Monthly Archives: August 2012

WikiLeaks and Freedom of Expression Versus Security: Part 1

Julian Assange is currently seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Assange is an interesting character with some quirky and brilliant personality traits, but these are not my main concern. Assange is considered a criminal in the United States because he gained access to secret documents by way of an American soldier named Bradley Manning. Manning is imprisoned in the US for leaking documents to Assange.

Assange manages the website Wikileaks which organizes and makes available thousands of government and diplomatic documents once classified as “secret.” Assange makes the argument that his work is centered in the long tradition of open expression and the importance of citizens keeping an eye on their government. Wikileaks publishes information from whistleblowers and seeks to make political governance a far more open process. Assange is no fringe character. He considers himself a revolutionary democratic leader devoted to freedom and has been the recipient of awards from Amnesty International, Time Magazine, and other journalistic outlets. The governments from which he took documents do not quite see it that way. They see Assange as challenging the security rights of the United States and violating laws designed to protect the nation. The US wants to charge Assange with jeopardizing national security, a charge that could result in life imprisonment. Hence we have the tension between freedom of information and security.

In what has been described as an Evita moment, Assange gave a speech from the Ecuadorian Embassy balcony which you can see here:    Wikileaks

There was a large crowd and he spoke of freedom of the press. There have been other cases where journalists have reported from what is considered to be improper access to government documents. The Pentagon papers in the United States, albeit under quite different political and military conditions, were also considered a potential threat to national security. Israel has more than a few examples of journalists writing stories based on classified documents.

Opinions differ on this matter. Some see Assange, Bradley Manning, and journalists who report from secret government documents as traitors who reveal government secrets and expose the nation to damages that result from security breaches. On the other hand, they can be seen as advocates for free speech and transparent information for exposing the public to a full critical analysis of issues facing them. Some people take a third position by parsing the issues into justified and unjustified release of information. Thus, they criticize hacking into American government sites but support the release of documents from authoritarian governments such as those in Syria, Zimbabwe, or Saudi Arabia.

Because Assange is an interesting and charismatic figure, and because he has been accused of sex crimes (always a matter of interest), he has been able to use his celebrity status to rally thousands of people around the world and perhaps delay his arrest and generate interest in his cause. But it remains the case that all governments support their own security interests. And they will all in the end oppose improper access and leaking of classified material. Moreover, they will continue to sing songs of media freedom but maintain a common refrain about their own security rights. The tension between freedom of the press and security will continue because many documents marked “secret” are not really very important. It is easy to classify a document as secret but much less easy to justify the content of the document as truly requiring a “secret” classification.

There is no easy answer to these issues but the following are necessary in a democratic society, which is where we must begin. Openness to information is a far less threat to the general body politic than excessive secrecy or security. From the Johannesburg Principles on National Security and Freedom of Expression ( we can quickly pose the following requirements for a democratic society that wants to limit freedom of expression:

To establish a restriction on freedom of expression or information it is necessary to protect a legitimate national security interest, a government must demonstrate that: (a) the expression or information at issue poses a serious threat to a legitimate national security interest; (b) the restriction imposed is the least restrictive means possible for protecting that interest; and (c) the restriction is compatible with democratic principles.

In the next post I will turn our attention more specifically to the legal and philosophical issues that we must grapple with in order to balance the freedom of expression versus security scale.

Peace Journalism

One of the best ways to transform ethnic conflict is by means of consensus democracy or the sharing of power between groups. Consociation is an ideal to be sure, but it remains an important aspiration. At a minimum, it rules out the use of force for achieving unilateral objectives. An additional deliberative goal is a media that is oriented toward peace and solving problems rather than intensifying them. This would be part of a consensus democracy project and would represent a shift in priorities from sensationalism trying to attract readers to conflict resolution. This has been termed peace journalism by McGoldrick & Lynch, a term often met with skepticism as too simplistic.

Journalist organizations remain convinced that the media are not only positioned to illuminate conflicts but to actually resolve them and encourage cooperation. By practicing the best journalism the media can contribute to bridge building between conflicting groups. This calls for an activist journalism that relies on a set of practices that go beyond straightforward reporting about conflicts. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) calls on reporters to be trained in conflict resolution and to have the promotion of peace as their goal. They are asked to be well versed in the narratives of both sides of an issue and scrupulously avoid reinforcing violence. Moreover, journalists should be equally as concerned with solutions and common ground as much as the basics of a story. McGoldrick and Lynch pose a set of guidelines for the coverage of conflicts that are too numerous to list here, but include techniques such as (1) avoid simplifying the contest by enumerating the various goals of the conflicting parties,  (2) avoid stark distinctions, (3) see ourselves in others, (4) avoid reporting on only violence, (5) report on peace initiatives, (5) identify wrongdoers, (6) avoid demonizing words, (7) do not see signing documents and military victories as creating peace, and others.

