By Al Giordano
Your correspondent was four days off the airplane in July 1997, a 37-year-old gringo navigating Mexico City with a Spanish-English dictionary in one hand and a map in the other and arrived at the city square, El Zócalo, at the six p.m. hour. From there, the Todo Para Todos (“Everything for Everyone”) caravan would leave for somewhere in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast, and I had signed up to go with them to Zapatista territory in Chiapas.
The chilangos (Mexico City dwellers) in charge of the caravan, like many urban folks all over the world, talked fast, very fast, and communicating with them in my barely existent Spanish while having to consult the dictionary, I’m sure, was as much a pain in the neck for them as it was difficult for me. I was quickly reassigned from the main bus carrying most of the caravanistas – heading to the indigenous rebel town of Oventik, to conduct work projects in solidarity with the then-three-year-old revolution – to a covered pick-up truck. The driver, an older man named don Miguel, welcomed me and my dangling cigarette with two words, which he spoke in English: “No Smoking.”
The folks in the truck were not chilangos, they were country people, from the provinces of Mexico, and thus spoke slower and more understandably for this gringo and his dictionary appendage. They did not seem as bothered as the city slickers by their new companion’s difficulty with the language and his foreign ways, and seemed to view me as, at least, a source of entertainment and someone to laugh at during what was then a 22-hour trip out of Mexico City through the states of Mexico, Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca and its Isthmus of Tehuantepec and finally winding through the mountains of Chiapas to get to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, where we would receive training and instructions for how to conduct ourselves on Zapatista lands. Today, there are new highways and the same trip takes just fourteen hours, but the old route offered a much better look at the towns, flora, fauna and humanity along the way than any highway can possibly reveal.
My efforts to steal a quick smoke during every pit stop made my pickup-truck hosts uproarious with laughter. We’d pull into a PEMEX gas station and don Miguel would make hand gestures with the sound of a big explosion to portray what would happen if I smoked near the gas pumps, and so I would trot over to the roadside to light my cigarette. It was an all night drive and I barely remembered that there was also an elderly guy who was sleeping in the back of the truck while I was doing my best to communicate with, and not be an annoyance to, don Miguel and don Tacho and other solidarity volunteers in the front two rows of seats of the truck.
In the mountains of Oaxaca the winding road went through various tunnels and at one point a rainstorm made it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. Don Miguel stopped the vehicle inside one of those tunnels and I quickly jumped out in need of nicotine. While fumbling through what was then a 45-cent pack of Faros cigarettes, the truck suddenly began to pull away, and I went running after it yelling, first in English, then in bad Spanish. Miguel quickly realized he had left the gringo behind and put on the brakes as I ran to catch up. When I got back in, Miguel and Tacho and the others were laughing their asses off. As we emerged from the tunnel – the rain had already stopped – Miguel smiled and said, “You’ve just been through the tunnel of time!” And they laughed some more.
Daylight hit somewhere along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and during a brief pitstop this curious little man – about four-feet-eight-inches tall – emerged from the back of the truck. He inspected some banana trees by the side of the road and looked at them with big eyes, motioning to me and saying something I didn’t understand while touching the long green leaves. That was my first encounter with don Andrés, who then invited me to the back of the truck with him, where I could chain smoke with his gracious permission.
In trying to talk with this seemingly ancient being I kept apologizing for my bad Spanish. He put his finger over his mouth and said not to worry, that it was his second language, too. Empathy was not something I had yet experienced as a gringo newly in Mexico. I thought it inspiring that an eighty-something farmer from somewhere North of Mexico City would want to make this long voyage all the way to Chiapas to be with the Zapatista rebels, but I didn't yet know why.
For the next three weeks I followed don Andrés around like a puppy dog while everyone around us – about fifty caravanistas, and a village of a few hundred indigenous Tzotzil men, women, children and elders – made regular comments about the old man and his “gringo son,” usually while laughing, which I never knew if it was at me or with me.
One day don Miguel came to me and said that he and don Andrés were heading down the mountain into San Cristóbal for a meeting with Bishop Samuel Ruiz, and would I like to join them? The Bishop – one of the pioneers, since the 1940s, of the Liberation Theology movement, and the one that historians wrote had invented its branch of “Indigenist Theology,” was one of the major personalities of the saga between the Zapatista rebels and the “evil government,” as they called it, of Mexico, often a mediator and a big part of what had been signed, two years prior, as the San Andrés Peace Accords for indigenous autonomy.
Bishop Samuel received my new friends warmly, and treated don Andrés with great deference, like a visiting head of state. When we left the meeting I asked don Miguel, pointing to don Andrés, “Who is this guy? The Bishop seemed in awe of him.” Miguel just smiled. Returning to the pickup truck, Miguel reached for a large overstuffed envelope and pulled out a series of press clippings, with photos of the founding of the Indigenous National Congress which had don Andrés at the side of the Zapatista Comandanta Ramona and other native leaders in the rainbow colors of distinct traditional clothing of their peoples.
