The price and privilege of free speech and a free press

Some countries and cultures have a hatred of our freedoms. Not only do they persecute their own subjects relentlessly, they feel they can reach outside of their own closed societies and attack us. They are wrong. We will not be silenced.

January 7, 2015: Gunmen armed with AK-47 automatic rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher attacked the Paris-based editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo. The newspaper has a history of printing satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad in unflattering light.

Three days later, the Hamburg-based offices of Hamburger Morgenpost were firebombed, probably because they reprinted images from Charlie Hebdo.

This is not the first time Charlie Hebdo has been targeted. In 2011, in response to earlier satirical illustrations of Mohammad, the paper was the victim of a previous firebomb attack. The paper's Web site was also hacked.

Speaking of hacking, we have all been following the news after the November 24, 2014 "scorched earth" hack attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment. Although all the details are still not known, it is believed the hack was perpetrated by North Korea because an American comedy movie, The Interview, featured a plot about assassinating the "Great Successor" Kim Jong-un.

For four months, beginning in 2012 and ending in 2013, The New York Times was the victim of an advanced persistent penetration attack attributed to the People's Republic of China. The Gray Lady had been working on a series of investigative reports about billions of dollars of "hidden" financial transactions made by the family of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

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Around the same time, Rupert Murdoch himself reported that the Wall Street Journal had also been the victim of Chinese hacking. The Chinese were accused of digging around in the WSJ's systems, looking for names of sources used for stories about China. Presumably, once the names were extracted by the attackers, those sources would then be "persuaded" to stop speaking out, jailed, or exterminated.

In December 2013, the Washington Post reported that it, too, was the victim of penetration attacks, the third in as many years. While the purpose of that hack was unknown, a previous hack by the Syrian Electronic Army had redirected WaPo readers to articles on a Syrian Web site supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Penetrations of WaPo systems going as far back as 2008 are attributed to China, stating "China's cyber-espionage assists the government's broader efforts to quell internal dissent by identifying activists and dissidents."

From the violent attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hamburger Morgenpost to the cyber-attacks on American media, the free press and free speech democratic societies take for granted is being targeted by a wide range of hostile actors determined to squelch, punish, and prevent certain topics of discussion.

The battle lines have been drawn

We in free democratic societies believe that it is a right of people to report on and make satire, regardless of how well-investigated or how tasteless that content might be. Our enemies believe they have the right to stop it, using extreme prejudice. Whether they wipe out editorial offices with armed attacks, or they find and then target sources, they intend to control what we get to say and what we get to read and watch.

We are lucky. Throughout history, those in power have exercised extreme control over what's been said about them. It has only been in the past few hundred years that free speech has been valued at a foundational level by governments and their citizenry.

Many of us in the Western press have benefited from this freedom. I, personally, have investigated, criticized, and mocked powerful elected and appointed figures, ranging from the President to the Vice President, Speaker of the House, federal judges, agencies, and more.

To date, I have never experienced anything resembling a threat or censure from anyone in government. The worst "punishment" I ever experienced from government officials was being asked to talk to some members of Congress after a particularly brutal editorial, and then having to listen to members trot out their oft-repeated tropes during an hour-long conference call.

We have entire television news networks dedicated to brutally criticizing either one party in power or the other. The only harm done is letting former politicians who should have been put out to pasture have their own TV talk shows.

But other countries and other cultures hate our freedoms. Not only do they persecute their own subjects relentlessly; they feel they can reach outside of their own closed societies and attack those of us who have learned how to absorb (or ignore) criticism and humor (even when done in poor taste) without resorting to violence.

We are not without our own failings, however. Freedom of speech means that everyone is entitled to try to get their voice heard, and that includes lobbyists and organizations with the means and motivation to limit our freedoms or transform our cherished Constitutional rights to serve their own needs.

On Friday, we reported that Congress is once again attempting to push through CISPA, a privacy-stripping, rights-reducing bill wrapped in the skin of a cybersecurity bill. I wrote about CISPA before, describing it as more heinous that SOPA, because CISPA seeks to give agencies and companies the right to bypass our privacy without the approval of a judge or the issuance of a warrant.

While the claimed motivation is anti-terrorism and cybersecurity protection, the reality is that if this becomes law, there would no longer be judicial oversight before someone in the government can start rummaging through our medical records, banking records, credit card records, book-reading records, email, Web surfing history, and more.

How big a step is it from a warrantless investigation law such as CISPA to our own government agencies penetrating our news media, looking for sources to stories -- either to keep those stories from coming out, or punish members of the press for covering them?

We look at the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, Hamburger Morgenpost, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal with a mix of horror and anger.

These crimes -- whether manifested by gunmen storming a building and killing editors, or assassins sent to terminate sources once their identities become known -- are tools used by regimes to protect their power base, control the conversation, and instill fear into not only their own citizens, but those who would seek to shine light on their dastardly doings.

But as we mourn the dead in Paris, as we seek out the terrorists who conduct these attacks, we must also remain mindful of the threat here at home. We must keep in mind that free speech and a free press are privileges and rights that must be protected, no matter what the price.

Finally, our condolences go out to the families of the victims in Europe. We may be across a large ocean, but in this, we are your fellow citizens and we grieve with you.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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