Yesterday we provided details of the astonishingly stringent parole conditions that US journalist Barratt Brown will face once he is released from prison – conditions that mean the tools of his trade will be removed and that he will be unable to effectively conduct his work as an investigative researcher. Thus, a new benchmark has been set, with worrying implications for investigative researchers and journalists, not just in the USA. Journalists’ associations, civil liberties organisations and anti-censorship NGOs may well be wondering ‘who next?’. Today, the Guardian newspaper responded by publishing an article that not only criticised Brown’s prosecution but also included a hyperlink that appears to link to an extract of information that was the root of that prosecution.
In publishing the article by Lada Levison on Brown that included a link to an extract to data, alleged to have been forwarded by Brown, the Pulitzer-Prize winning Guardian newspaper has – deliberately or unintentionally – made a direct assault on the questionable US justice system and, in particular, its approach to journalists and the implications of that approach on the freedom of the press and freedom to research. These implications are examined further, below…
But, first, here is a recap of the case for those unfamiliar…
Brown was not charged with hacking, let alone found guilty of hacking; his conviction related to minor misdemeanours – stemming from FBI provocations – such as “accessory after the fact” (for attempting to negotiate redactions), “obstructing justice” (because he moved his laptop from a table to a cabinet) and “threatening a federal agent” (in a video posted on the internet). Nor was he charged with forwarding an URL (a ridiculous charge that was initially tabled then dropped). Yet in the final hearings the Prosecution was allowed to raise the issue of forwarding the URL in question, as well as the research Brown had been working on that saw him analysing material, which, in part, resulted from investigations by others into a private intelligence company, Stratfor. Brown was also involved in many other investigations – again, of firms involved in private intelligence, as well as their connections with the US Government. In retrospect it is clear Brown was targeted by the authorities because of his investigative work and a trap was laid. At the subsequent sentencing hearings the Prosecution revealed that the FBI had forensically examined Brown’s PC – in particular his Chat logs – for all his journalistic sources. Brown was eventually threatened with 8.5 years in prison and last week received a sentence of five years, but is also being forced to pay a whopping $815,000 to Stratfor in ‘restitution’ (even though he was not charged with any offence against that organisation).
Putting aside the misdeamanours that Brown was forced to plead guilty to under the archaic justice system in the USA, the punishment he has received not only is completely out of proportion to those offences, but is overtly related to offences he was not charged with. Further, this punishment not only equates to an attack on journalism but is a blatant act of censorship. Consequently, there is a strong case for organisations such as Index on Censorship, Amnesty International and the ACLU to campaign against Brown’s sentencing – not just in regard to the term of imprisonment, but to the restitution levied and the parole conditions set.
To ignore this case will send a message to the US justice system and to the justice systems of other countries: that journalists and investigative researchers who use 21st century methods to uncover dubious dealings are fair game. Ignore Brown and you might be next.
Note: In many countries – e.g. the UK via GCHQ, the USA via the NSA – journalists and their sources are now routinely monitored and there is a strong case for all media outlets to incorporate encrypted technologies, such as a securedrop facility (currently only a handful have done this – notably the Guardian and The Intercept)
Note for more on Brown’s prosecution, click here.