And so I finally realized that this very old guy whom I had been with for the past three weeks, the one who was nicest to me and least bothered by the ways in which I was different and foreign was also apparently a big fucking deal in the modern history of Mexico. And yet, to me, he was already something else: my first real friend in a new and unfamiliar country.
When after almost a month it came time for Miguel, Andrés and company to return home while I would remain behind in Chiapas, I had to fight tears while saying goodbye, worrying that I’d never see this special old man again, and we parted ways. He was 87, after all, and how much longer could he possibly live? Two hours later, walking through the streets of San Cristóbal, I turned a corner and there he was again! Don Andrés, with Miguel, still collecting rations for their long trip ahead, and there I got the idea that “goodbye” just wasn’t something to be said yet with the elder. I considered it a good omen that we would meet again.
Over the following years, don Andrés and I traveled together – usually with don Miguel and his truck – through a dozen Mexican states, stopping to visit elders of indigenous groups who were part of the Congress with him: Otomi-Nañu, Mazahua, Purépecha, Zapoteco, Mixteco, Huichol, Amuzgo, Maya and of course the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal and Chol of Chiapas. Around 1999, don Andrés took me to Jalisco for a peyote ceremony led by Emerson Jackson of the Dineh (Navajo) peoples of the American Southwest, where I was pressed into service as a translator between the English-speaking indigenous leader and the Spanish-speaking attendees; a task in which the physical and mental effects of the ceremonial and hallucinogenic cactus seemed to make easier, not harder, interestingly, and, besides, my Spanish – which don Andrés so patiently had shepherded in its earliest days – was much more fluent by then.
Don Andrés ninetieth birthday was celebrated in November of 2000 in my home which was then in an indigenous town of Central Mexico. It was in that little house that Narco News was born. Some leaders of the Indigenous National Congress trekked many hours to be there and salute to the health of their eldest member. There, I read him my first poem in Spanish, “Mi General,” the term with which I addressed him so many thousands of times over these years.
In 2003, don Andrés was a professor at the first Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, in Mérida, Yucatán and on the isle of Isla Mujeres. There, don Andrés met and chewed coca leaf with the Bolivian indigenous leader Felipe Quispe – El Mallku, or Great Condor – as well as Alvaro Garcia Linera, now vice president of Bolivia, as well as students and professors from many other lands. He invited one of the students, Ava Salazar, back to his town of San Bartolomé, Guanajuato, who would later marry his grandson, Juan, and have two of don Andrés’ great grandchildren, born in the USA.
When don Andrés and I would travel together, people would tend to stop and stare at this little man, on the street or in the markets, and when those passersby were of the “hippie” or “New Age” tendencies they’d usually say something like, “Oooh, look at how his eyes shine! He must be a shaman!” And while it is true that don Andrés knew encyclopedias worth of things about medicinal plants and ancient healing practices, and he would indulge the strange philosophical and even self-help questions that strangers often asked him, Andrés never once claimed to be a “shaman” or “medicine man” or anything like that. To the contrary, he disliked such terms, almost revealing a fear of them, as if they carried the connotation of “witch” and anyone defined as such might be hunted down by an angry mob and burned at a stake. I had always guessed that he had lived long enough to see that sort of thing. From that, and from my experiences watching so many hucksters and fakers sell themselves to dewy-eyed tourists as such, usually with a fee or financial transaction involved, I concluded: Anybody who tells people he is a “shaman,” by definition, can’t possibly be one. Thank you, don Andrés, for that lesson, too.
At the end of so many days, in so many parts of his country, don Andrés loved more than anything to talk politics and strategy. We would sip mescal and speak late into those nights of the country’s social movements, their strategies, their tactics, often with other elders from other ethnicities, who seemed so much to enjoy the same. That was, I think, his greatest passion, formed by a lifetime of experiences, some of which you can read about in Erin Rosa and Fernando León’s profile of don Andrés on his hundredth birthday, a month ago.
A Mexican anthropology student, who had once witnessed some of these adventures, said to me, “Do you understand what access you have? Everybody in my school would die to have this kind of access.” I found her question both funny and sad. “What you call ‘access,’” I replied, “I call friendship.” And I remembered an afternoon in 1988, in the suburban Boston home of the Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes where he had granted me an interview about ethnobotany that ended up lasting eight hours. Schultes had “discovered” for the academic world various hallucinogenic plants and had lived with Amazon tribes in South America, one of which had inducted him officially one of its own, through a ceremony that involved pricking his finger and “sharing” his blood with that of the finger of a tribal elder.
Schultes told me, on that day, “A botanist or a zoologist has a big advantage over an anthropologist when among native peoples. The anthropologist is always asking silly questions like ‘Why do you braid your hair that way?’ And people generally respond to them, ‘Because we’ve always braided our hair that way.’ The anthropologist is always looking at these people as something ‘other’ than them. But a botanist or a zoologist shares an interest – plants and animals – with people in the jungle. And in the course of studying these things alongside of these people who are also interested in them, eventually it is the botanist – and not the anthropologist – who casually finds out, also, why the natives might braid their hair a certain way, along with so many more important things to learn.”
