Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

If the FBI works to shut down independent journalism Web sites that are critical of U.S. policy, isn't that news?

COMMENTARY | October 14, 2004

Journalists' organizations outside the U.S. are up in arms, but there's been hardly a peep here.

By John Hanrahan

Agence France-Presse thought it was news. So did the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper. Likewise BBC News, which reported that the FBI in cooperation with U.K. authorities had on October 7 "shut down some 20 sites which were part of an alternative media network known as Indymedia." But coverage of this significant, ominous event has thus far drawn almost total silence from the U.S. news media.

Journalists’ organizations, though, have viewed with much alarm the seizure in Britain of two web servers belonging to Rackspace, a U.S. web-hosting service that hosts some 20 Indymedia Web sites in 17 countries, including ones in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Portugal, Brazil and Uruguay.

"We have witnessed an intolerable and intrusive international police operation against a network specializing in independent journalism," Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, was quoted as saying. "The way this has been done smacks more of intimidation of legitimate journalistic inquiry than crime-busting."

Another international journalists’ organization, Reporters without Borders, condemned the seizure of the Web servers and called on U.S., U.K., Swiss and Italian authorities for an explanation. Reporters Without Borders said the seizure came at the request of the U.S. Justice Department, "which apparently acted at the prompting of Italian and Swiss authorities."

The U.K.’s National Union of Journalists also condemned the seizure, as did Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Opsahl was quoted as saying: "EFF is deeply concerned about the grave implications of this seizure for free speech and privacy, and we are exploring all avenues to hold the [U.S.] government accountable for this improper and unconstitutional silencing of independent media."

But despite the outrage from journalists and privacy rights organizations, this government assault on the press — reported by Indymedia itself on October 7 and then by foreign press outlets as well as on numerous Web sites and weblogs over the next few days — somehow doesn’t resonate with the U.S. news media, according to my online searches. One exception was the little-seen UPI, which picked up the story October 11 from The Guardian. The New York Times and Washington Post, which I read regularly, have breathed not a word of it.

According to the Guardian’s October 11 report, the Web server seizures also "brought down several radio Internet streams," one of which was to be used to stream Web radio coverage of the October 15-17 European Social Forum in London. Indymedia reported early this week that some of its Web sites were still shut down and that some — including one in western Massachusetts — had suffered data losses.

There is plenty in this story for U.S. media to explore. Overseas news reports to date have stated it is not known why or where the servers were taken, or exactly who had ordered the seizure or why. Rackspace, possibly under a gag order, would not disclose to Indymedia or the press what — if anything — it knew about the seizure order, stating only that it had complied with the order as a good corporate citizen. The Guardian reported only that the FBI is "understood to have been acting on an order issued on Thursday [October 7] under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, which establishes procedures for countries to assist each other in investigations such as international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering."

One report had an official at the U.S. Embassy in London denying Justice Department or FBI involvement in the seizure, but FBI spokesperson Joe Parris had confirmed to Agence France-Presse last week that it had issued a subpoena to Rackspace in the U.K. "on behalf of a third country."

Indymedia had its own possible theory. It quoted a Swiss prosecutor as saying he had opened a criminal investigation of Indymedia’s coverage of the 2003 G8 Summit in Evian. And an Italian prosecutor quoted by Indymedia said she is investigating Italy Indymedia because it may "support terrorism."

Presumably, if U.S. reporters pursued this story they could determine exactly who ordered this seizure and why ostensibly free-press nations such as the United States and United Kingdom are involved in such a nefarious business.

This isn’t the first run-in Indymedia has had with the FBI. Previously, according to press reports, FBI agents visited Indymedia workers in the United States to ask about publication on a French Indymedia Web site of photographs of Swiss undercover police taking pictures of protesters. Indymedia speculated that this earlier visit might be related to the seizure of the Web servers.

Indymedia (short for Independent Media Center) was formed in 1999 to report on the anti-globalization protests in Seattle from a grassroots perspective. It has since grown into a worldwide network of 140 locally-based sites. It describes itself as "a collective of independent media organizations and hundreds of journalists offering grassroots, non-corporate coverage. Indymedia is a democratic media outlet for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate feelings of truth." Reporters without Borders described Indymedia as "an international media network that operates without central editorial control and on which users can freely post their messages."

Indymedia contributors write sympathetically on antiwar and anti-globalization protests, as well as on issues of human rights, the environment, labor and minorities. It covers international and national news events in the various countries in which it operates, as well as providing local news stories relating to corporate and human rights issues, among others.

Major U.S. news media correctly gave prominent news coverage to the recent action by a federal judge ordering New York Times reporter Judith Miller to jail (subject to appeal) for refusing to name her sources before a grand jury investigating press disclosures of the name of a CIA agent.

But as serious Miller’s case is, isn’t it even more ominous for freedom of the press when a police agency — operating either in the United States or internationally — can shut down news outlets that are critical of the U.S. government and other western governments, and thereby chill free expression?

And would major U.S. news media have been as silent on this story if, say, federal agents seized the Internet servers of The New York Times, or Wall Street Journal, or Los Angeles Times, rather than those of a radical, non-mainstream news and opinion operation?

Now you would think that the major U.S. news media would have at least a passing interest in press freedom. Or in this era of fright is it just "not news" when government authorities — our own and our allies — shut down the free flow of information and otherwise intimidate alternative press voices? The Indymedia shutdown stinks to high heaven and contains more than a whiff of totalitarianism, but perhaps even worse is the silence of the major U.S. news media.


The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.