These recommendations can lead one to believing that clear reporting and sensitive concerns will enlighten readers and advance peace. But journalists live and work in political, economic, and power systems like everyone else. They are not independent actors who can determine effects. Hence, a biased and aggressive media will have less impact on an educated audience than and uneducated one; a prosperous and comfortable society will be less responsive to a challenging media. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the media can contribute to a helpful deliberative environment. Transparency, rationality, diversity, and the promotion of quality journalism are all part of peace journalism as well as deliberation. Bell (1997) refers to a sort of peace journalism as the journalism of attachment, that is, the concern is more for people than issues. Attachment journalism is not necessarily deliberative but it does represent a broadened sensibility to balance. It helps quiet the persistent refrain about how violence and drama captures attention, and peace is boring. Most journalism related to conflicts is “war” journalism and preoccupied with propaganda and violence. But “peace” journalists can be easily manipulated and subjected to propaganda that they are not able to understand. Gowing (1997) explains how journalists are easily manipulated and not always able to check facts. They sometimes begin to identify with one party and simplify or distort information. In the end, journalism must take a critical stance such that it does not encourage violence but also avoids disseminating peace propaganda. The critical stance requires transparency and, most important, a diversity of opinion that comes with exposure to quality disagreement and the avoidance of polarization.

The Communicative Construction of Identity

The below is an excerpt from my book “Deliberative Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict.”

The preference for one’s own kin is powerful. But identities are not fixed at birth. They are subject to developmental and social influences. They are not flimsy and change at will, but they are constructed out of the surrounding interactional environment. As Suny (2001) argues, identities are fashioned by the stories groups tell about their history, nature, homeland, and common descent. People change identities over time because such identities depend on networks of associations and proximity to others. An Israeli-Jew who lives in Israel will identify as “Israeli” but his son or daughter who moves to the U.S. will identify more as an American. The over arching “American” identity is very important here because it serves as a common identity category that helps perpetuate a commitment to a more general civic allegiance. Deep ethno-national divisions are most associated with violence and those situations where ethnic groups believe the state should cease to exist. The role of the deliberative experience in giving group members new communicative opportunities is most important for developing an over arching identity that can render each side more receptive to argumentative claims.

The actual nature and content of ethnic identity is a symbolic construction process done for instrumental reasons from instrumental resources. The conceptual difficulty with ethnic identity is that rigorous objective definitions of ethnic groups do not allow for variability and change or the importance of developmental processes and identity. Subjective definitions make it difficult to understand the nature and evolution of individual ethnic identity. Moreover, even if ethnic identity is not objective, and it is subject to social influences and manipulation, it remains an essential construct that is not only experienced as very real to people, but is strongly implicated in much human behavior. Instrumentalism is the idea that choosing an identity group is a practical decision that has potential beneficial outcomes. There is more human choice in instrumental notions of ethnic identity. Instrumentalism is how identity is formed. It is also the means by which identity is exercised. I will accept Brass’ (1996) description of instrumentalism as beginning with objective markers (race, religion, dress, food, dialect) but these are interpreted and subjected to change.

Instrumentalism recognizes a strong flexibility and developmental influence on identity formation. Yet, after an identity has been set it is very difficult to change. It is how people see themselves that matter. They may identify around a type of clothing at one time but something else later. This ensures that the group identity remains stable and only the token that refers to the group type changes. One is bound to his ethnic identity on the basis of personal relations, practical necessity, and common interests. Elites use these relationships to solidify identity groups for their own political interests. Slobodan Milosevic employed the rhetoric of victimization to characterize Serbs as in need of liberation through destruction. This was a clear instrumental use of political conditions to construct an interpretation of national identity.

