By Michael Brenner
MAS Freedom (MASF) – The United States government is on the verge of taking severe, unprecedented measures to stop broadcasting by stations whose transmissions are deemed to ‘incite’ violent acts against American citizens.The House of Representatives has already passed a binding resolution (HR2278) that requires the Executive to monitor foreign broadcasts and to penalize any country on whose territory an alleged offender operates. A counterpart resolution has been presented in the Senate.
This statement was prepared for a public meeting at the National Press Club in Washington today intended to call attention to its unfortunate implications
The right to free speech is inseparable from the right to free listening. Prohibition or obstruction of what we may hear, read or see is censorship. The act of censorship inserts the power of the state between the citizen and those with whom the citizen may wish to communicate – actively or passively.
Restrictions on communication, therefore, are an encroachment on the individual’s right to know; to know bits of information and to know the views of others. Recognition of that right is integral to our political freedom. That is why Americans’ devotion to democracy, from the Founding Fathers onward, has always preserved a central place for the unfettered freedom of communication.
This principle has been preserved even in wartime. The United States government has never sought to restrict or control publications and broadcasts from abroad on political grounds. During WW II, and in the period preceding it, German and Japanese propaganda reached Americans via the airways.
Tokyo Rose’s seductive efforts to undermine the moral of soldiers, sailors and airmen came through unfiltered. Nor was censorship imposed on radio communications that conceivably could contain coded messages to agents in the United States. While the threat was close to non-existent, Washington authorities were not certain that such was the case in the early phases of the war. After all, anxiety was so acute that Washington took the radical step of imprisoning in camps hundreds of thousands of American citizens because they were of Japanese ancestry.
What is striking about that period, from today’s perspective, is the gross infringement on civil liberties. There is another, enduring lesson. American authorities soon had the pragmatic good sense to conclude that to counter possible terrorism the reasonable approach was to concentrate on focused police and intelligence work. Blanket measures to ‘protect’ somehow the general populace from nefarious influences were deemed pointless – whatever their legal status might be.
Today, we are facing government initiatives that fly in the face of both our principles and that practical wisdom.
The House of Representatives has passed, and the Senate is reviewing, legislation that explicitly denies Americans the opportunity to view certain television or radio transmissions. H.R. 2278’s stipulated purpose is to “designate as Specially Designated Global Terrorists satellite providers that knowingly and willingly contract with entities designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.”
It would require the Executive to draw up a list of transmission sources that offend by broadcasting material that could endanger the lives of Americans. It is enjoined “to consider state-sponsorship of anti-American incitement to violence when determining the level of assistance to, and frequency and nature of relations with, all states.” Furthermore, the Executive must “urge all governments and private investors who own shares in satellite companies or otherwise influence decisions about satellite transmissions to oppose transmissions of telecasts ….by any Specially Designated Global Terrorist owned and operated stations.”
The relevant agencies would report the results of their monitoring to the Congress periodically Those reports are to include: “a country-by-country list and description of media outlets that engage in anti-American incitement to violence; and a list of satellite companies that carry (those) mediums.”
Any country on whose soil the stations so designated have facilities would be subject to penalties imposed unilaterally by the United States. The targets are mainly stations in the Islamic world. They allegedly are guilty of “incitement of violence against American citizens.”
(H.R. 2278) – What exactly constitutes incitement is unavoidably cloudy. In the abstract that could range from calls to attack specific targets to reporting on events that may evoke (among some) anger against the United States government. In this latter category one might place vivid accounts of civilian casualties from American military actions, exposure of clandestine operations by Xe (ne Blackwater) that target individuals for assassination, or revelation of abusive treatment of prisoners. The extreme difficulty of establishing the boundaries of communication that ‘incites’ terrorism has a two-fold implication.
First, it empowers the government to censor material that has only a remote, conjectural connection to any unlawful action. That power risks being used to protect the government from revelation of actions that are illegal and/or counter to national interests. The record of the ‘war on terrorism’ is rife with such cases where the suppression of information was indeed so motivated. The current ban that prevents American cable companies from providing access to al-Jazeera is the case in point.
Second, censorship infringes on the public’s right to know. That is to say, to know of policies that it may find objectionable on various grounds and to know of the consequences abroad from the execution of such policies. If parts of the Islamic world are irate over some action we have taken, then that information should be available to the American public. That is one consideration that legitimately may figure in the judgments made by an informed citizenry on the actions of its leaders. In addition, broad stroke prohibitions on what we can hear or see denies us the opportunity to know more fully who precisely is the ‘enemy’ and, more important, who is not. For censorship would serve to deepen the gross simplifications which already abound that all of ‘them’ are the enemy.
The adverse effects are magnified by the fact that the satellite stations targeted by the bill include some of the most widely viewed in the Arab world. H.R. 2278 sanctions will directly impact satellite carriers, Nilesat and Arabsat. The former is owned by the Egyptian government, while the latter is owned by the Arab League. They are not fringe outfits. Together they provide broadcast services to an Arab audience of nearly 350 million. In the words of Freedom House, “If the Senate passes such bill, the U.S. would have contributed to obstructing freedom of the press in the Arab World.” In short, the United States is trying to impose extraterritorial censorship on what other peoples may see and hear.
Once censorship is validated for certain purposes in certain circumstances, the door is open to censorship for any purpose in any circumstance. It sets legal and political precedents for restricting the individual’s right to know. To start down that road is to risk encroaching on freedoms central to our democracy.
We should take special care to exercise prudence in these matters because the tenor of the times post-9/11 is permissive of abuses of all kinds. Fear and dread are potential enemies of liberty just as they are a threat to truth. The impulse to do something, to do anything is strong. The readiness to cast aside inhibitions and constraints are equally strong. The events of 9/11 traumatized Americans. Understandably so. In the intervening years, as a mature nation we should have regained a sense of proportion as to the magnitude and likelihood of the threat, what are reasonable precautions against repetition, and what are excesses. The counsel of prudence reminds us that the invasion/occupation of Iraq increased the danger to Americans of terrorism. So, too, did torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The benefits in terms of operational intelligence have been near zero – by the testimony of FBI Director Robert Mueller and General Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. The sobering truth is that the suspension of our laws and principles gained us nothing of practical value while costing us substantially by creating fresh incentives for those who wish us ill and by recruiting new adherents to that cause. Many Americans crave absolute security. That is unreachable. The futile attempt to achieve it, though, can inflict serious injury on the body politic.
Lashing out at television and radio broadcasting in the age of the Internet is indicative of policy driven by rampant emotion rather than deliberate thought.
The conclusion is clear: censorship of the kind incorporated in House bill H.R. 2278 sacrifices freedom for illusory security gains. Let us bear in mind the warning contained in the oft quoted remark that “a terrorist act’s most damaging effects result from the explosion of stupidity that it ignites.”
Michael Brenner Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh; a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins in Washington, D.C., and contributor to research and consulting projects on Euro-American security and economic issues. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union.