Between don Andrés and I, his “gringo sidekick,” as some mutual friends liked to say, I never saw him as an object to be studied. I just genuinely loved him and being with him and those long night sessions of talking politics, organizing and strategy. That was our “botany,” in Schultes’ terms, our shared interest, upon which our friendship grew.
Seeing don Andrés last November 30, on his hundredth birthday, was not easy for me. This great man – the littlest giant! – could no longer see, or hear. One had to shout in his left ear and then only sometimes he would understand what was said. At that moment he did know that there were young people around him so he sat up straight on what this first morning of 2011 would be his death bed and began making a speech to the young people, who he seemed to think were Mexican and seeking his counsel about migrating to the United States. He told stories of when he had worked picking cotton near Pecos, Texas, and the mistreatment of the migrant workers he had experienced, and issued stern warnings and dos and don’ts about how to behave “on the other side” of the Rio Bravo.
At one point, don Andrés asked the group around him, “Do you know my friend Alberto? Do you have news from him?” His son Pepe, his daughter Carolina, grandaughter Lupe, and don Miguel took turns shouting in his ear, “He’s here! Alberto is here!” But don Andrés didn’t hear them and kept asking for me as I sat there helpless to establish my presence. He soon grew tired and fell asleep, and we went out with his family to celebrate his birthday while he napped.
Hours later, he awakened, and we entered his room again. This time he could hear a little bit more when I shouted in his ear. This time he recognized my voice, said my name, and his eyes, already blind, got that big childlike stare that I first saw on that roadside in 1997 as he looked at the banana trees.
“Alberto,” he said, grasping my hand firmly, “I think it will be very difficult for us to see each other again.” And then he launched into a litany of questions about the Zapatistas of Chiapas, about other friends in other movements in other parts of the country. When I answered him, he was unable to hear my responses. I was glad he was unable to see my tears. Just as quickly, he fell back asleep.
A while later, don Miguel approached me to report that Andrés was awake again, and would I like to have my photo taken with him? No, I replied, I don’t want to remember him like this, so weak and helpless: we have so many other memories from when he was strong and sharp and ready to take on and defeat the entire establishment. And then I confided in Miguel that Andrés, in his way, had said goodbye, and that I didn’t expect him to survive the year. And we looked at each other helplessly, knowing there was nothing we could do to stop it.
Well, once again don Andrés has proved me wrong. He did survive all of 2010 and hung on until the earliest hours of 2011, when he checked out of this hotel called earth. He chose the seventeenth anniversary of the Zapatista rebellion to be his final moment among us. I would have so liked to have been able to tell him of the people’s victory, yesterday, in Bolivia, where after the social movements mobilized to repeal an 82 percent rise in gasoline prices, where President Evo Morales (and don Andrés old friend Alvaro) acquiesced to an organized people’s demands. But, in a way, yes, I’m quite sure don Andrés was there. Like Joe Hill, where people fight and organize, it’s there we’ll find don Andrés.
Goodbye, mi general.
By Al Giordano
Normally when you read “seasons greetings” in a media publication, it probably means the writer has his bags packed and is on his way out the door to a ski lodge or beach cottage, leaving the junior associates behind to cover any news that might happen over the holidays, a season when so many of the "news makers" have also disappeared from the public stage.
But whether it’s a New Year’s Eve indigenous rebellion or an early summer coup d’etat, time and experience have taught us that “vacation seasons” are sometimes when hard news breaks wide open and has to be reported quickly and accurately. We never know, for example, when one of our journalists might be illegally arrested and we have to work fast to get him out, as occurred on Friday with Gianni Proiettis in Chiapas, Mexico. This sort of thing has happened regularly over the years and when one of our journalists is at risk, the world stops for us and we focus all our "firepower" on getting him or her out of harm's way. Speed and sunlight are what has rescued our journalists time and time again.
This holiday season, I’ll be staffing the news desk and continuing with the extensive planning for the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism, the development of its curriculum with our 36-plus professors, and the scouting and recruitment of scholarship applicants.
If you haven’t yet read the announcement of next May’s Narco News J-School, it’s worth a read, because you or someone you know could be an ideal candidate to attend this free ten-day intensive training session in investigative journalism, online reporting, viral video production and movement strategies for journalists. In letter after letter after letter (and after letter after letter after letter after letter, and those are just some of ‘em), graduates of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalist have referred to their time here as a life changing experience, and have urged you to contribute to make it possible for more journalists to benefit from this training. We think that’s great, especially since we’ve watched so many who have been through its doors go on to publish so many vital reports of immense international importance, again and again and again.
