina reporters arrested and convicted for alleged trespassing while photographing the police evicting a homeless encampment. In the last case, body camera footage showed an officer explicitly urging their arrest “because they’re videotaping” — in other words, because they were reporting.

Left-leaning activists are bearing the brunt of this as both the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations have moved the “war on terror” to the domestic sphere. Arguably the most high-profile such case right now is the absurd prosecution of Atlanta’s “Cop City” protesters under domestic terrorism charges, an alarming episode whose most recent development has been the unprecedented raid on and arrest of organizers of a bail fund for protesters.

And both the Biden administration and its UK counterpart continue to collaborate in the torture, imprisonment, and possible prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who this week lost his most recent legal appeal, putting him, in his brother’s words, “dangerously close” to being extradited to the United States to stand trial. According to the Daily Mail, the UK Home Office is already preparing extradition papers for Assange to be extradited as soon as in the next few weeks.

Assange’s treatment — based on the radical authoritarian theory that the US government is entitled to prosecute and jail any journalist on earth who reveals Washington secrets, wherever they are, whatever country they hail from, and even if they have no legal US connection — has already sent a menacing signal worldwide to reporters and publishers. But his prosecution would be a serious escalation on top of this if it’s successful, sharply curtailing US press freedoms to publish and report on government secrets by setting the precedent that news publishers can be criminally prosecuted for doing so — which is exactly why numerous press freedom, human rights, and civil liberties groups, as well as members of Congress and leading Western media outlets, have all demanded the Biden administration drop the case.

A Slippery Slope

Taken together, these stories paint a worrying picture of the state of democratic rights in some of the world’s leading Western powers.

Worse, it’s being enabled by the silence of those who should be checking such behavior. The Biden administration, which has framed both its foreign and domestic policy as a battle between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism, not only has nothing to say about these attacks on civil liberties — it’s deeply complicit in, and one of the leading culprits of, such attacks. In turn, the press outlets and media personalities that soaked up publicity when condemning Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on journalists are far quieter about the government’s material threats to press freedoms now that they’re taking place under a Democratic president.

Meanwhile, many of these cases are specifically related to foreign policy dissent, particularly on the matter of NATO policy toward the Ukraine war, which the US and allied governments have framed as an existential battle for worldwide democracy. Yet as has been clear since last year, the war and NATO countries’ participation in it is tragically having the opposite effect on both Ukrainian and Western societies, leading them to behave in more and more authoritarian ways on the basis of protecting Ukraine’s war effort — measures that, ironically, resemble the Russian government’s own authoritarian behavior.

But this is really a ramping up of trends that date back to at least the start of the war on terror this century, which saw governments, especially those of the UK and the United States, clamp down on civil liberties and basic freedoms on the basis of national security. For all the warnings then of the slippery slope we were on, successive administrations, sometimes from different sides of the political spectrum, have never dismantled these structures but rather added to them. And absent any sort of reckoning and mass action to oppose them, we seem destined to keep sliding faster and faster down until we find out what’s at the bottom.