Opinion

Jack Shafer

Dear Obama, spare us the press-freedom lecturing

Jack Shafer
Jan 31, 2014 22:52 UTC

Wearing his best straight face, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney lectured China on press freedom yesterday. In a redundant official statement, he accused Beijing of restricting “the ability of journalists to do their work” and “imped[ing] their ability to do their jobs.”

If the Chinese cared about public opinion, they would have called a news conference of their own and read aloud from former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.’s comprehensive October report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which cataloged the Obama administration’s hostility toward the press. Downie found that although President Barack Obama promised a more open government, his administration has prosecuted sources under the Espionage Act, imposed delays on and denials of FOIA requests, and closed its doors on reporters, systematically blunting the press. And recent revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency and the secret subpoena of reporters’ phone logs and emails have contributed to a climate of fear in some newsrooms.

Carney’s jawboning, in which he also called for the unblocking of Western news sites, was precipitated by the slowdown game China’s visa offices have been playing with U.S. foreign correspondents. Two New York Times reporters have had to leave the country in the past 13 months because their visa applications went unprocessed, and Bloomberg News’s China-based reporters “have also experienced visa delays,” the Times reports today. Nearly all observers agree that the slowdowns and denials directed at the Times can be attributed to its aggressive coverage of crony capitalism in China.

But Carney isn’t the only member of the Obama administration agitating for freedom of the press in China. The Times also reports that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “warned” Chinese leaders during his visit there last month that there would be consequences if the country continued its efforts to oust U.S. reporters. What consequences? Congress might get mad about it, Biden told the Chinese, and retaliate somehow.

The stifled laughter of the Chinese was not recorded, although I’m sure the country’s leaders and diplomats made Onion-esque jokes about Biden and his rhetorical pop-gun after he left earshot. It’s not much of a threat to tell the leaders of the world’s second-most powerful economy that your legislature, which can’t agree on anything, will soon arrive to tickle them if they don’t behave.

Governments worldwide buried in the Snowden avalanche

Jack Shafer
Nov 7, 2013 15:41 UTC

If the U.S. and British governments could stop the press from publishing stories based on the National Security Agency files leaked by Edward Snowden in June, they probably would have acted by now. Oh, the Guardian was coerced by the British government into destroying the hard drives in London containing the leaked files, and London police used terrorism law to detain the partner of Glenn Greenwald — one of the journalists to whom Snowden leaked — at Heathrow Airport and confiscated computer media believed to contain leaked files.

But these measures were largely for show. As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had earlier reminded officials, other publications and individuals possess copies of the files, and “doomsday” copies exist that will be released “if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden,” said Greenwald in June. Greenwald wasn’t so much blackmailing the U.S. and British governments as promising retaliation, Capone-style, should harm come to his source.

Meanwhile, hardly a week has expired since June without the publication of a new Snowden revelation somewhere in the world, as this Wikipedia page illustrates. Last week, the Washington Post reported how the NSA pinches data from Yahoo and Google’s worldwide data centers. On Sunday, the New York Times published a laundry list of NSA operations, demonstrating the agency’s pervasiveness. “The N.S.A. seems to be listening everywhere in the world, gathering every stray electron that might add, however minutely, to the United States government’s knowledge of the world,” wrote reporter Scott Shane.

Why are we censoring bird flu science?

Jack Shafer
Dec 22, 2011 01:32 UTC

Scientists working in the Netherlands and Wisconsin have engineered a version of the highly lethal H5N1 “bird flu” that easily transmits in ferrets, the best animal model for human spread. This news has so alarmed a federal advisory panel that it has now asked the two leading scientific journals, Science and Nature, to censor the papers each lab has submitted for publication lest the information fall into the hands of terrorists. (Here’s the Page One coverage of the story from the New York Times and Washington Post.)

The request has roiled the scientific community, with some researchers backing the panel’s request, which is not binding, others lamenting the fact that the research was ever done, and others defending the bird flu work as essential research.

The panel—the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity—was established in 2004 as a response to the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. The scientific community resisted the direct controls the Bush administration wanted on biological research, the Times reports, and eventually agreed to the advisory panel that could be called upon to review potentially dangerous research. “I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” NSABB chair Paul Keim, an experienced anthrax researcher, told Science Insider Reporter Martin Enserink in November. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”

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