Israeli identity is particularly interesting because it can serve as sort of laboratory for how social, political, and cultural resources are marshaled in the service of identity construction. And it is a good example of the instrumental construction of identity. Israel is a new state that differs from others in that it had no preexisting nationhood. The early Israeli immigrants shared no common culture, and new immigrants after the establishment of the state came from diasporic communities in many parts of the world. Still, Israel benefited from the common sense of Jewish nationhood. Even though this was not a geographically bounded national territory, and Jews lived as minorities with different languages, cultures, and appearance, they believed in a common ethnic descent. This included a common religious heritage, language, and affection for a territorial area (ancient land of Israel). As Smooha explains, these were the common bonds and ideological foundations of the state of Israel but the task of the Zionists was to organize these instrumental resources into an identity. Thus, Jews that began to settle in Israel were not called immigrants but “returnees” connoting their temporary absence from the homeland and their return to it with full rights. Various symbols of the state (e.g. Star of David, blue stripes, menorah) are taken from religious and biblical history, which is shared by Jews and easily identifiable by everyone.

Jewish ethnic identity in Israel has been strongly encouraged by assimilationist policies (Smooha, 2004). In order to seek a stronger base of unity the identification of ethnic differences was discouraged. Even though there were obvious differences (physiological and cultural) between Jews from Arab countries and Eastern Europe, these differences were less important than common Jewish ethnic heritage. All Jews are granted automatic and full citizenship. Jews from Arab countries do not go to culturally separate schools or are encouraged to foster a distinct Jewish identity (Smooha, 2004). There is certainly individual prejudice and economic and inequities, but these are outside official state efforts to fashion a cohesive Jewish ethnic identity. And, of course, nothing solidifies an ethnic identity like existential threat. The relentless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the conflict ethos that permeates the culture, cultivates unity among Jews. Ethnic identity in Israel is produced and reproduced by politics, social class, and the ethnic separation that has characterized the Mizrahim and the Ashkenazi since the early days of the state. For the case of Israel, Smooha (2004) describes the persistence of ethnic identity and the major fault lines that divide ethnic groups (class, economics, cultural hegemony, conflict).

Identities develop communicatively in the context of relationships but the Israelis and Palestinians are in the unique position of developing group identities under conditions of conflict. When this happens, the open flow of information stops and individuals feel threatened. They feel destabilized and a strong sense of self preservation ensues. The impulse to respond in a violent manner is activated as an act of self preservation. This causes members of respective groups to “protect” themselves and “defeat” the other. The entire flow of information in the environment becomes distorted such that the normal refinement of ideas about ourselves that produces growth and development closes down. Group polarization becomes apparent and our negative images of the other become frozen in time. The development of our ethnic or group identity no longer incorporates new images of the enemy group, especially as contact with the other group diminishes or becomes informally restrictive. Under normal conditions processing new information that leads to identity change and development is self-protective and allows us to function and manage the world. But frozen identities under conditions of conflict close down the learning process as a new form of survival.

Identities become rigid as beliefs solidify and each group considers its view of events as most accurate. Attitudes about responsibility and blame take on great certainty. In Maoz and Ellis (2001) we found that Israelis and Palestinians argued from positions of certainty and because each side is relatively closed off from the other, their conclusions about resolving the conflict were formed in informational isolation. This resulted in conclusions that were unrealizable and based on zero-sum thinking because each side dismissed the other’s assessment. Identities fashioned in conflict are particularly characterized by the “blame game.” Since it is unlikely that one looks inward for blame, failures and responsibility are cast on the evil other. This protects a positive self image and maintains the group’s integrity.

Ethnicity is highly implicated in many political conflicts and involved in an identity development that is conflictual as well as ethnic. In other words, during the developmental process is when an ethnic conflict ethos can also become part of an adolescent’s fundamental ethnic identity. They develop not only recognition of membership in a descent group, but an oppositional relationship with an out-group is part of that definition. Strongly ideologically based Israeli-Jews and West Bank and Gaza Arabs, for example, have grown up in a societal milieu where the attachment process to their ethnic group includes an ethos of conflict. This culture of conflict supplies a steady stream of messages about what it means to be a member of an ethnopolitical group. The significant events in the developmental life of young people include religious, political, and cultural rites of passage that fuel ethnic distinctiveness. These are the conditions of intractability when identities are developed and defined in opposition to others. The identity is not one of simply a single implication of ethnic membership formulated normally with a customary amount of pride. Rather, it is a conflictual identity with double implications—the group membership is functional and allows for management in a difficult society, but then continues the conflict.

