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'Govts intimidate journalists, whistleblower hunt worrying'

Published time: March 11, 2013 13:01

Free Syrian Army fighters take cover as they enter a Syrian Army base to take part in an attack in Damascus in this February 3, 2013 file photo. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

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The US government is inconsistent in its policies and the job of a journalist is to point out that inconsistency, AP journalist Matthew Lee told RT.

A crackdown on whistleblowers is also a worrying trend and it sends a signal the government has much to hide, he believes.

Lee agrees journalistic influence has weakened recently, as many reporters are dependent on governmental sources for access to information. That's why they may not be as hard-hitting as they should.

RT's Gayane Chichyakyan sat down with him in Washington.

RT: They say journalists have the power to stop a war. Why has it not been the case in the last 15-20 years?

Matthew Lee: I think one of the reasons is that there are not enough journalists out there who are really pushing back against governments, who may not be representing the facts as they actually are. I think we saw a very stark example of that in the run-up to the Iraq war where the claims of the Bush administration clearly were not correct. There were very few journalists out there who were either willing or able to really dig down beneath the claims of the administration to find out what really the truth was. I think that in a lot of cases governments intimidate journalists, and intimidate them into not asking the tough questions.

RT: Was it the case with the US government?

ML: Well, it was very difficult for reporters in Washington at the time to really get to the truth. You had big news outlets, like The New York Times and The Washington Post who have 'sources' that are supposed to be impeccable. So I think that there was a sense among editors of other outlets, that if these big news organizations were reporting on the alleged intelligence was about weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein had, it must be the gospel truth.

There were very few reporters or organizations who had enough doubt, who felt the need to question and to really dig down to get the correct information. The results are what we have seen. I don't think that this is a problem just in the United States. I think it's a problem all over the place. Governments do what they want to and will say what they think defends or backs up their policies.

An explosion and smoke are seen after Israeli strikes in Gaza City November 17, 2012. (Reuters/Suhaib Salem)

RT: When Israel launched an attack on the Palestinians last fall, you were there at the State Department, criticizing the administration in very strong terms for ‘silent diplomacy’. But the US hasn't really been silent - they've been most supportive of Israel as hundreds of Palestinians were dying. What more did you want to hear from them?

ML: The silent diplomacy that I talked about at that exchange was about US refusing to condemn or not take a stronger line with the Turks who were saying that what Israel was doing was a war crime. The United States as an ally of Israel, all administrations say they have Israel's back, 100 per cent committed to Israel's defense and US criticism of Israel is very rare.

I think the US has to be consistent. In that case the question that I was asking aimed at getting them to say - if they believed it - that they thought the Turks were wrong to be criticizing Israel. They eventually did two days later. This is the case when you have one ally - Israel, and another ally - NATO ally - Turkey, and they are at odds. This is the situation we've seen ever since the Gaza Flotilla and it's a very difficult line.

What I am pushing for is consistency or to show that the administration isn't consistent, that it has a lack of consistency in dealing with various allies around the world.

RT: What is the biggest criticism in the journalistic community as you sense it right now?

ML: I think that a lot of reporters don't understand how the administration justifies not doing anything in Syria when they did do it in Libya. I don't know if it's a question of the reporters wanting the administration to go in.

What happened in Libya was that Gaddafi threatened to hit Benghazi, and that was a justification in the minds of this administration and Europe for there to be a military intervention. Now in Syria you have a case where Assad has actually acted on that threat and there have been many more deaths than there were ever predicted to have happened in Benghazi. And yet there is no military intervention. And that hits back at the consistency. And the lack of consistency.

Anti-Gaddafi fighters take part in a demonstration in Benghazi June 7, 2012 to demand the application of Islamic law, or Sharia law, in Libya. (Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori)

RT: Where does the lack of consistency come from, in your opinion?

ML: That's a really good question. And that's the question that I think the reporters have an obligation for: You did this in this case, why are you not doing the same in this other case? Not necessarily pushing for it.

