THE GAG has been removed from the Independent Media Center (IMC), but the interrogation continues. The IMC, housed in a downtown storefront on Third Avenue, is a collection of left-leaning media activists who came together in the heat of 1999's WTO protests. Since then, their groundbreaking Web site, with live "streaming" from the streets, has become a network of sites in 54 cities around the world, with traffic heaviest during big anti-free trade protests such as those recently held in Quebec.
During the height of last month's raucous Quebec protests against summit negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, on April 21, the FBI and Secret Service showed up on the IMC's doorstep armed with a court order. According to witnesses, the visiting agents claimed that their investigation sought the identity of the people who allegedly posted documents stolen from a Canadian government agency on the Seattle IMC site (which is open for anyone to post on without screening), including classified information relating to President Bush's Canadian travel itinerary. The court order instructed the IMC to turn over detailed data about everyone who had logged onto their Web site in a 48-hour period. Since according to the IMC's Devin Theriot-Orr, the Web site had received some 1.25 million hits in that period, a lot of people were involved. The court also slapped a gag order on the IMC, forbidding it to talk to anyone about the investigation. On Friday, April 27, the court lifted the gag order. Now the IMC is weighing its legal options to try to avoid handing over its records to the government.
According to sources at the IMC, the biggest problem with the investigation is that there was no post about plans related to Bush's security on their Web site. The closest material was two articles, one in French and one in English, posted on the Montreal IMC site containing portions of documents purportedly stolen from a police car in Quebec City on April 20. The documents (http://montreal.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=514) detail police strategies for hindering protests and appear unrelated to Bush. Asked to comment on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Schroeder, who filed for the court order, did not return the Weekly's calls.
The IMC's lawyers have expressed alarm over the order on a number of grounds. Even if the Montreal document was the focus of the investigation and was illegally obtained, publishing it would seem to be protected free speech (think of the Pentagon Papers); a media firm's source of material relevant to a criminal investigation should also be privileged information; and the Privacy Protection Act should also protect Internet user identity. Lee Tien, one of the IMC's attorneys, summarizes: "This order to IMC, even without the gag, is a threat to free speech, free association, and privacy."
Theriot-Orr goes further: "We believe that this action was taken to discourage association with the IMC."
Now as the IMC's fight with the government continues, Theriot-Orr and other activists are frustrated that while some national media have followed the case, the Northwest's media has shown very little interest.
If the federal government had sought the sources or audience of a more mainstream local media outlet, the effort would have made headlines. The lack of coverage when a well-established but overtly dissident local outlet is targeted raises many troubling questions about the conduct of the "free" press in the face of government's strong-arm tactics.