The end of each year is also a time to reflect, to assess what we’ve learned and done, to resolve to always improve, and to appreciate everybody who has helped, in ways large and small, to produce an impressive body of work in 2010. Let’s count ‘em: 193 original reports, about as many original translations, 22 video newsreels, the training of 73 graduates of the School of Authentic Journalism, and the good works that so many of them have continued to do since last February in every corner of the planet.
This was only made possible because so many of you (and you know who you are) contributed a few bucks here and there, distributed our alerts widely, Twittered and Facebooked our reports, and spread the word among friends and family that there is this thing called Narco News, called the Narcosphere, called The Field, called the School of Authentic Journalism, named Bill Conroy, named Erin Rosa, named Fernando León, named Al, and with so many other names that have brought their truth to our truth here, where, together, we continue constructing a bigger truth.
So if I haven’t said thanks loudly or often enough, let me sing it from the mountaintop: THANK YOU.
We love doing this, our life’s work, it doesn’t matter at all that after ten years we’re still not getting rich doing it. That wasn’t why we started in the first place. We began because, in the year 2000, journalism was dying and there was no place to practice authentic journalism, so we had to invent a home for it.
It’s a humble home, and we still live close to the land, with low overhead, and probably always will. The only safety net we have is each other, the international network and alliance in which you are part of that “we.”
As the end of this year approaches – and, to repeat, we’re not going anywhere; we’ll be reporting the news just as alertly during this holiday season as we do every other time of year – and you reflect upon your own 2010, we hope you’ll share in our pride and good cheer over what we’ve accomplished, with your collaboration, and what we will continue to do into 2011 and beyond.
As our 2010 graduate (returning as a professor in 2011) Milena Velis wrote last week:
“When I applied for the School of Authentic Journalism, I was a stressed out, confused, and newly minted reporter trying to understand what the hell was going on in the journalism ‘industry’ I had so recently joined. With little experience or training, I had found myself covering the entire city of Philadelphia as part of a staff of two reporters for a local Spanish language weekly...
“I felt like no one knew how to answer the questions I was struggling to answer each day. What’s the relationship between journalism and organizing? Should journalism be objective? How do you communicate when you don’t own a newspaper or a TV station? And who gets to call themselves a journalist anyway?
“When I got off a plane in Cancun, and traveled to the campus at a nearby undisclosed location, I got a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet and learn from the very people who could help answer my questions, and more…”
And so, kind reader, I have an assignment for you as the year turns: Go out there and find us our next Milena, our next Fernando, our next Erin, your next correspondent, and encourage him and her to apply for the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism, because the work they do won’t just be ours, but it will belong to you, too, and to everyone else on this earth.
You probably already know somebody who is like that: someone with immense dedication, social conscience and talent, with communications skills, and with a desire to improve those skills to be able to do something meaningful with his or her life and who will not settle for anything less. Is that you who we’re talking about? Then request an application for the May 2011 School of Authentic Journalism by sending an email to email@example.com (for Spanish language applications, write firstname.lastname@example.org ). Completed applications are due January 23, 2011.
And if that person isn’t you, chances are you know – or know of – somebody who is like that. Maybe it’s a family member or a friend. Maybe it’s somebody whose work you read or viewed on the Internet or in other media. It might be that person who always seems to show up with a camera in hand or who chronicles human events on her or his blog or social networking pages. Every community has somebody like that. But here’s a little secret they don’t always let show: People who do this work often feel quite alone in it, and they may not know yet that this world is filled with so many others just like them, each in their own communities, and that the chance is coming up in May 2011 to meet many of the best of them, share with them, learn from them, and never walk alone in this work again.
And if this is a gift-giving season for you, we hope you’ll remember our friends at The Fund for Authentic Journalism, founded and managed by readers of Narco News, all who whom are volunteers, who use every penny and peso of your contributions to support these projects in authentic journalism.
Likewise, if you’re in the position to benefit from tax-deductible contributions for the year 2010, The Fund is a 501c3 organization and will be happy to provide you, on request, with a receipt for your records.
At the end of any year, we’re all besieged by appeals for donations from many worthwhile ventures. We want to support them all, but we can’t. One of the questions many of us ask ourselves when considering which project to support is this: Which is going to provide the greater return on our investment? Narco News’ School of Authentic Journalism – the only project like it on earth, one which confronts and solves the problem of media in our times like no other project does – guarantees that your gift will multiply and grow, through the works of our graduates for years, even decades, to come. You can be 100 percent certain that you’ll be proud to have donated. What other project can make you such an ironclad guarantee?
Additionally, your contribution along with those of others, up to $20,000, will be matched. Your investment will be doubled immediately, and then continue to work, and work hard, for truth-telling investigative journalism, freedom of speech, human rights, authentic democracy, justice and freedom. A donation to The Fund for Authentic Journalism? Priceless!
You probably know the drill already. You can donate online at this link:
Or you can send a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
PO Box 1446
Easthampton, MA 01027 USA
I sincerely hope this and all seasons are good ones for you, if you’re with friends or family or both (or if you’re a grunt like me remaining at your post because “somebody has to do it”), I, and the entire Narco News Team, wish you the best and an even better year to come.