In work over the years with Israelis and Palestinians (cf. Ellis, 2006; Maoz & Ellis, 2006) it is possible to see the communicative and relational consequences of these conflict based identities. The protection of ethnopolitical group identity plays an important role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides feel threatened and the Israeli state stimulates a sense of humiliation for the Palestinians. And although the two state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state is now accepted by most Israelis, such a state continues to be threatening. There remains a zero-sum mentality that makes a solution that satisfies both sides still illusive. Both sides cling to ideas about what is “right” and have trouble finessing their positions because of their failure to continually process new information. Both sides have a long history of trauma and humiliation. The creation of the State of Israel was painful for the Palestinians and they feel historically marginalized and discriminated against, which has led to cycles of violence and revenge fantasies. The Jews, on the other hand, carry historical victimization and discrimination culminating in the holocaust. Hence, both sides have mirror victimization identities and are locked in a no win argument about who is more deserving. This sort of identity pain can last for decades or even centuries.

Obama Support for Israel Is Strong

One of the least defensible arguments levied against Barack Obama is that he is weak on Israel and does not properly support the security of Israel. This is simply an indefensible position. Essentially the Republican attack machine has made it its business to distort Obama’s record with respect to Israel in an effort to capture Jewish voters. As usual, the strategy has been to take Obama’s recognition of complexity, diplomacy, and slightly more complete understanding of the issues and turn it into a weakness. I grant you that Obama talks about Israel and the Middle East with greater nuance and understanding of what it will really take to solve problems but this does not detract from his support for Israel. He recognizes that Israel is essentially a mirror of the United States and, of course, the importance of security issues for Israel. Those who question Obama simply have to look at the record. Some months ago Obama said that “the United States will always have Israel’s back” and he meant it. I cite just some of the evidence below for how Obama has operationalized his support for Israel.

Apparently, those questioning Obama support for Israel missed the signing ceremony last week of the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act. This was a bill reaffirming the special relationship between United States and Israel and, more importantly, ensuring that Israel has all the necessary weapons and assistance to protect itself. The Enhanced Security Cooperation Act extends loan guarantees to Israel, boosts Israel’s credit rating, and authorizes the sale of $1.6 billion in US weapons available whenever needed. Moreover the law requires that Israel maintain its military superiority in the region and affirms US commitment to defend Israel in the United Nations Security Council.

Obama’s support for a two state solution, consistent with comments made by Netanyahu, is in line with the most prevalent thinking about how to resolve the problem with the Palestinians and maintain the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. The two state solution is increasingly problematic and difficult to impose but it represents strong support for the ethnoreligious core of the Israeli state.

The debilitating sanctions against Iran, who at this time represents the most direct threat to the State of Israel, are mostly the work of President Obama. Iran is now cut off from financial markets, cannot land in many airports around the world, and has oil sales that are a trickle compared to the previous flows. Obama has built an international coalition and stood on the world stage in defense of Israel’s security needs.

Obama’s presidential leadership and staff challenged the international community and prevented the statehood move by the Palestinians in the United Nations. This represented the correct argument that Palestinian statehood should be the result of negotiations between Israel and Palestine, that the establishment of the state through procedures separate from the political realities in which it is embedded would not be recognized by the other nor considered legitimate.

The Obama administration challenged the discredited Goldstone Report which was noteworthy in its biases against Israel and partially responsible for its author distancing himself from his own report. Obama stated clearly that Israel had a right to defend itself when Israel was criticized for its defensive actions off its coast.

It took tremendous courage for Obama to confront the Arab League in Cairo in 2009 and unabashedly declare US support for Israel. Obama told them our support for Israel was steadfast. Expressing some well-placed defensible criticism of Israel (e.g. with respect to the West Bank) should be viewed as part of our support for Israel and its future state; it is certainly no sign of weakness.

A variety of strong Israel supporters, Zionists, and political leaders, from Edgar Bronfman to Ehud Barack call Obama a friend and the leader who has deepened and strengthened the relationship between United States and Israel.

Israel is constantly plagued and harassed by terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and Obama supported Israel’s refusal to negotiate with such groups by announcing that “no country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction.” Israel’s Dome Missile-Defense System was developed in cooperation with United States and is effective for intercepting Hamas and Hezbollah rockets. It is a security system received during the presidency of Barack Obama.

Obama is a thoughtful and decisive leader who recognizes the importance and cultural resonance of Israel. The argument that he insufficiently supports Israel simply does not hold water. The State of Israel is stronger and more secure today because of Barack Obama.

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