Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Does it matter if a publisher has a political agenda? The two biggest national security leaks of the decade have been to individuals whose journalism is imbued with their political beliefs. Edward Snowden provided documents detailing the surveillance operations by the United States and its allies to Glenn Greenwald, a columnist at the Guardian and a fervent critic of the “war on terror.” Former Army Pfc. Bradley Manning released his cache of 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks-founder and Internet activist Julian Assange.
These releases have made some mainstream journalists uncomfortable. Greenwald and Assange’s motives have been questioned – most recently by a Time magazine correspondent who suggested in a personal tweet (that was quickly withdrawn) that he would gladly defend a drone strike against Assange.
The governments who conduct such surveillance are even more uneasy. The U.K. detained Greenwald’s partner for nine hours at Heathrow Airport. It demanded that the Guardian destroy hard drives containing Snowden’s documents in a futile attempt to quash the story. Even in the U.S., which has a strong tradition of press freedom, politicians have called for the prosecution of both Greenwald and Assange. And although the Justice Department recently revamped its News Media Policies in response to complaints about its seizure of phone records of reporters, its guidelines continue to include what has been dubbed the “WikiLeaks exception”: Persons and entities that “simply make information available” are excluded from protection.
Is this distrust of bloggers, Internet activists and other types of “new media” journalists justified? There are clearly differences between journalists who provide accurate information versus those who don’t, regardless of whether the writer has a pronounced point of view. But any attempt to distinguish between press outlets based on how responsible they are perceived to be is well down the slippery slope leading to official censorship.
The Supreme Court has understood this risk, making it clear that while “[a] responsible press is an undoubtedly desirable goal, press responsibility is not mandated by the Constitution and, like many other virtues, it cannot be legislated.” Similarly, a news outlet’s agenda doesn’t affect its right to publish. Except in cases of defamation, libel and obscenity, the right to publish is protected regardless of “motivation, orthodoxy, truthfulness, timeliness or taste.” The First Amendment does not protect Assange any less because some believe him to be a celebrity-seeking megalomaniac. Nor does it discriminate against Glenn Greenwald because he is anti-establishment and activist.
What if a journalist encourages a source to reveal classified information – is that a step too far? The Obama administration seems to think so. This theory is reportedly the basis of a grand jury investigation of Assange, and was used to obtain a secret warrant for the emails of a Fox News correspondent. As many reporters have pointed out, probing insider sources for information is at the heart of what they do. It is impossible for the government to regulate this activity without edging toward interference with the press. Even planting doubts about a journalist’s right to converse freely with sources can hamper the news gathering.
The concerns raised about Greenwald and Assange may be influenced by the fact that both work for foreign outlets; the Guardian is a British newspaper, although it has developed a large online presence in the U.S.; and WikiLeaks operates out of several countries. Some commentators have noted that foreign journalists, unlike the American press, “give no weight to U.S. national security concerns” and are “in no way accountable to American voters.” (For the record, neither is the American press).
But such distinctions are beside the point. The First Amendment protects the New York Times not because it is an American company, but because it provides a service to the nations: keeping people informed about the activities of their government so they can participate meaningfully in democratic decision-making. Foreign news sources provide the same service and even enrich national debate by providing an outside perspective. Nowadays, they are as accessible to Americans as their hometown paper. The beneficiary of this additional information – and the right to publish it – is not the outlet; it’s the public. This remains true whether the publisher is in New York or Nairobi.
As we adjust to a changed media landscape that is truly international and diverse, Americans must recall why a free press has such a prominent place in our constitutional order. Press freedoms inure to the benefit of the people. They serve as a counterweight to the government’s immense power to keep secrets, for reasons that are sometimes legitimate and sometimes nefarious. This balance between the press and the government is fundamental to American democracy. While what constitutes the press may evolve over time, this balance must remain steady.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)
Glenn Greenwald is a prominent Salon blogger. Read him here.