“If I had to choose between a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” –Thomas Jefferson
I just Googled “jailed for insulting” to see what would come up. Here is a sample of what I found: “Cafeteria manager jailed for insulting Turkish president;” “Activist Unjustly Jailed for Insulting Monarchy;” “Student jailed for insulting President;” and “Kuwait’s ruling family members jailed for insulting judges.” I dare say that the search results number in the thousands.
I wasn’t surprised. All my life I have been aware of what happens in other countries when ordinary people criticize or oppose — even in trivial and mundane ways — kings, dictators, chiefs, “presidents for life” and caliphs. No surprise here. That’s what one expects from these “Third World” countries. Of course nothing like that could ever happen here in the United States where rule of law prevails and we have the Bill of Rights as well as the Constitution.
On June 24 of last year a North Georgia publisher and his attorney were indicted on felony charges and landed in jail, when they used an open records request to gather information about possible illegal activity in a judge’s court system. Fanin Focus publisher Mark Thomason and Hiawassee attorney Russell Stookey were released on a $10,000 bond and placed under stringent release conditions, including random drug testing and close communication/reporting requirements.
The judge, Brenda Weaver, according to an interview conducted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution at the time, was quoted as saying that “I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned.” The article goes on to say that “the judge resented Thomason’s attacks on her character in his weekly newspaper and in conversations with her constituents.”
According to the District Attorney who issued the charges at the behest of the judge, the charges were justified.
So, to jail you go because I don’t like your conversations with my constituents.
Where did you say this jailing took place?
Surely it was somewhere across the ocean, no?
According to the story in the AJC, the judge took a personal affront to being investigated by the local press and used her authority to punish the publisher. Ultimately, the indictment brought against Thomason and Stookey was dropped at the request of the judge who came under intense pressure from the legal community. Notice that the charges were not dropped because the incarceration was wrong or that it was unlawful. They were dropped as a result of “pressure” from the judge’s peers and from the public – which resulted from coverage in the news media.
You can Google this jailing and I encourage you to do so. There are more relevant details to the incident but at the end of the day, what happened was a live, real, example of abuse of power by a government official against a civilian in the United States and the power of public opinion and the press to fix the problem.
“Nothing happened until it was leaked to the press” is a story that is repeated over and over again in our country. Whether a story is researched, leaked, or a combination of both, we cannot afford to lose that press which holds government in check and helps maintain “rule of law”.
The balance of power between the state and the people is a fragile one that is maintained in large part by a free and viable news press. There are no back-ups or substitutes if we lose our free and independent press.
I am not saying that the press should get a free pass. It cannot be allowed to become an instrument of the privileged or a single point of view or political belief, or become an enemy of the truth. It must be held accountable by the public. But we cannot afford to kill the messenger when the press strays off course. Instead of killing it we must push it back to the middle so it can continue to do it’s legitimate job. We vote with subscriptions. We vote by watching, reading, or listening or by not doing so. We push the press back to the middle by not supporting biased news organizations of either side and by supporting the unbiased, objective news organizations.
We can’t lose sight of the legitimate