Any administration is going to have its policies and it can decide on its policies. I don't take a position on what the policy is. I don't think it's my job to say “Hey, President Obama, you're wrong on this.” I think it's my job to say “Hey, President Obama”, or “Hey, State Department”, “Hey, administration, why are you doing this?” They owe the people that they govern an explanation on what they are doing in our name. And oftentimes it's really, really difficult to drag that out, because 1) the policy is inconsistent, 2) they don't really know what they are doing.

I think, the Arab Spring took a lot of people by surprise. There was a lot of confusion, no one really knew exactly what to do and that continues to this day. Look at what's happening in Tunisia, which is going to be the model, the first country to oust its strongmen. That was going to be the model there. They had elections, everything was fine and now the opposition leader gets killed.

There is a lot of concern on what is going to happen in Tunisia, what is going to happen in Libya itself, particularly after the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Egypt is a big question; it's completely up in the air. The army says the country is at risk of falling apart. And I think that it's my job as a journalist and the job of other journalists to find that exactly how this government - the government that I cover - (if I was in London, I would be trying to do the same thing with the British government, but I happen to be covering the American government) - to find out how they are going to deal with this. Because it's a huge issue.

RT: You said you had a sense that the administration doesn't know what they are doing.

ML: Well, I think that a lot of people were taken by surprise at the speed of the transition.

RT: What about now?

ML: It's very impossible to predict the future. Yet when you are a policy-maker, that is what you've got to do. Thus far I don't think that this administration, people who are in charge of the Middle East and North Africa have really had a good sense of what was going to happen once decades of autocratic rule came to an end.

RT: With no small help from the United States in some of these countries - like Libya.

ML: I wouldn't use Libya as an example, I would use Egypt as a main example. With Egypt, the American government under both Republicans and Democrats for years coddled a dictator, an autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Why? Because he provided stability in what is arguably the biggest cauldron of unrest and instability in the world. And yet, that sacrificed the Egyptian people's desire for democracy. Well, now the Egyptian people have democracy, but they are not sure exactly how it works or what to do and the American government doesn't know how to deal with that.

RT: I want to ask you about access journalism. What do you think about it? Do you see dangers behind access journalism?

ML: Yes, I do. I think there is a big problem in this town, I presume it is also in other capitals where reporters are maybe not as hard-hitting as they want to be or should be because they fear losing access to senior officials who will give them information. It's problematic. I don't know how you correct it. I think you basically just have to stand up for what you believe in and hopefully what you believe in is getting the truth out and holding the administration to account.

Protesters run from tear gas thrown by police forces during clashes near the Interior Ministry in Cairo, February 3, 2012. (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

RT: What do you think about the administration's crackdown on whistleblowers?

ML: I've got problems with that. I think that in a free society and a democracy you can't... 1) you can't expect people who are carrying out policies that they don't personally agree with to stay silent. And 2) you can't - and you shouldn't - punish them if and when they speak out about it. It may well be that a whistleblower is wrong. Or has an agenda to push through. But I don't like the idea that people get punished. At the same time it would be chaos if every classified document in town was all of a sudden released or leaked.

RT: As far as the crackdown, what kind of a signal does it send to journalists?

ML: I think it sends a signal that the government doesn't want you. Take me as an example. The government doesn't want me to get the information that I think I need to explain to the American people what's going on and they are willing to go after not just the person who gave it, but they are willing to go after me as well. That has a chilling effect that I think is not good.

I have to say that the American government is one of the most open governments in the world. That's not saying all a lot, because it does a lot of things, a lot of clandestine things go on in the name of the American people that I think some or many American people might not agree with.

I think that's a journalist's responsibility to get that information out and then people can make up their own minds as to whether or not they think that the policy is correct.

RT: Why do you think this administration is doing more work in that direction than any other administration?

ML: I don't know. I have no idea. It is somewhat surprising, considering this president came in saying that he wanted to have the most transparent administration in history and yet some of the actions that this administration is taking appear to be exactly the opposite.

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