Defending and Sustaining Independent Media Centers: the FBI Visit (Not Raid)

  • Defending and Sustaining Independent Media Centers: the FBI Visit (Not Raid)
    I’ve wanted to write about this for a week now, and have only been able to get it out today. Your feedback on this is invited and welcome. Send to

    Last Saturday (4/21) report of an FBI raid on the Seattle Independent Media Center rippled across the Indymedia universe, including popping up on the live webcast from Quebec City. Then it disappeared from the global IMC site, and conspiracy theories abounded. News turned up last Tuesday in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer saying that the FBI didn’t raid, but visited due to stolen security documents from the Summit of the Americas having allegedly been posted on a Seattle-hosted IMC site. The Post also cleared up why the IMC hadn’t reported on it — the FBI got a gag order to keep the IMC from reporting on it.

    Finally, on Friday the IMC got the gag order lifted by the same judge who issued it. They released a lengthy and fairly complete statement about the situation, and then held a press conference.

    Many folks, including me, have expressed relief that their had not been an actual raid, and that there were no warrants to arrest the registered owner of the domain. Yet, that doesn’t mean this was OK. It seems rather clear that the gag order issued against the IMC is an example of unconstitutional prior restraint, that likely wouldn’t have survived judicial scrutiny. The gag order didn’t simply prevent the IMC from disclosing the contents of the alleged stolen security document–something that might be considered defensible, at least from a judge’s perspective. Rather, it prevented the IMC from even reporting that the FBI had visited them or what the visit was about. The court order plainly directs “that INDEPENDENT MEDIA… not disclose to the user of said electronic communication service, nor to any other person, the existence of this Application and Order or the existence of this investigation unless and until otherwise ordered by the Court.” The question that must be asked is, how dangerous could the information had been, especially in light of the fact that the Post-Intelligencer reported on it just three days later, acting on information from the government?

    In this case constitutionality really doesn’t matter because the FBI and the order got the IMC to be silent for a few days–more than enough time for the Summit of the Americas to be over and for the mainstream memory of the Summit and “raid” to fade away. If this short term goal weren’t the whole point of the order, then why would the judge who issued it retract it less than a week later? This case should give one pause as we recognize that in the short term nearly any means can be used to silence the press, and those means can be successful. It takes time and money to fight an illegal or unconsitutional action in court. The New York Times and CNN have teams of lawyers waiting to take on and challenge such a case. What sort of resources do independent media have? Clearly not as much, since it took almost a week to get the order lifted.

    With the success of independent media in the last few years, especially since the creation of the Independent Media Center movement in Nov. 1999, it’s easy for us to miss that part of the success has likely been the result of surprise. Like the enormous protests surrounding the WTO, the powers that be were probably not prepared for such a strong and flexible network like the IMCs. But the FBI visit should serve as notice that they have their sight focused now and are prepared to act. If IMCs and independent media in general are to continue to be an effective check on undemocratic power, and especially if they are to grow into mature and resillient media, then they need resources to bolster their defenses against this power being used on them.

    These are questions that directly relate to a vision I’ve been contemplating: How can indepedent media grow into a sustainable international force? Why can’t a citizen-journalist make a resonable living as a journalist within the independent media? And how can this happen? Finally, can IMCs become fully-sustaining–sustaining both the institution and its most contributing members–while remaing independent and fully democratic as institutions (rather than becoming “alternative” or left-leaning versions of mainstream media outlets, which are run primarily in a top down fashion.)
    I will post more thoughts on this soon…

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