They Lock Up Journalists, Don't They?


Picture the scene: An intelligent young American reporter and her able cameraman are on assignment deep the heart of the old Cold War super power. Their story: Ten thousand protestors, led by a priest, outside a military school that has been proven to train death squads, rapists and high ranking war criminals. Each year some of the protesters deliberately cross into the base and are arrested, in an effort to draw attention to the plight of those killed and have the school closed.

This year, however, the police are more aggressive than usual, and they arrest protestors who remained outside. The journalists are arrested too. They are held for 32 hours then released after paying a fine.

It’s the kind of story that you’d expect to see in the hourly headlines on CNN — and every other western 24 hour news channel for each of those 32 hours. Afterward, there would have been extended exclusive interviews, maybe even on Oprah or Larry King.

And it might well have been  — if it weren’t for the fact that the old Cold War superpower in question wasn’t Russia but the US.

Kaelyn Forde and Jon Conway were working for the Russian English language TV service RT (formerly Russia Today). The military school outside which the protest took place was the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly called the School of the Americas, and still, by its critics the "School of Assassins". It’s where America trains the thugs and murderers who run its empire to the south. Most of Pick Pinochet’s top men trained there, along with many other high-ranking Latin American strongmen.

The protests were organised by Father Roy Bourgeois, who saw the handiwork of the school’s graduates first hand as a priest in Bolivia during the 70s. Since I interviewed Father Roy for NM last year, a motion to close the school was defeated in the US Congress. Obama has remained silent on the issue. Graduates of the school such Romeo Vasquez, and General Luis Javier Prince took leading roles in the coup against the democratically elected government of President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. None of this, of course, makes headline news in the US — or Australia for that matter.

Nor does the fact that on Wednesday, four protesters were arraigned for trespassing on a military base. Two, Chris Spicer and Nancy Smith pled not guilty and will face trial. Two others, Father Louis Vitale, a Francisan priest from California, and David Omandi, a member of Los Angeles based Catholic Workers, pleaded "no contest" and have been sentenced to six months.
If you google "Russia Today TV crew detained", almost all the relevant results are from Russian outlets. The best coverage of course, comes from Kaelyn Forde herself.

Press freedom in Russia is incomparably worse than it is in the United States. Journalists are still murdered there with an appalling frequency. Pointing at Russian crimes does not answer the real question here, which is; if American journalism is relatively free, why do institutions like the SOA operate in a media vacuum? Why is the arrest of journalists who cover such protests not a story?

For the same reason, I would argue, that many similar stories about restrictions on press freedom get ignored. Such as when Amy Goodman, the anchor of the independent daily news show Democracy Now!, along with Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar from her crew, were arrested and charged with "Conspiracy to Riot" while reporting on protests outside the 2008 Republican National Convention.

The same reason that it is not news when President Morales of Bolivia decides to stop sending officers to the SOA for training, saying they were being taught "to confront their own people, to identify social movements as their enemies". The same reason that the the copious atrocities committed by the school’s graduates are overlooked.

It’s all just too jarring — and it departs from the overarching narrative of America as the light on the hill, promoting, sometimes with foolhardy force, democratic humanist values around the world. This is a fairy tale that major news organisations in the US have internalised and made part of their organisational culture and most journalists have followed suit. And now, as journalists and politicians alike condemn Julian Assange and Wikileaks, information in the land of the free is looking even more restricted.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.