Reporters Without Borders is deeply troubled by a recent gag order placed on American investigative journalist Barrett Brown and his defense team, as he faces prosecution for charges related to his work.
Brown, 32, who has written for The Guardian, Huffington Post and Vanity Fair, was investigating links between the government and the private intelligence industry at the time of his arrest. He faces charges of obstruction, making threats, conspiracy, retaliation against a law enforcement official and disseminating stolen information. If convicted he could face up to 105 years in prison.
The gag order, issued by the Northern District Court of Texas in Dallas, bars Brown and his legal counsel from making any statements to the media regarding his prosecution.
Such an order aimed at stifling public debate and might compromise coverage of Brown’s trial, a trial that has obvious repercussions for investigative journalism. However it seems that restrictions on this trial have in fact increased public support and attention.
The gag order would unnecessarily restrict Barrett Brown’s First Amendment rights, in addition to restricting the public’s right to information about the trial.
Brown was arrested during a heavily armed raid on his home by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on September 12, 2012. He has remained in custody ever since, having been denied bail. The main charge Brown faces, and the most troubling for journalists, is for disseminating stolen information relating to internal emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor, which were hacked by a third party. Brown faces prosecution for posting an already public URL link to the leaked Stratfor emails, which contained credit card information, in a chat forum. Critics have argued that linking to information, a now common journalistic practice, is protected by the First Amendment and that any such prosecution will have a chilling effect on internet journalism and new media.
His trial is set to begin in late April 2014.
While the DOJ has gone after whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, officials have tried to say that the Federal Government would not prosecute the journalists who work with them. In response to the firestorm of criticism he received after the DOJ targeted the Associate Press and Fox News reporter James Rosen, Attorney General Eric Holder said in June, “The Department has not prosecuted, and as long as I’m attorney general, will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job.” Then what about Brown?