Friday, January 20, 2012

What is this, International Intimidation Month? The Case of Will Potter

I’m putting together a post about my favorite books, movies, and television of 2011. At or near the top will be Green Is the New Red by Will Potter. The writing is feisty, and I learned much about terrible developments in the US government’s approach to some of the most important social movements of our time. But maybe the best aspect is how the stories of animal rights and environmental activists, including Potter himself, are told in a way that conveys how the efforts to redefine their activism as terrorism and to intimidate them have affected them and their relationships.

Recently, in the sentencing of animal rights activist Jordan Halliday, prosecutors have claimed that Halliday is linked to the “extremist” Potter because Potter credited Halliday in a photo caption in a story about a house raid (resulting in no arrests). I’m not sure what the most troubling aspect of this is, but it may be, as Potter writes, that according to the government
Anyone who writes about what the government is doing to animal rights activists is an “animal rights extremist” by extension....My writing and commentary on civil liberties issues has been featured by NPR, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and many other of the top media outlets in the country. I have lectured at nearly 100 universities and associations, including Georgetown Law School, Yale Law School, and the House of Democracy and Human Rights in Berlin. My book was awarded a Kirkus Star for “remarkable merit,” and has been praised by Publishers Weekly, Utne, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and many others. I say all this hoping to make clear that if my journalism is being labeled “extremist,” if my entire body of professional work can be reduced to extremism because I ask questions about what the government and corporations are doing, then everyone is at risk.
Or it could be the inherent sliminess of this particular tactic. They are using a writer’s admirable sympathy and relationships of trust to silence him. Just as it’s easier to put yourself than your children at risk by protesting, the decision to document the truth about government abuses is far simpler when they’re threatening you and not your sources. As Potter describes, this creates a moral and emotional dilemma for journalists exercising their basic rights:
[I]t makes me feel that using my First Amendment rights puts my sources at risk. When I saw that my work was being used by the FBI and prosecutors against Halliday, it made me sick to my stomach. It’s one thing to see my name in terrorism files, it’s another to see my work being used by prosecutors to punish people I have written about. An old muckraking motto is “comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.” To have my work afflict people who already have the full weight of the U.S. government pressing down upon them goes against everything I believe about this craft.

…And so, as I edit this, about to hit “publish,” I keep hesitating. Will writing about this amplify that message of fear? Everything I do depends on the trust I have built with countless activists and their friends and families. What if this makes people afraid to be mentioned on this website?

The mere fact that I have to ask myself those questions is a testament to how much we have lost in the name of fighting “terrorism.”

This pattern of conduct by the FBI and federal prosecutors is nothing less than an attack on the First Amendment, and an attack on journalism. It is an attempt to foster distrust between author and source, and it is an attempt to shake the confidence that one can report freely and without retribution, both of which are essential to any meaningful expression of journalism in a democracy.
It’s not a new tactic, but it is a disgusting one, and it has no place in any system that calls itself democratic.

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