You, our readers, are the only “Santa” we’ve ever had. This year we leave cookies and milk by the fireplace – aw, we’ll leave something a little stronger than that, too - and a hand-written note requesting not just material gifts, but human ones: candidates for the next graduating class, the next generation of authentic journalists… the gifts that keep on giving.
From somewhere in a country called América,
By Al Giordano
Narco News School of Authentic Journalism professor Mercedes Osuna reported moments ago from outside the offices of the attorney general of the state of Chiapas in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, in Mexico's southernmost state, that Monica Mendoza, the personal secretary of the assistant attorney general Jorge Javier Colebro Damas, emerged in recent minutes to speak with family, friends and attorneys for Gianni Proiettis.
On behalf of the prosecutor's office, "she apologized," Osuna told us via cell phone. "She said it was a case of mistaken identity."
Proiettis will, according to the prosecutor's office, be released momentarily with no charges filed against him.
We would like to thank all the people, journalists, readers and colleagues, who spread the word, rallied and drew global attention to the illegal arrest of Proiettis, a journalist for Il Manifiesto, Liberacion and Narco News, among other publications.
And we remind the governments of the world: This is not the first time you've screwed up. Multiple arrests have been made over the past decade of our reporters by states that were not happy with our reporting. And in every single case, our journalists have been freed within 24 hours, after speedy, voluminous and global organizing campaigns to liberate them, with no charges pending. This international network of authentic journalists will never leave one of its own undefended. Come for one of us, and we're all coming right back at you.
By Al Giordano
Photo taken in January 2010 by journalist Gianni Proiettis during interview with family members of assassinated anti-mining organizer Mariano Albarca in Chicomuselo, Chiapas, Mexico. DR 2010 Gianni Proiettis.
Gianni Proiettis walked out the door of his San Cristóbal de Las Casas, home at one p.m. today and on his way to the corner store, neighbors witnessed three uniformed men in an unmarked white vehicle kidnap Proiettis and take him away. When family members and friends went to the Chiapas state police headquarters in that city to report the crime, they found that Proiettis was being held by those same police, and was being transported to the state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
Asked by family members and an attorney what crime he is charged with, authorities said only that Proiettis had been present last week in Cancún (twelve hours away, where he had been covering, along with many other reporters, the climate summit meetings and protests for the Italian newspaper, Il Manifiesto).
Proiettis, an Italian native who resides in Mexico legally on a work visa, is a professor of history at the state university - Autonomous University of Chiapas (UNACH, in its Spanish initials) - and has resided in San Cristóbal de Las Casas since 1993. During those 17 years he has reported regularly for Il Manifiesto, for the French publication Liberación and since 2006, for Narco News, among other publications. A tall, thin, soft spoken man with white hair and goatee, Gianni also teaches at an eco-tourism project in the Chiapas town of Venustiano Carranza, site of numerous conflicts in recent years between the state government and nonviolent townspeople. Gianni also reported earlier this year, for Narco News, on struggles against international mining companies in Chiapas.
A January 23, 2010 report in Narco News by Proiettis, an interview with the father of assassinated Chiapas anti-mining leader Mariano Abarca, was particularly bothersome to Canadian mining company Blackfire Exploration, LTD, and state officials that act to protect the company.
Given that they wer state, and not federal, officials who took Proiettis, and that hundreds of national and international reporters also covered events in Cancún last week, it seems highly improbable that his attendance there as one reporter could be the real motive or a legal pretext for his arrest.
Attorneys are now moving for an ampáro – a special protective order under Mexican law – to prevent authorities from continuing to hold Proiettis and also to bar them from deporting him from the country where he has resided for almost two decades.
Narco News considers an attack on the press freedom of Gianni Proiettis or any of our journalists to be an attack upon all and we will not rest until our colleague is free and his rights under law are reestablished. We are alerting our international network of journalists and friends and inform authorities that if they hoped they would be able to attack the press freedom of this journalist quietly, that has already become impossible. We will be monitoring this situation 24/7 and posting updates here when we encounter new information and until Gianni Proiettis is freed.
By Al Giordano
I hope this this story we published today isn't the last interview that WikiLeaks' Julian Assange will be able to give. After all, US Army soldier Bradley Manning, accused of leaking more than 250,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks, has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest, denied access to news organizations. There are people in power that would like to see Assange silenced the same way, or worse.
The interview was conducted yesterday by Brazilian journalist Natalia Viana, graduate of the 2004 Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, now co-chair, with Bill Conroy, of our investigative journalism program. It's a rare exclusive interview with an important newsmaker who doesn't give them often, and it was his final interview before his arrest this morning by British police pending hearings on his extradition to Sweden.
