25 February 2010 Edition
INTERVIEW: Human rights defender Paul Corbit Brown on how reporters are being targeted
Big brother is watching you
BY ELLA O’DWYER
HUMAN RIGHTS activists working in a range of fields across the globe recently came together to attend a conference hosted by the Dublin-based organisation, Front Line, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.
Front Line was founded in Dublin in 2001 with the specific aim of protecting human rights defenders at risk, “people who work, non-violently, for any or all of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)”. Front Line says it “aims to address the protection needs identified by defenders themselves” and to provide rapid and practical support to at-risk human rights defenders.
More than a hundred of them gathered in Dublin recently to discuss those needs and other issues.
One participant, Paul Corbit Brown, demonstrated how the media and observers recording issues of public concern can themselves become targets for intimidation and harassment.
Corbit Brown is a journalist and photographer from West Virginia, USA. He was arrested in West Virginia in June 2009 while documenting police harassment of environment protesters. The protest was part of a campaign to end what’s known as Mountain Top Removal (MTR) at a mine. This type of mining involves blasting the tops off of mountains to reach the coal below and often results in the reduction of the height of the mountain by hundreds of feet. The blasted rock is then thrown into the valleys below to create ‘valley fills’. The valley fills, in turn, contaminate surrounding streams, leading to health risks for local communities.
Paul, along with another journalist, was arrested while documenting the protest and charged with “conspiracy”, a catch-all charge requiring minimum substantive evidence.
His wallet, house and car keys, cell phone, medicine, voice recorder and camera bag were taken by local police and sent to the FBI.
“Ten thousand dollars’ worth of cameras were destroyed,” he tells me, “and local police took all my personal data from my cell phone and my cameras and it was all distributed amongst several different police agencies, including the FBI.”
The First Amendment to the American Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
“I believe in the right to free assembly and a free press,” Brown explains. “This has been a big area of concern in the U.S. for the last eight years, ever since the Bush administration came into office. After he and his people came into power they began to work their way to break down the Constitution. Bush himself, on many occasions, made it clear that if you didn’t agree with what he was doing you were unpatriotic.
“I have a lot of hope for Obama but I have to tell you that he has a lot to learn, even though he himself appears to be a genuine character and a good man. But there are people in the Government who have had a taste of the power to control the media to that degree and to basically spy on the public.”
The infringement on the First Amendment flies right in the face of everything journalism stands for, he says.
“It’s just so ironic that the people who wrote the Constitution for the United States ensured that the right to free speech and a free press was enshrined in the First Amendment and yet in recent years it’s been the very first thing to be attacked. The Constitution was written in 1787 – it’s over 200 years old. It’s a big disappointment when you have a belief system all your life that tells you there is a constitution that protects you – something you believe wholeheartedly and one day you wake up and realise that those rights aren’t as real as was promised to you.”
This was something of a rude awakening for Paul and an unnerving one at that.
“It becomes very frightening when you’re arrested for exercising what you believe to be your rights. It’s a very frightening place to be. And this is happening in America, a country which calls itself the epicentre of democracy.”
Despite the environmental damage and the consequent health and safety factors involved in MTR mining, it’s clear that the mining industry in West Virginia has its own allies and will brook no opposition to its project. There are, of course, echoes of Shell’s ambitions in Bellinaboy and the Shell to Sea campaign.
“Even years ago this was happening. When I was working part-time for a prominent newspaper that was supposed to include issues around the mining industry, the paper refused to cover the story. In fact, one day my boss cornered me in the photodesk darkroom and told me that if I didn’t stop speaking at rallies and protesting about the mining activities that he was going to fire me. That was the editor of the newspaper who told me that.
“So this is what we’re dealing with. This industry and the government have been complicit in repressing the truth.
“I don’t know how Obama is going to be about all this. His administration wasn’t directly involved in what happened to me. It was the local authorities that took it to the FBI. The FBI, working in co-operation with Homeland Security, established what are called ‘intelligence fusion centres’ and what these centres are doing is collecting information from a lot of different sources.”
Is he worried about his safety at this stage?
“I’m not really worried about the government harming me,” the journalist says, “but I have had my life threatened by people close to the mining industry and I’m not the only one. So many people I’ve worked with have had threats.”
Nevertheless, Paul hasn’t lost motivation.
“What keeps me inspired is that there are glimmers of hope. I’m able to document these things and get information and develop public awareness. It’s a long, long struggle. I have a very keen awareness that Martin Luther King once said that ‘the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice’. That’s what keeps me going. I know that the efforts of a lot of people will continue to move thing towards justice.
“Such conferences as the Front Line event in Dublin is an example, and it’s been a very powerful and moving experience for me. After all, there is always darkness before the dawn.”
At the finale of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama made a speech in Virginia. He said:
“If you’ll stand with me then I know that we can win Virginia and we can win this election and we can finally bring the change we need to Washington.”
He emphasised his promising remarks by saying:
“I feel like we got a righteous wind at our backs here.”
Well let’s hope it is the wind of change people like Paul Corbit Brown are looking for.
Paul Corbit Brown after being arrested while reporting on a non violent protest in West Virginia Photo: Antrim Caskey