I tap danced around criss-crossing pedestrians on my way to the Glenn Gould Studio on Front Street. Once inside, I chatted with some fine chaps under the lobby lights. Each of us inhaled a fair share of cheese and crackers, sharing opinions on the weather and the cybersecurity industrial complex.
We took our seats in the studio. After some opening remarks, David Walmsley walked onstage and introduced Glenn Greenwald. The Intercept co-founder talked about Snowden, abuses under President Obama, and other matters before fielding questions from the audience.
Evidently, politicians, bureaucrats and private security contractors don’t really like malcontent reporters.
“When you live in a surveillance state, it affects and degrades huge numbers of other civic rights as well, like your free press. How can you have a free press, and practice journalism, in an environment in which the government knows every single person with whom you’re communicating?”, responded Greenwald. “That case really illustrates just how much of an assault these basic western liberties—that we all think we’re guaranteed—are actually under in the name of security and terrorism.”
There were other cases, too. Greenwald spoke of Barrett Brown, a kick ass American journalist with a unique writing style and a penchant for pissing off three letter agencies. Brown was great at sniffing out bullshit, and even better at calling it out. Evidently, politicians, bureaucrats and private security contractors don’t really like malcontent reporters.
Brown originally faced up to 105 years in prison for, amongst other things, sharing a link to hacked material that was already in the public domain. After pleading guilty and getting no leniency in sentencing, Brown ended up serving 63 months in prison. While incarcerated, Brown won a National Magazine Award for his column “The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison” which he penned for the Intercept. He was released from prison in November 2016.
“Often times,” Greenwald stated, “there are pretexts concocted by the government to make it seem like they are prosecuting people for something else.” As a dissident, challenging the government is a crime. Barrett Brown happened to be one of them and faced the consequences.
It wasn’t long before the war front became the home front.
After getting a book signed and exchanging some words with Greenwald, I left.
The next morning, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau showed up to the National War Memorial in Ottawa clutching a .30-30 Winchester Model 94 hunting rifle. He shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo twice in the back, killing the Corporal. A shootout ensued inside the walls of the Parliament building. Zehaf-Bibeau was killed.
It wasn’t long before Bill C-51 was introduced. It wasn’t long before the warfront became the home front. It wasn’t long before a free press would be a casualty.
While Barrett Brown was laying in his bunk at FCI Seagoville, minding his own business, thinking about how much he hated Charles Krauthammer, there was something happening up north that would have huge ramifications on press freedoms. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was preparing a production order (judicial authorization to disclose documents and records) for a case that, today, has made its way up to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Back in 2014, Ben Makuch was in his first year as a full-time journalist for Vice News. He was chasing a variety of stories, including those dealing with Islamic State militants. After following online activities, Makuch came across Farah Mohamed Shirdon, a suspected Islamic State member who previously resided in Calgary.
Makuch was able to get in contact with Shirdon through Kik messenger, a smartphone messaging app. Social media is great for posting drunken selfies and casual group laughing pics that are expertly choreographed, but using it to get in contact with suspected terrorists comes in just a bit higher on the totem pole.
Tryna turn journalists into snitches and informants was sus, so Vice, feelin like J-Hov, said something like ‘we got great lawyers for cops so dress warm’.
Makuch wrote articles for Vice about his interactions with Shirdon, who identified himself as Abu Usamah. Makuch noted that Usamah “came across as relatively casual, using words like ‘no problemo,’ ‘homie,’” and going as far as to tell Makuch “to ‘holla’ at one of his boys” if more information was needed.
‘No problemo,’ thought Vice co-founder Shane Smith, who holla-ed right back at the homie Usamah on Skype for an interview. Five-o was straight trippin, so they started frontin on the playa Makuch and his crew. Come February 2015, boydem rolled into Vice’s offices in the 6ix, serving cats with production orders. Tryna turn journalists into snitches and informants was sus, so Vice, feelin like J-Hov, said something like ‘we got great lawyers for cops so dress warm’. Both sides squaded up and were ready for war.
Critical inquiry—such as whether or not existing protocols and tools were sufficient to thwart an attack—is rarely applied.