At today's US State Department press briefing, official spinner P.J. Crowley rattled sabers: "What we’re investigating is a crime under U.S. law. The provision of 250,000 classified documents from someone inside the government to someone outside the government is a crime. We are investigating it. And as we’ve said, we will hold those responsible fully accountable. That investigation is still ongoing."
For those readers who mainly or only check this page, The Field, this historic interview is yet another reason to put the Narco News front page, also, on your browser list for daily review.
My take on this controversy is very clean cut: Julian Assange did the work that most news organizations do when government documents are sent to us and they are newsworthy. He published them. His legal status is as a journalist, and he enjoys the same First Amendment protections under US law as the New York Times. Therefore, any attempt to prosecute him would be illegal and unconstitutional, and I don't believe it would - or should - survive in court.
I bet the Justice Department knows that also, and thus the screeching by the Secretary of State and her spokesman are no more than public tantrums combined with rattle shaking and pandering to the haters, out of frustration of working for a government with a Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press.
To prosecute WikiLeaks or its staff for practicing journalism would constitute a threat to all journalists and publications. It doesn't matter whether Assange is viewed as a hero, a villain or something human in between, or whether one is happy or not that these documents are coming to public light; under the law, he is a journalist. And that is the standard by which his work must be defended and protected by all journalists, especially the authentic ones.
Read the Julian Assange interview on Narco News, and base your own opinions on the facts.
By Al Giordano
The current media, political and prosecutorial uproar over WikiLeaks’ 250,000-document dump of leaked US State Department cables largely misses the big story altogether.
The story isn’t WikiLeaks per se, nor its founder Julian Assange, nor even the information made public from those documents, interesting and newsworthy though much of it is.
The story – one that defines the times we live in - has been going on for a while now: State power (and that includes private-sector “states” such as corporations and commercial media organizations) can no longer hide behind commercial (and State-owned) media to consolidate and centralize power when citizens deploy decentralized, small scale, and even temporary media resistances outside of those institutions in these ways that make big media irrelevant.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can shout all she wants about the WikiLeaks revelations being somehow “an attack on America.” The New York Times can betray its own Pentagon Papers heritage and former street cred when its columnists like David Brooks mutter inanities like “I don’t think we should have access to the cables.” Amazon can banish WikiLeaks from its servers. INTERPOL can hunt down Assange, deport him to Sweden, which can then extradite him for prosecution in the US. The Justice Department can lock him - or his sources - up in Guantanamo or SuperMax and none of it will stop the institutional bleeding. Behold: Big media’s tourniquet around State and corporate power has shredded into tiny pieces of torn and bloody gauze.
An old order is coming unglued before our very eyes. WikiLeaks is more a symptom than a cause of this gigantic shift away from a big media controlled world of public opinion. It is the latest chapter among many that came before it and many more to come next. And it can be understood by studying a simple law of nature: Life finds a way.
In the 1993 motion picture Jurassic Park (based on the 1990 Michael Crichton novel), that was a phrase repeated over and over again by a nerdy scientist type, played in the movie by Jeff Goldblum: “Life finds a way.” Now, here is a related phrase that we splice upon that credo: “Information is life.” Oh, isn’t that catchy? Aside from that it will probably be stolen by Apple or Microsoft as its next ad campaign slogan, it also happens to be true. Indeed, information behaves very much like life itself. It reproduces, it mutates, it evolves, it can be hunted down, captured, locked up, and even be killed but eventually it always comes back to life anew, just like other forms of life. Understanding that basic truth of our era gives you a front row seat to how the WikiLeaks story – and the rest of the history of our lifetimes - is going to play out.
In that context, let me please rattle off two main observations provoked by the WikiLeaks chapter in this longer saga.
1. If US officials prosecute WikiLeaks under the US Espionage Act, it will result in a “not guilty” verdict.
At today’s US State Department press briefing, official blowhard Philip J. Crowley, asked about the WikiLeaks document dump, growled, “a crime happened under U.S. law and we are going to hold those responsible fully accountable.” Pressed by reporters, he backpedaled to talk mainly about the US employee or employees who allegedly leaked the documents to WikiLeaks. But the tone, like that from other government officials, was meant to intimidate and suggest that “ongoing investigations” could cast a wider net on the messengers, too.
US Attorney General Eric Holder rattled similar sabers this week when he said: "To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law, and who has put at risk the assets and the people that I have described, they will be held responsible. They will be held accountable."
A Wednesday National Public Radio story looked at what US law actually says regarding a possible prosecution of WikiLeaks members:
Washington defense attorney Abbe Lowell said, prosecuting the website WikiLeaks is no slam-dunk.
"The biggest taboo that has been out there, sort of the dirty little secret in the Espionage Act for a long time, has been whether it would ever be used to prosecute somebody in the media, as opposed to the government employee leaking the information,” Lowell said.
The dilemma, Lowell said, is whether WikiLeaks is a member of the media that warrants special free speech protections, or more like a rogue operation dedicated to hurting the U.S.
