South Korean prosecutors indicted a social media and freedom of speech activist this week for reposting messages from the North Korean government's Twitter account.
It seems the U.S. State Department takes tweets and blogs just as seriously. I represent a State Department 23-year-veteran for the Foreign Service, Peter Van Buren, where the State Department monitors his personal Internet activity on his home computer during his private time. Peter Van Buren wrote a book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, which is highly critical of gross reconstruction fraud in Iraq.
A month before the publication of his book, Mr. Van Buren began to experience a series of adverse personnel actions, which are ongoing today. The State Department tried a variety of different tactics to censor Mr. Van Buren's book and prevent him from promoting it. After vague references to ethics rules failed, it tried threats of criminal action. After those failed, it started coming down on his blogs (which had been posted since April 2011 without criticism) and LIVE media appearances, saying they needed to be pre-cleared.
Sounds familiar in light of South Korea's recent attempts at censorship. South Korea brought the recent charges under its National Security Law – which bans "acts that benefit the enemy" but fails to specify what those acts are.
Apparently, tweeting satirical pictures of North Korean propaganda count as "acts that benefit the enemy:"
In a North Korean poster he altered and uploaded on Twitter, he replaced a swarthy North Korean soldier's face with a downcast version of his own and the soldier's rifle with a bottle of whisky
This is not a national security case; it's a sad case of the South Korean authorities complete failure to understand sarcasm, Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director of the human rights group Amnesty International
This week, the State Department proved it was equally unable to understand sarcasm, telling Mr. Van Buren to remove the State Department Seal from a satirical blog his posted. Here's what Van Buren had to say about this latest in the State Department's string of retaliatory actions:
Not to suggest State is overstaffed, but somehow in managing all those international thingies they also have time to demand that I remove the State Department Seal from a blog post. The post, linked here, used the Seal as part of a satirical/parody memo from Hillary to the media, instructing them on how the Department wants them to not tell the truth about events in Iraq. No sentient being could have confused that blog post with an actual State Department memo.
Stifling speech is the stuff of dictatorships, not democracies. If the U.S. is to be a leader in democracy, the State Department should take the lead and encourage free speech, even critical speech.
The hypersensitivity to social media isn't the only common ground the U.S. has with South Korea these days. In South Korea,
Rights advocates here charge that the government of President Lee Myung-bak, as the past military dictators did, was selectively using the National Security Law to create a chilling effect among those critical of its policies.
The same exact thing can be said of the U.S. – using the Espionage Act to create a chilling effect of those critical of its policies. The Obama administration has brought more Espionage Act prosecutions against so-called "leakers" – who are more often than not whistleblowers – for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidents combined.
As for Mr. Van Buren, GAP, has filed a whistleblowing reprisal complaint with the revamped Office of Special Counsel on his behalf, but hopefully the State Department will recognize that obstructing employee free speech with selective monitoring of employees' online activities and hypersensitivity to things like the State Department seal is not the way to treat 23-year veteran employees.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.