POLITICS

Freedom for Syria, Speech and the Press
Alan D Miller                     September 11, 2013

A recent poll suggests that 70% of Americans believe Syria should not be bombed by the US. Alan D Miller argues that sometimes to do nothing is the right thing.


Anti Syrian Intervention March, Chicago, September 10, 2013, Mikasi
Anti Syrian Intervention March, Chicago, September 10, 2013, © Mikasi
International headlines are currently dominated by whether or not President Obama will win congressional authorization for military strikes on Syria in response to the gas attack on Syrian citizens on August 21, where more than 1,400 people were killed, including 426 children.

The President had declared that any use of chemical weapons on citizens would be "crossing a red line" and released information by US intelligence analysts stating it was clear Assad's regime was responsible, although other reports outlined there was still a lack of clear evidence demonstrating responsibility.

Some have asked why the 1,400 are so different to the previous 100,000 who have died since the Syrian civil war began. Others wonder what exactly a military attack is meant to achieve. Hillary Clinton argued that Obama's plan sends a message to other chemical and nuclear weapons-owning regimes that the US will not tolerate such behavior. The President has promised "no boots on the ground" in Syria, saying this would be a "shot across the bow". Many critics have said that this seems like a 'non-plan' – a gesture of disapproval, with no clear strategy or objectives. Secretary for State John Kerry has been the most hawkish, consistently speaking of the 'moral duty' to intervene and attack. This says much about western leaders, who worry more about how they may be judged if they sit back and "do nothing", as though it is the evaluation of their existential attitudes that matters, not the consequences for ordinary Syrians of a military assault.

Ironically, both the UK and US have already significantly increased tensions and steered the civil war. Hillary Clinton's decision to recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate (aka US favorite) opposition in an over-simplified "yay, go good guys" versus evil narrative has had wider international implications, impacting Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and beyond. While many in the UK are congratulating themselves on preventing intervention, they have missed the point that 'intervention' does not solely have to be military. The more western leaders take positions through threat of force, the further violence and the situation escalates.

As we go to press it looks as though Syria may accept the Russian proposal to hand over its chemical weapons and John Kerry has stated this would de-scale the situation. However, it has demonstrated a gaping existential black hole at the heart of western leadership.

Freedom is a hard won victory, and something that cannot be parachuted – or bombed – in. Recent history shoes how backing dubious opponents with radical religious backgrounds has not worked out well for the US and others. Freedom has to be won by the people. However hard it is to stomach for outsiders, sometimes to do nothing is the correct thing.

Free press and speech

Freedom of the press is a key cornerstone of our society and freedom of speech is enshrined constitutionally in the US. Exisitng in Britain for over 300 years, emanating from the Enlightenment, a free press has recently been under attack. There was much concern about the detention for nine hours at Heathrow Airport of David Miranda, a Brazilian citizen and partner of Glenn Greenwald, a Guardian journalist. Miranda had been visiting Laura Poitras, a documentary film-maker who has been working on Edward J Snowden's leaks in Berlin, and was carrying information that some regard as a threat to national security. Britain's Government Communications Headquarters then oversaw the destruction of hard drives of US National Security Agency material at The Guardian. Josh Earnest, The White House principal deputy press secretary, helped distance the US from this, saying it was "difficult to imagine" a scenario in which this would be appropriate.

Strange then that we have heard so little in the way of opposition and outrage over the treatment of other journalists as part of three police operations into phone and computer hacking and payments made to public officials by journalists. Over the past year and a half 59 journalists in the UK have been rounded up. While many have been on bail there has not been a single conviction.

The British public was understandably shocked by revelations of tabloid phone hacking into missing teenager Milly Dowler's mobile phone and it was The Guardian that pushed the police to use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act against tabloid 'hacks'. However the double-standards of broadsheet publications who believe their freedom should be sacrosanct and 'matters' more than that of the tabloids is, aside from being elitist, just plain wrong. Ironically much broadsheet journalism has tended to be far from objective and dispassionate; from calls to intervene in countries to taking a stand on female mutilation, the sex industry or beyond, it has become popular to push particular views hard.

The broadsheets' view of the tabloids is like that of George Orwell's ageing, bankrupt, alcoholic British colonialists in his first novel Burmese Days who thought of the locals that "natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally... an inferior people." Much of what has been done to journalists since Lord Justice Leveson presided over the taming of British freedom has been regarded as acceptable because tabloid journalists – and their readers – are seen as…well, inferior.

It should come as no surprise to journalists at The Guardian that if they encourage the state to clamp down on part of the press, at some point it will clamp down on all press. In the US twenty AP journalists recently had their phone records seized by the Justice Department and NY Times journalist James Risen has been ordered to reveal the source for his book State of War.

We need, in Britain and America, to insist upon absolute and universal freedom of expression and the press, no exceptions. If you believe in a free press, but not in the case of x,y, or z, ultimately it is no longer a free press. As adults we are rational and can handle the truth and a free press is imperative for a free society and autonomous humans.

I shall be moderating a panel in NYC at Columbia School of Journalism entitled 'Freedom, speech, the press and beyond…' on October 2 as part of the Battle of Ideas International Satellite Festival. There will be panels across Europe and at The Barbican in London on October 19 & 20. Central to these discussions is the motto 'free speech allowed' where discourse and debate is encouraged. Indeed, it is the only way to get clarity about where we are – and what we may want to do about it.

I do hope you will come and participate.

Alan D Miller is Director of The New York Salon www.nysalon.org and co-founder of London's Old Truman Brewery and The Vibe Bar www.vibebar.co.uk He will be at The Battle of Ideas www.battleofideas.org.uk on October 19-20 at The Barbican, London.


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