"What I worry about and what many worry about is that WikiLeaks makes it easy for the law enforcement community to apply this law for the first time, in a precedent-setting way, that can be used against other people in the media," Lowell said.
In fact, the question of whether an Internet site that publishes information on “matters of public concern” enjoys the same First Amendment protections as the New York Times under the law was settled nine years ago this week, on December 5, 2001. How do we know that? It happened when the New York Supreme Court ruled in our favor in the case of Banco Nacional de Mexico v. Mario Menendez, Al Giordano and Narco News. The court ordered:
"Narco News, its website, and the writers who post information, are entitled to all the First Amendment protections accorded a newspaper-magazine or journalist... Furthermore, the nature of the articles printed on the website and Mr. Giordano's statements at Columbia University constitute matters of public concern because the information disseminated relates to the drug trade and its affect on people living in this hemisphere..."
While I’ve never reached the heights of fame-or-infamy that WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has ascended to this week – a candidate for both Time’s Man of the Year and for a prison cell in Sweden or the US or elsewhere – the experience of that court adventure was illuminating on the current topic. Banamex v. Narco News settled, once and for all, that Internet journalists are indeed journalists in the eyes of the law. It set the legal precedent upon which WikiLeaks now stands. The government witchhunt to intimidate WikiLeaks and others like it might even be able to ramp up the hysteria enough to get a lower court to convict the web site or its personnel, but there is no way a conviction survives on appeals.
If WikiLeaks is guilty for having published information leaked by US employees, then we’re guilty too, for having used its documents last week to report Bill Conroy’s story, State Department "Secret Cable" Lays Out U.S. Intelligence-Gathering Agenda in Paraguay, and Erin Rosa’s story, Memo Reveals US State Department Knew Honduras Coup Was Illegal, Did Not Follow Own Advice.
And not only are we guilty, but so is the Spanish daily El Pais, the German daily Der Spiegel, the French daily Le Monde, the British daily Guardian and the US daily New York Times, as well as every other of thousands of news organizations in possession of copies of the leaked documents and that have published and quoted from them. And although some politicians like US Senator John McCain want to take the NY Times to task for having done so, that’s just not going to happen: State power isn’t going to turn against its favorite surviving gatekeeper! And if you can’t prosecute the Times, you can’t win a prosecution vs. WikiLeaks, period.
The officials of State power are angrier than a five percent tip. And they’re not angry because, say, WikiLeaks lied about them. To the contrary, they’re hopping mad because everything in those documents presents an absolutely truthful account of what US officials wrote, and what they reported that officials from other governments said to them and did for them. WikiLeaks put no spin upon them at all. It just laid them out, naked, and hung many of those officials – their career paths, their carefully cultivated reputations – on the petard of their own words. Hey, dudes! Welcome to the NFL and wear a cup. You’re public officials. Your employer – the public – has a legitimate stake in knowing what you’re doing on its dime.
That said, could WikiLeaks and its celebrated founder Assange have done a better job at dealing with this info gold mine that fell on their laps? I don’t know. All I can tell you is how, based on our Banamex case history and other experiences, we would have handled it differently…
2. How we would have done this differently than WikiLeaks did it.
From public relations stunts to court case discovery proceedings, there is a rule of thumb as old as PR itself: If you want to confuse people, or distract them from something you did, give them too much information.
And if you want them to focus on one thing, give them that one thing and nothing else.
Thus, every Friday afternoon, government and corporate press secretaries do “negative information dumps.” That’s when they announce resignations, or disclose scandals, or unfavorable economic reports, usually in the context of lots of competing information being dumped into public view at the same time so that the undesirable story gets drowned in the ocean of data and largely forgotten by Monday morning’s news cycle.
By releasing all 250,000 documents at once, WikiLeaks deprived every single one of those documents of the solitary importance that many of them could and should have had if released on its own, with well reported stories explaining the document’s full context. That is indeed how WikiLeaks first came to the attention of many: when it released a single leaked video from a US military helicopter in Iraq, documenting the assassination by US forces of a journalist. That story had legs, because it was given the space to stand on its own two feet.
Had a treasure trove of documents like this one landed instead on our laps at Narco News, we would do what we’ve always done (and in fact did with two of those documents this week): make them available one at a time, day after day, with reported stories of authentic journalism to bring these “matters of public interest” their full and deserved importance. Then, instead of everyone reading and chattering about whether Muammar al-Gaddafi receives Botox injections or whether someone called Nicolas Sarkozy a pompous ass (and whether he likes being called a pompous ass; we suspect he does!) we might all be talking about something real, like this gem from the WikiLeaks documents, that Slate’s Jack Shafer chose to underline, which reveals why Secretary Clinton responded with over-the-top rhetoric about the WikiLeaks document dump being supposedly an attack on Mom, baseball and apple pie:
How embarrassing are the WikiLeaks leaks? A secret cable from April 2009 that went out under (Secretary of State) Clinton's name instructed State Department officials to collect the "biometric data," including "fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans," of African leaders. Another secret cable directed American diplomats posted around the world, including the United Nations, to obtain passwords, personal encryption keys, credit card numbers, frequent flyer account numbers, and other data connected to diplomats. As the Guardian puts it, the cables "reveal how the US uses its embassies as part of a global espionage network."
