Trump DOJ Seizure of 27 Allegedly Iranian Government Website Domains a Threat to Free Speech

Interview with Gareth Porter, independent investigative journalist, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

In the long-running propaganda war between the U.S. and Iran, the U.S. Justice Department announced on Nov. 4 that it had seized 27 online domains, claiming these websites were controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, against which the DOJ was enforcing active U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

However, one of the news sites taken down — with no proof that it was controlled by Iran — was the American Herald Tribune, which is based in Canada and features real Americans posting pieces under their own names in opposition to U.S. foreign policy toward Iran.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Gareth Porter, a long-time investigative journalist who has written about Iran in various publications, most recently for the Grayzone news site. He maintains that “This move to actually seize a website that was accused of being a secretly state-sponsored site — without the slightest evidence — is another major step toward state control over what political content is allowed on the Internet. He warns that “this move by the Trump Department of Justice is a flashing red light that all supporters of freedom of thought and expression should condemn.”  Here, Porter talks about the threats to Internet freedom and what can be done in response.

GARETH PORTER: From my point of view, this is a very disturbing development. This was part of a larger set of crackdowns, removals, by the Justice Department of the Trump administration against Iranian-related websites that have cropped up over the past few years. But American Herald Tribune, I would argue, is a bit different because when Facebook moved against a larger group of websites, both Russian and Iranian, a few months ago, they did rule against the American Herald Tribune. But unlike the other cases, they never provided a clear rationale for doing so. I wrote about this at the time, pointing out the anomaly, if you will, that Facebook went ahead and did this but never announced it officially, never released anything to the press for months and months and it was extremely suspicious in that it suggested they hadn’t really gotten the information that would provide the excuse for doing so, and they just grouped it in with other websites that they claimed to have other information to base their judgments on.

Now, in this case, to briefly describe the American Herald Tribune, this is a website that has genuine Americans writing under their own names, with their own points of view of U.S. foreign policy, and they are people who genuinely oppose U.S. policy toward Iran. They are quite exercised about it. They’re quite upset about it. But some of the writers are less well informed and perhaps some are not very well qualified. But the point I’m making is that they are genuine in terms of who they are and holding their own opinions. There’s no legitimate argument here that they are somehow false names or false fronts using a website to advance Iranian interests or acting on behalf of Iran. It just doesn’t hold up.

My point here is that this move by the Justice Department and the FBI is extremely dangerous because it sets a precedent that can be followed up in the future, whenever an administration wants to get rid of a pesky website that is highly critical and gaining some traction within public opinion, this is a model for how they can do it. There’s no fundamental legal reason for it that is legitimate; there is no reasonable factual basis for it, and therefore it is something that needs to be opposed very strongly by people who care about freedom of belief, freedom of writing, freedom of the press in the U.S. That’s the short version.

MELINDA TUHUS: Can you comment on the role of big tech in having outsize influence on our lives?

GARETH PORTER: Absolutely. And the problem is – I just made a comment on this system of legal restrictions, sanctions and punishment of Iran and others who get caught up in it because of those restrictions, and that’s pretty scary. But this Big Tech power over our lives is much more far-reaching and therefore should be much for frightening to anyone who cares about their freedom. And this is not a case where someone could say, I have nothing to worry about because I’ve done nothing wrong. Because this power affects every aspect of our lives and should be resisted in every manner possible.

MELINDA TUHUS: What can people do about this erosion of freedom of the press?

GARETH PORTER: That’s a very good question, and it’s also a very difficult question. Both of these issues — and all the other issues that are now at stake in the disorder and decline of the U.S., the danger to the world in terms of the environment, and all the rest of it — none of it can be addressed without political system change. So I think the answer to all of the above is that we need a new political system that begins with organizing a movement that is responsive to the real needs of people, having a foreign policy and a military policy that is going to end the kinds of actions and policies that we’ve been talking about, in this case with regard to Iran, are very high on the list — certainly on my list, that’s for sure. But they are part of a broader range of actions or projects that have to be brought to the surface and acted upon by the American people.

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