The attacks on Parliament Hill, as well as the killing of three RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick by Justin Bourque in 2014, created a climate of fear in Canada. While understandable, the potential for overreach is especially acute in times when fear is at its highest. Politicians resist being perceived as weak on terror should they not introduce new measures, only to have another attack take place. Critical inquiry—such as whether or not existing protocols and tools were sufficient to thwart an attack—is rarely applied. Regrettably, the tools at the disposal of law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been turned on those at home.
Ben Makuch and Vice refused to comply with the production orders, which included all of Makuch’s communications, notes and emails related to Shirdon. The reason for this was simple: freedom of the press would be endangered, if not outright compromised, should journalists be compelled to turn over documents. A major part of a free press is that it’s not an appendage of the state. Whistleblowers, criminals, government officials, militants, and perhaps your ex go to journalists with the implicit understanding that such information is between the parties concerned. Journalists are given discretion over the information, and whatever is reported on is meant to inform the public. This solidifies the role of the press as a messenger. Mohamed Fahmy, who knows a thing or two about being thrown in jail for the crime of journalism, screamed in Egyptian Court that “journalists are supposed to speak to terrorists, killers, rapists and drug-dealers, policemen, and people from all walks of life.” This sentiment was true in Egypt when he was imprisoned, and it remains true in Canada today.
It’s worth noting that Canada has no source protection for journalists.
If, like Greenwald suggested, source confidentiality can’t be guaranteed due to monitoring, or the state requires journalists to turn over information, then a free press doesn’t exist. It’s just that simple.
Makuch and Vice Media were given gag orders, forbidding them from talking about the case from February 2015 to October 2015. Since then, media and civil liberties groups have come to the defense of Makuch and, consequently, a free press. There doesn’t seem to be much rationale for the RCMP’s order, considering they have already charged Shirdon in absentia based on publicly available information. Unfortunately, Canada’s judicial system doesn’t show much signs of promise.
Makuch noted that he’s “not particularly optimistic” because “there are not a lot of legal protections for journalists in Canada, and the case law isn’t particularly on [their] side.” The Ontario Court of Appeal agreed, ruling in favour of the RCMP. The case is now headed to the Supreme Court. It’s worth noting that Canada has no source protection for journalists.
Exceptions can create judicial nightmares, but so too can targeting journalists—an activity traditionally thought to exist everywhere else but at home. At least seven journalists were surveilled by Montréal police to track down leakers. Included in this surveillance was Patrick Lagacé, a reporter for La Presse, whose iPhone was monitored to identify his sources. In another case, Justin Brake, editor of The Independent.ca, faced charges because he was reporting on the activities of protestors at Labrador’s Muskrat Falls hydroelectric construction site.
These examples are part of a larger trend in the Western world, a region with a sophisticated branding campaign that for decades has positioned itself as the beacon of liberty and freedom. While it’s easy to point to abuses happening elsewhere, wagging our fingers at barbaric regimes overseas, we shouldn’t be blind to the abuses happening here at home.
It should come as no surprise that both Canada and the United States have plummeted in the World Press Freedom Index. Canada, two years removed from sitting in the top 10, now sits at 22nd. Astonishingly, the United States, also known as the bastion of freedom, fell to 43rd in 2017.
Barrett Brown was released from FCI Seagoville in November 2016. It wasn’t long before he was back on the radar.
During his incarceration under the toy fascists at the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Brown frequently conducted interviews with various media outlets. At no point was he required to fill out forms authorizing the interviews.
Once released, Brown continued to speak to outlets about his incarceration and treatment inside. He became a reporter with D Magazine, reporting on all the intricacies of Dallas City Council politics, as well as other hilarious matters. In between his stay at a halfway house and twice-a-week sobriety tests, Brown did his job without a computer, which was a condition of his probation.
Then Ben Makuch showed up in Dallas, and things got interesting. I guess Makuch is a heat magnet, because while filming for Makuch’s Cyberwars series on Vice, Brown got into a series of exchanges with BOP officials that resulted in him being sent back to prison because he didn’t fill out forms that he wasn’t required to fill out.
D Magazine, quite familiar with Brown and his proclivity to attract the attention of law enforcement, retained the legal services of a firm that would kick the shit out of Mr. Burns’ high-priced lawyers if it got the chance.
Brown was released a few days later. In a recent piece titled “On My Recent Return to Prison and Catching Up With Old Friends”, Brown caught us up on all the happenings at Seagoville and what he had learned during his time there, before closing with this:
“But most of all, I realized that journalism will not be enough to save this country.”