The Biden Administration's Hypocrisy On World Press Freedom Day

The Biden Administration's Hypocrisy On World Press Freedom Day
Screen shot from President Joe Biden's remarks on campus protests against Israel's assault on Gaza (Source: White House)

The following article was made possible by paid subscribers of The Dissenter. Become a subscriber with this special offer and support independent journalism on press freedom.

United States President Joe Biden marked World Press Freedom Day by calling for the “immediate and unconditional release of all journalists who have been put behind bars for simply doing their jobs.” He added, “Journalism should not be a crime anywhere on Earth.”

But that statement comes with a giant asterisk. What Biden did not say is that the U.S. government claims the authority to determine who is and is not a journalist. Those journalists, who U.S. officials wish to prosecute or target with other forms of lawfare, may easily be excluded from journalistic protections.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been in detention in London’s Belmarsh maximum-security prison for more than five years because the Biden administration insists on bringing Assange to the U.S. for a trial on unprecedented Espionage Act charges that were issued under President Donald Trump. 

Biden acknowledged that “2023 was one of the deadliest years for journalists in recent memory. One reason for that is the war in Gaza, where far too many journalists, the vast majority of them Palestinian, have been killed.”

But who has killed more than 100 Palestinian journalists?

Biden refused to name the perpetrators of this bloodshed—the Israeli government—because his administration continues to send tens of billions of dollars in arms shipments to Israel. His own actions helped make 2023 so deadly for journalists in Gaza. 

On top of that, the Biden administration tolerates and embraces what Committee to Protect Journalists CEO Jodie Ginsberg recently described as Israel’s “growing censorship regime.” 

“Israel champions itself as a democracy and a bastion of press freedom in the region. Its actions tell a very different story,” Ginsberg wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. “The high rate of journalists’ deaths and arrests, including a slew in the West Bank; laws allowing its government to shut down foreign news outlets deemed a security risk, which the prime minister has explicitly threatened to use against Al Jazeera; and its refusal to permit foreign journalists independent access to Gaza all speak to a leadership that is deliberately restricting press freedom. That is the hallmark of a dictatorship, not a democracy.”

President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Source: The White House)

Biden and his administration also had no words for campus administrators, who have interfered and obstructed media access to colleges and universities where student encampments have demanded divestment from Israel. Student journalists have faced violence from police and so-called counter-protesters.

At Cal Poly Humboldt in California, a reporter named Adelmi Ruiz was livestreamed when police detained her for "interfering with a crime scene." She told police that she was press, and it was her job to cover the police response to the protest. "Find a different job if this causes you to break the law," an officer replied.

“Journalists go to great lengths to expose corruption, document wars and other urgent world events, bring to light threats to public safety, and bring citizens the information they need to participate fully in their societies,” Biden declared. 

What Biden said should apply to Assange, who oversaw a media organization that dared to publish more than 700,000 U.S. documents that exposed U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the manner in which U.S. diplomats work to sabotage countries that pursue accountability for torture and human rights abuses committed by CIA agents and U.S. soldiers.

Press freedom and human rights groups around the world recognize that the prosecution makes the world less safe for journalists and criminalizes standard newsgathering activities. Yet officials have maliciously and erroneously distinguished the former WikiLeaks editor-in-chief as someone who ceased to be a journalist after publishing classified U.S. government documents in 2010 and 2011.

Ryan Grim, chief of The Intercept’s D.C. Bureau, asked State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller if the Assange case raised concerns about “free speech and the press” because dictators will often say, “Why is the U.S. lecturing us about press freedoms when they are trying to extradite a foreign citizen to their own maximum security prison?”

Miller defended the prosecution and argued that Assange is charged with breaking “into government systems to retrieve classified information, which as far as I’m aware has never been considered a legitimate journalistic practice, and is not the kind of practice that journalistic organizations typically engage in.”

“Well, technically he offered to help her cloak her identity so that she wouldn’t be discovered,” Grim countered. “We as journalists do that all the time with sources—talk with them on Signal and other devices to try to make sure that sources are protected. Is that considered helping steal information?” 

Miller sheepishly ended the exchange after fumbling his excuse for prosecuting Assange. “So I am now a little bit probably further than I ought to go about facts…that are contained in a pending indictment.”

Of course, Biden singled out Russia for detaining American journalist Evan Gershkovich when emphasizing that journalism should not be crime “anywhere on Earth.” Ignored by Biden was the fact that FBI agents raided the home newsroom of Timothy Burke in 2023, and the U.S. Justice Department charged Burke as an economic cybercriminal earlier this year.

Burke’s crime, according to the U.S. government, is that he “scoured” the internet for “electronic items and information” that were “deemed desirable” for news reporting. In particular, he obtained access to an unsecured stream that contained an uncut version of an interview Tucker Carlson conducted with rapper Kanye West for Fox News.

The Biden administration has shown a zeal for putting media sources in prison, including when those sources expose public interest information that Biden himself has seized upon to boost his image.

Specifically, IRS whistleblower Charles Littlejohn, who disclosed Trump’s tax returns, was sentenced to five years of incarceration. It was the harshest sentence ever issued against someone who disclosed tax information to the media. 

Not only did Justice Department prosecutors urge a court to impose the maximum sentence of five years, but prosecutors also asked the court to punish Littlejohn as severely as someone accused of violating the Espionage Act. 

A federal shield law for journalists (known as the PRESS Act) was passed in the House of Representatives in January. There is bipartisan support for this legislation in the Senate. However, Biden has not come out in support of a law that would offer reporters protection from government intrusion. He has refused to take a position.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken put out a separate statement. “Each year on World Press Freedom Day, the world celebrates the importance of journalism and recognizes the integral role a vibrant, independent media plays in democratic societies. The free flow of accurate information, ideas, and opinions, including dissenting ones, is essential for transparent, responsive, and inclusive governance.”

It is rather incredible that Blinken cheered the “free flow of information, ideas, and opinions, including dissenting ones,” while videos are being shared widely throughout the world that show police in the United States stamping out dissent from students opposed to Israel’s slaughtering of Palestinians. 

"Look, it’s basically a matter of fairness.  It’s a matter of what’s right.  There’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos," Biden remarked as he expressed his approval for the crackdowns on students.

Despite what Blinken claims, the U.S. does not support “free and independent media around the world.” It supports media that help U.S. officials further the agenda of the U.S. government.

U.S. officials do not wish to govern in a world, where they are forced to be transparent, responsive, and inclusive to the people. As a result, any journalist, like Assange, who promotes the “free flow of information, ideas, and opinions, including dissenting ones,” may be targeted with lawfare and efforts to discredit their work and silence them. 

Journalism should not be a crime anywhere on Earth—amen. But the reality is that the U.S. government bears quite a lot of responsibility for the grim state of press freedom in the world.