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Criminalising Journalism

Journalist Barrett Brown will be sentenced on 22 January 2015 in Texas.

Initially facing over 100 years in jail, including for sharing a hyperlink online, Barrett Brown now faces 8.5 years for offences such as posting YouTube videos and using Twitter, assisting Jeremy Hammond, and placing laptops into a kitchen cabinet.

Brown’s case is another example of severe punishment of investigative journalists and Internet activists, reminding many of the case against Aaron Swartz. Aaron faced 35 years in jail for accessing JSTOR articles to which he had legitimate access. Our grief over his death was accompanied by outrage at the way overzealous prosecution was clearly used as deterrent against online activism.

Before his arrest in September 2012, Brown was a political satirist who was also a commentator on national security issues, including private military contractors and his writing had appeared in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post.

Brown created Project PM, a crowd-sourced investigation that openly analyzed materials released by Anonymous such as those obtained from private intelligence firms HBGary Federal and Stratfor.  

This research delved into the relationships between private companies and government agencies, and explained the extraordinary power of companies like Booz Allen Hamilton well before Snowden made that common knowledge.

It’s important to remember that although Brown was associated with Anonymous, he was not a hacker and did not source the materials; he analyzed and wrote about them. Like many others, including the author of this blog, Brown posted a link to the Stratfor source materials online, but was the only person charged for so doing. Those charges were dropped in March 2014 after his lawyers filed a detailed motion for dismissal.

That is, after more than a year of confinement without bail, the second indictment against Brown, relating to information leaked by Anonymous that included credit card details of Stratfor clients, was mostly dropped. There was no suggestion that he used, or intended to use the credit card information. One remaining charge refers to assistance he rendered to Jeremy Hammond – the hacktivist who compromised Stratfor and is now serving a 10-year sentence.

In April 2014 Brown pleaded guilty, among other things to “accessory after the fact to an unauthorized access to a protected computer,” under the CFAA, the same law used against the late Aaron Swartz.

Other charges relate to videos he posted that reveal his obvious anger about FBI raids on his home, and particularly the legal threats made against his mother and raids on her home. He was arrested on the same day he posted videos that were somewhat rash and inadvisable in content, but which responded to unfortunate threats made against Brown and his mother and the stress of being investigated by the FBI.

In September 2013, the US Department of Justice obtained a gag order to stop Brown and his legal team from making any statement to the media or online posting about his case. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued an alarm that the gag order threatened to stifle public debate, the nature of the web and the ethical duty of journalists to report the facts.

Journalism is Brown’s real crime – journalism that analyzed and exposed information about the power of private intelligence firms. If that information had been about something less sensitive, the measures taken against him would likely have been less severe, less disproportionate and less a display of political punishment against political journalism.

To learn more about the case or to support his legal defense fund, check out the Free Barrett Brown campaign. Barrett Brown has continued to write during his incarceration – his eBook Keep Rootin for Putin: Establishment Pundits and the Twilight of American Competence can be downloaded here and you can read his regular column for D Magazine.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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