Additionally, Clinton's State Department specifically targeted United Nations officials and diplomats posted to the United Nations. Among the targeted were Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and permanent security-council representatives from China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom, as this secret cable from July 2009 lays out. The State Department also sought biometric information on North Korean diplomats, security-council permanent representatives, "key UN officials," and other diplomats at the United Nations.
Whoa! Say what? The US Secretary of State violated the treaties the United States signed to host the United Nations in New York? Had WikiLeaks led with that story all its own, that’s what everybody would be talking about all week long. And instead of Julian Assange’s call for Clinton to resign, it would have come from a thousand surrogates, instead of becoming another free-floating piece of data in the “let’s make Assange look crazy and dangerous” lobby’s arsenal.
As I wrote last week for OpenDemocracy, in an essay titled, Authentic Journalism: Weapon of the People:
Citizen journalism, in some corners, however, has shown it can take from big media what they claim to do and do it better: Go out there and report stories, interview real people, make sure their voices are heard accurately and without distortion, investigate and produce documents and evidence of official wrongdoing (the staggering public support and donations to Wiki-Leaks, for example, indicate a significant hunger and thirst for this kind of reporting). In sum, the solution is no more complicated than embarking on a humble return to the basics of reporting a news story: the proverbial “who, what, when, where, why and how” of what happens each day in human events.
I can certainly understand how it came to be that WikiLeaks didn’t use our approach instead. We’re only in the position to do this after ten years of publishing, of going through legal hell and back again, and after three sessions of the School of Authentic Journalism which give us the necessary small army of skilled reporters of conscience we could call up on waivers to sift through 250,000 documents and State Department cables and be able to devise a strategy that could have been much more devastating for State power, with a daily water torture of one solidly reported story after another coming out, day after day, and providing the necessary public attention and focus on each of the many important ones.
Instead, WikiLeaks chose to “partner up” with the same big five daily newspapers so responsible for the protection of State power in their respective countries (and, yes, all of them will squawk that to the contrary, they’re at odds with governments, but you and I both know how untrue that is). And the overall result is mass confusion that buries all the stories in these documents under a gigantic mound of distraction.
Sure, WikiLeaks has increased the reach of its own brand name. Was that the primary goal? Again, I don't know. But it has also hastened the day by which other, newer ventures, will replace it in the work of making secret documents public, because, fair or not, it is not at all clear that WikiLeaks itself can withstand the intense scrutiny, reaction and repression now upon it. We’re sympathetic to WikiLeaks. We oppose those attacking it. We will defend it from spurious prosecution (our attorneys, who essentially wrote the law that protects WikiLeaks, are also on standby). We hope it can withstand the firestorm. But we’re reality-based and have seen radical celebrity stories turn quickly to flashes in the pan before. This game ain’t tiddlywinks. There are real consequences at play. And it's tough for metal to go through fire if it wasn't forged in fire, first.
What will remain, though, and it’s a wonderful thing, is that the whole world now knows that anyone can make unseen documents shoot ‘round the world in the course of a day. A thousand whistleblowers, in every land, are pondering the new landscape, with itchy trigger fingers on the send button. And Washington, methinks, protests too much, because the next waves will surely include leaks of documents from other countries, too, probably including from many of its adversaries. And then their Secretaries of State will be likewise screaming bloody murder and issuing stern threats to the media that expose them. The tactic of exposing hidden information is not wed to any ideology or “ism.” It is merely a tool that can be made to work for all sides in any conflict. Don’t be surprised if the next big data dump comes from leaked documents from Iran, or North Korea, Russia or any number of State powers at odds with the United States. This pox will soon be upon all houses of State and upon private corporations, too. (I’ve long said: The next Daniel Ellsberg will have to come from inside the New York Times rather than leaking to it.) And that, too, is as it should be: Information is Life! It finds a way!
I’ll give Jack Shafer the last word here (and await your own in the comments section):
“Information conduits like Julian Assange shock us out of that complacency. Oh, sure, he's a pompous egomaniac sporting a series of bad haircuts and grandiose tendencies. And he often acts without completely thinking through every repercussion of his actions. But if you want to dismiss him just because he's a seething jerk, there are about 2,000 journalists I'd like you to meet.”
Members of the official Fourth Estate, meet your newest member. He’s more like you than you think, and the New York Supreme Court has already issued the precedent by which he enjoys the same legal protections as you do. Your fate is now tied in with his. So cut with the crybaby act and get back to work. The days are counted in which your institutions will be able to pay you to do it anyway, so enjoy it while you can, and if you have documents to leak from inside your media organization, or any other institution, mi email es tu email: email@example.com.