Free speech advocates say the six-day shutdown of nearly two dozen Web sites belonging to Indymedia is a severe blow to democratic principles and, perhaps, an ominous sign of things to come.
An international collective of journalists born out of the combative World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle five years ago, Indymedia has evolved into a leading outlet for progressive media activism, particularly the anti-globalization movement.
While the motives behind the Oct. 7 seizure of Indymedia’s London servers are still unclear, some are convinced it was orchestrated by the United States, especially since agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued the subpoena to Rackspace, the U.S.-owned Web host.
"This is not an isolated incident. It’s part and parcel of a campaign by the U.S. government to use other governments to push their agenda some of us call it ‘policy laundering,’" said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s program on technology and liberty.
The FBI has been tightlipped about the raid, stating only that the seizure was "not an FBI operation" and that it sought the subpoena on behalf of Italy and Switzerland. Indymedia activists speculate those governments were fishing for information on mass protests of the G8 (group of eight most industrialized nations) summits in Genoa in 2001 and Evian in 2003.
Rackspace was barred from disclosing details of the subpoena, except to say it was issued "pursuant to a Mutual Legal Assistance treaty, which establishes procedures for countries to assist each other in investigations such as international terrorism, kidnapping and money laundering."
"This is clearly going beyond tracking down al-Qaeda cell members," Steinhardt said, referring to the terrorist group believed responsible for the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon and the reason for which the Bush administration launched its "war on terrorism" soon after 9/11.
He considers the seizure, "an indication of the growing importance of independent media and Internet communications, which have become the medium through which dissent is expressed. Unfortunately, this is a time when dissent is not being tolerated and vehicles for dissent are being punished."
The servers were returned without explanation on Oct. 13, although Indymedia says it will not use them until they have been checked for tampering.
The group is also reportedly seeking an injunction to stop the export of data seized in the raid, including correspondence between Indymedia journalist Mark Covell, who was severely beaten during the Genoa G8 meeting, and his attorneys relating to a lawsuit against the Genoa police.
Indymedia has drawn the attention of U.S. authorities in the past for its coverage of the Republican National Convention in New York in August, and protests against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) in Quebec City in 2001.
In both instances, federal agents tried to obtain private records from Indymedia web servers and were rebuffed.
Media analysts say that in the post-Sept. 11 era, authorities must work even harder to strike a balance between upholding the law and respecting civil liberties, particularly when there does not appear to be evidence of an actual crime, as in the case of Indymedia.
"Governments need to preserve both safety and freedom. Investigations can be conducted without disrupting and compromising media organizations," said Jeffrey Smith, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin.
"Officials often think they can rely on security rationales to roll over essential rights. They really lose their heads and respect for democratic processes when they decide a threat is looming," he added in an interview.
"The problem is that dangers never disappear. Terrorism of some kind has always been with us and always will be. Creating a police state is not the answer."
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush passed the USA PATRIOT Act, which curtails civil liberties under various circumstances in the guise of investigating "terrorist" activities.
For example, the Act gives the government authority to monitor phones or computers used by a suspect or target of a special Justice Department warrant, and allows the detention of non-citizens without formal charges.
The administration has long talked of passing "PATRIOT Act II." Known as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, it has never been introduced in the U.S. Congress, but a leaked Justice Department draft refers to expanded surveillance and prosecutorial powers and the ability to issue top-secret foreign intelligence surveillance court warrants to include U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activities.
A version debated in the House of Representatives earlier this month would also authorize sending terrorism suspects to countries known to practice torture.
Numerous journalism associations flocked to the defense of Indymedia over the last week although mainstream news outlets in the United States paid little attention to the story.
"The beauty of the Internet has been the way it allows free flow of information," said Mark Bench, executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee. "We are concerned that press freedom may be compromised, that the freedom to express opinions and information on the Internet may be curtailed."
Next November, governments and civil society representatives will gather for the Second World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, and Bench worries that some states plan to work openly there for restrictions on press freedom and information flow via the Internet.
But the bigger picture is that corporate control of traditional media has undermined its ability to serve the public interest, leaving it to alternative outlets like Indymedia to tell the other side of the story, said Robert Shaw of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
"We basically want to see changes in the commercial media system and greater respect for the work of independent journalists, " said Shaw.
"Indymedia is strengthening social democratic values in the context of globalization, even as political and economic power is being maintained in the hands of a wealthy minority."
(Inter Press Service)