Some Kenyans were very upset when, during his summer swing through Africa, President Obama left his father’s country—presumably now being combed by Donald Trump for evidence that the President, too, was born there—out of his itinerary. The reason, it was assumed, was the fact that Kenya’s new President, Uhuru Kenyatta, was indicted for war criminals at the Hague for crimes against humanity. The U.S. President, his administration averred, could not be seen to grant a stamp of approval to such a government. The East African replacement was Tanzania, upheld as a model of an up-and-coming polity and economy.
I’m thinking, as I read the news these days, that President Obama and President Jakaya Kikwete must have had a heart-to-heart about what they could learn from another.
On Tuesday, it was reported that a minister in Kikwete’s government called for elephant poachers to be shot on the spot instead of wasting the state’s time with bothersome court cases. This will sound familiar to American readers, who know that our President carefully draws up a kill list for the Pentagon of people who are to be murdered extrajudicially, backed up by Murder Memos which the President resisted turning over to the public.
Earlier, the Tanzanian government had clamped restrictions on newspapers for leaking information about government salaries. One (Mwananchi, which shares this blog’s name) was shut for two weeks, the other for 90 days.
And today we learned that the Obama administration has been blasted by a report commissioned by the Committee to Protect Journalists for attacking “leakers” and whistleblowers and attempting to shut down channels of information which is in the public interest. According to the Guardian, the author of the report remarked that “the war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration”.
The pathetic defence of the White House “cited statistics showing that Obama gave more interviews in news, entertainment and digital media in the first four years in office than President George W Bush and Bill Clinton did in their respective first terms”. Obviously, interviews are not the same as providing disclosure and information. The critical role of journalists is to ferret out information which would not necessarily be yielded up willingly. Their job is to find the kind of information that Presidents do not discuss in fluffy interviews...like the legal rational for extrajudicial killings, illegal spying and torture programs, unsavoury connections between government and industry, etc.
CPJ’s report noted that the administration has created an “Insider Threat Program...in every government department requir[ing] all federal employees to help prevent unauthorised disclosures of information by monitoring the behavior of their colleagues”. The fact that both officials and journalists are monitored makes it difficult for investigators to make contacts, and makes whistleblowers more reluctant to come forward.
The report attacks the administration’s claims about the efficacy of its website and social media presence as conduits of information, noting that the type of information released there is not that sought by reporters, and allows the administration to control the narrative and set the agenda. It quoted a member of CPJ’s board of directors discussing the fact that “one of the most pernicious effects is the chilling effect created across government on matters that are less sensitive but certainly in the public interest as a check on government and elected officials. It serves to shield and obscure the business of government from necessary accountability”.
After lying down on the job for much of the Bush administration, journalists began to find their spine during the Obama administration, and have attempted to be more critical in investigating the actions of the government, particularly with relation to national security issues. But they have been met by a more formidable apparatus, designed to both intimidate reporters and choke off their sources of information within government.
And the administration is not alone. Dianne Feinstein, California’s authoritarian senior senator who has been one of the foremost defenders of an unshackled security state, recently pushed an amendment to a media shield law proposing that “only paid journalists should be given protections from prosecution for what they say or write”, drawing a rebuke from the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, Ken Bunting. Bunting wrote, “It rubs me the wrong way that the government thinks it should be in the business of determining who should be considered a journalist”.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Feinstein’s amendment argues “that there would be no legal protection for ‘any person or entity whose principal function...is to publish source documents that have been disclosed to such person or entity without authorization”. This language is clearly aimed at any organisation interested in providing a platform for information released by leakers or whistleblowers.
These developments—by no means restricted to this administration...think about all the lies and abuses of civil liberties associated with George W Bush—show just how ridiculous are the claims that the United States has some special relationship with “freedom”, and that we are capable of acting as an arbiter of “good government” in the world. They also expose the emptiness of the administration’s rhetoric about openness and transparency, and show the increasing power of the security state, which sees its own accumulation of power as more important in and of itself than the liberties and society that it was ostensibly designed to protect.
As an idiot in Texas once tried to say, “Fool me once...”