From the Editor
by Paul Wright
It has been said that freedom of the press is neither free nor cheap. On January 5, 2015, a trial commenced in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee, Florida. Prison Legal News is suing the Florida Department of Corrections for censoring and banning our publication in all Florida prisons starting in 2009, supposedly due to our advertising content.
The Florida DOC, alone among other prisons and jails in America, claims that PLN’s advertising threatens its prison system – the same prison system which has seen its former Secretary of Corrections and dozens of other employees go to prison for corruption. The same prison system where staff routinely murder prisoners in the most brutal manner. The same prison system which has seen its prisoner medical death rate go from an average of 35 a year to over 340 a year after privatizing its healthcare services. The same prison system that has gone through five Secretaries in the past decade.
Unlike the Florida DOC, nothing that PLN has ever written or advertised has harmed anyone, much less seen them beaten to death, as was Florida death row prisoner Frank Valdez – and all the guards charged with his murder were acquitted – or scalded to death like mentally ill Florida prisoner Darren Rainey in 2012, and three years later no prison staff have been charged in his murder.
With the exception of the court reporter during our trial against the Florida DOC, I was probably the only person in the courtroom not currently sworn to uphold the constitution. All of the lawyers involved, including the three from the Attorney General’s office, as officers of the court, are sworn to uphold it. The Florida DOC officials who censor PLN and hundreds of other publications, and oversee the murder of prisoners in their care on a monotonous basis, are required to uphold the constitution, too. Yet they were duly being paid by Florida taxpayers to censor and crush our free speech rights and defend their actions in court.
On January 7, the third day of the PLN trial, the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo, a leftist satirical magazine in Paris, France, were attacked by masked gunmen and the editor and 11 other people were killed, including two policemen. Eleven were wounded, including other magazine employees. The attacks were apparently carried out by Muslim jihadis in retaliation for cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo that satirized Muslim militants and Islam. Within days, President Barack Obama and the leaders of most countries had condemned the attack and were beating the drum of free speech and freedom of the press. Meanwhile, back at home government officials are busy crushing the free speech rights of others, including PLN.
This is the first time in my lifetime that I recall a U.S. president purporting to mourn the deaths of Communists – journalists or otherwise. But not, apparently, enough to attend their funerals in France along with 44 other world leaders, or even to send a senior U.S. official to attend a memorial march in Washington, DC, blocks from the White House, mourning this vile attack on members of the media. Fortunately, Obama’s minimalist comment on the Charlie Hebdo murders did not mention or evoke any defense of free speech or freedom of the press. Fortunate, that is, given the derision that both notions currently attract from the U.S. government.
The concern for Charlie Hebdo is new. The magazine was started in 1970 after its predecessor magazine, Hari Kiri, was banned by the French government for mocking the death of former French president Charles de Gaulle. I don’t remember anyone in the U.S. government expressing their concern when Hari Kiri was banned. Bernard Willem Holtrop, a cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo who survived the attack, told the news media: “We vomit on those who suddenly declared that they were our friends.”
It is also interesting that President Obama would express any concern over the murder of journalists given that the U.S. government is pretty good at killing them itself. Rather than recite a long list, I went to the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists, www.cpj.org, and they note 165 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the U.S. invaded that country in 2003. From 16 to 20 of those journalists were slain by U.S. forces, including Namir Noor Eldeen, a reporter for Reuters killed in 2007 in an airstrike by U.S. helicopters along with his driver, Saeed Chmagh, and ten other people. The deaths were confirmed in a video published by Wikileaks.
The person who leaked the video, Chelsea Manning, has been convicted and imprisoned while the U.S. military killers remain free. Waleed Kaled, another Reuters reporter, was killed in 2005 after U.S. troops opened fire on his vehicle. Al Jazeera reporter Tereq Ayyoub was killed in 2003 when a U.S. missile struck the media organization’s Baghdad bureau office. Another seven media support workers have been slain in Iraq by U.S. forces since 2003.
Some might say that accidents happen in war zones, and while President Nixon may have plotted to kill Washington, DC journalist Jack Anderson by having LSD smeared on the steering wheel of his car, that was a long time ago and American presidents don’t do that anymore. Except when they do.
Samir Khan, the U.S.-born editor of the Al Qaeda online magazine Inspire, was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011. The Department of Justice issued a memo justifying the murder of American citizens abroad; apparently, publishing an online magazine is deemed to be an act of terrorism when the U.S. government disapproves of its content, and the penalty is death by drone strike. Like the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the only due process Khan received was the act of being murdered by those annoyed at what he had to say.
In 1999, U.S. Air Force tomahawk cruise missiles slammed into the TV studios of Television Serbia during the U.S. and NATO attack on Yugoslavia, killing 16 television station employees and injuring another 16. The United States’ justification was that the TV station was broadcasting “pro government propaganda,” thus justifying its destruction. Under that criteria, almost every TV station in the United States would merit destruction. Fox News and CNN would be piles of smoking rubble.
Imprisonment is tougher to excuse, because unlike killings they are not split-second decisions even if they were plotted beforehand. Salah Hassan is an Al Jazeera journalist who was held in solitary and tortured by the U.S. Army at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Sami Al Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman, was tortured and held without charges at Guantanamo Bay for seven years. Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein was held in U.S. military prisons in Iraq for two years before being released in 2008.
Things are not much better on the domestic front. Since 1945, at least 11 people have been prosecuted under the almost 100-year-old Espionage Act for leaking information to the press. Seven of those prosecutions have been during the Obama administration, and numerous journalists have been held in contempt and jailed for refusing to disclose or testify against their sources.
Today, PLN is pursuing lawsuits to defend the free speech rights of the media to access prisoners and of prisoners to access the media in the states of Florida and Nevada, and in jails in Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee, California, Virginia and New Mexico, among others. We are suing jails that ban books and magazines, and jails that ban all letters from prisoners’ family members and friends. Incredibly, in 2015 we are still defending a 15th century means of communication. And, of course, in Florida we are defending the basic and fundamental right of a magazine to carry advertising – a right that predates the First Amendment itself. Sadly, because we are being censored and repressed by government officials in America, we don’t have world leaders offering their support.
Free speech is not free, nor is it cheap. If you believe in the notion of a free press, one that stands up for its rights and those of its readers, then I hope you will take the time to make a donation to Prison Legal News. Year in and year out, we remain the only publication in the U.S. that regularly, and at enormous cost, stands up to censorship by prison and jail officials and fights for the rights of the press and prisoners alike. Free speech is just as important in the prisons of America as it is in the streets of Paris. Maybe someday we will live in a country that respects the free speech rights of all its citizens and of a critical media. But not today.
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