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Why the US Record on Free Press Won't Inspire Cairo

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Glenn Greenwald by Gage Skidmore
Photo by Gage Skidmore

On July 5, 2005, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller made an honorable sacrifice by accepting a jail sentence rather than exposing her confidential source through testifying before a grand jury. Miller's story is a stark reminder of the nation's own war on press freedom and a chilling foreshadowing of the United States' own struggles of respecting and obeying the rights of journalists.

The Obama administration always seem to be on point with setting themselves apart from the Middle Eastern dictators, as they had made public statements condemning the Egyptian court's jail sentences of three Al Jazeera journalists -- Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy for seven years and Egyptian Baher Mohamed for 10 years -- for allegedly reporting false news and aiding terrorists. A sentence with no legitimate evidence backing their charges, the Egyptian courts decision sparked worldwide outrage and made US government officials concerned about the democratic transition in Egypt.

The White House publicly condemns the sentences with Press Secretary Josh Earnest telling reporters that the verdict was a "blow to democratic progress in Egypt." Secretary of State John Kerry goes further into public disapproval of the sentencing and said that the "verdicts fly in the face of the essential role of civil society, a free press, and the real rule of law" and that press freedom is measure of a democratic society.

These statements by the administration are encouraging and ring true to the needs of both the Egyptian and the American people, but it's unsure whether they are in the right position to point their finger just yet. Both the Bush and Obama administration have gone to unprecedented lengths to block or hinder the role of journalists and made government transparency a hard feat for American journalists. From classifying government documents as confidential when there was no evident threat of their release, to violations of the Freedom of Information Act, increased measures of surveillance and their unparalleled use of the Espionage Act in prosecuting media leaks, their showmanships ring hypocrisy rather than true acknowledgement of the necessity of press freedom.

In the United States, nearly a decade after Miller's noble sacrifice, journalism is still under attack. There's no other way to put it. Facing an eerily similar case, James Risen of the New York Times is facing jail time for refusing to identify a confidential source after the Supreme Court decided to turn down an appeal from him earlier this month. The Supreme Court gave no reasons for their decision to refuse an appeal, but sided with the government in what "prosecutors said was an imperative to secure evidence in a national security prosecution and what journalists said was an intolerable infringement of press freedom."

Risen was put into the spotlight for communicating with former CIA Officer Jeffrey Alexander Sterling on leaks regarding the CIA's Operation Merlin in 2000 that eventually led to massive blowback and aided Iran in its nuclear weapons program. The email and phone connections between Sterling and Risen were monitored by the US federal government and eventually ended with Risen being subpoenaed by the Bush administration. Although Risen fought the subpoena until its expiration in the summer of 2009, the Obama administration took a "rare step" by renewing the subpoena in 2011.

The Justice Department made another blow to press freedom in 2010 by collecting telephone records of Fox News Washington Correspondent James Rosen and labeling him as a "criminal co-conspirator" when former State Dept contractor Stephen Jin-Woo Kim disclosed information that North Korea might test a nuclear bomb. They went to further lengths of investigating Rosen by tracking the journalist's visits to the State Department through his security badge access records, tracing the timing of his phone calls with Kim, and obtaining a search warrant, personally signed by Attorney General Eric Holder, for the reporter's personal e-mails. The surveillance came about a week after leaks proved that federal investigators obtained records of Associated Press journalists' telephone lines for over two months.

And now, the most aggravating aspect of press freedom is that other media networks and congressional members are allying with the administration over a journalist's relationship with a government intelligence whistle-blower. Immediately after the Guardian published leaks provided by Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency's PRISM program, journalists like NBC's David Gregory questioned Glenn Greenwald's involvement in the report by inquiring why he wasn't prosecuted for aiding and abetting the felon. The New Republic accused Greenwald of having some secret agenda as an attempt to discredit his journalistic integrity. Congressional members like Peter King and Mike Rogers demanded that "legal action should be taken against him" and referred to him as a "thief who sells stolen material."

The Obama administration and the US government agencies often make claims that journalists who publish leaks pertaining to government intelligence are causing harm and costing American lives, but cannot provide any evidence of such statements. This was the case for Rosen and Risen, and Greenwald is no exception. When WikiLeaks created an international scandal, US officials rushed to make the warning that the documents could lead to the endangerment of American lives. However, McClatchy reported four years ago that US officials conceded that they have no evidence to date that documents led to anyone's death.

Still, the same former argument is being used again today against Greenwald by intelligence agency officers, congressional members, and disgracefully, journalists. The former Guardian journalist was confronted with the same accusations of costing American lives by Shepard Smith and Paul Rieckenhoff, but there is yet to be evidence or government officials rushing to release information that there is evidence or documentation to prove such accusation.

The US government's lack of evidence to make such claims and for them, and journalists, to stand by it is just as absurd as the Egyptian government's use of a horse clip of Arabic Sky News as evidence that the three journalists from Al Jazeera are guilty of aiding terrorists.

The handiwork of investigation is essential evidence of the significance of a free press. The institution of the fourth estate is the barrier between a government that serves for its people and the government that enslaves the people. Journalists are at the forefront of protecting the liberties and ensuring the transparency of our leaders, but reporters can't preserve a democratic society if their government denies the fundamental rights of a free press. Journalists need to be assured that they are protected by all threats and costs from doing their job, and this should ring true within the media industry in itself. Journalists like Greenwald should not be without the solidity of other journalists and networks if they truly care for the state of their role in a civil society. The simple profession of reporting -- always asking questions, observing, providing context, and recording even the minuscule actions -- is not a skill that can be easily replaced. The simple profession of reporting, of journalism, is the might of justice for the people and by the people.

The story of American journalists, from Miller to Risen and from Rosen to Greenwald, is one that must not be overlooked or cast aside. John Kerry and John Earnest are right when they state that press freedom is vital for a democracy, but it's about time that the Obama administration and the US government stand by those words on the homefront.