The Top 10 Censored Stories of 2019 • Project Censored

Posted In: News, , National,   From Issue 892   By: Project Censored

20th February, 2020     0

By Project Censored

Introduction by Robert E. Martin

As one who started and has evolved this independent news publication known as The REVIEW 40 years ago, and in a time today when 85% of the advertising revenue generated through social media now goes to three media organizations - Google, Facebook & YouTube - the importance of the Independent News Media becomes more important and significant than ever.

The investigative research team Project Censored, which sprang out of a journalism workshop at Sonoma State University, defines censorship as “anything that interferes with the free flow of information in a society that purports to uphold free press principles.” Sponsored by the Media Freedom Foundation every year since 1976, the Project selects the 25 “most censored stories” on the planet; and every year since 1985 The REVIEW has published their findings, which we are doing again this year in several installments, listed democratically in order of importance according to the Project’s judges.

Through it all, the list of censored stories remains central to Project Censored's mission, which, the editors point out, can be read in two different ways: "as a critique of the shortcomings of U.S. corporate news media for their failure to adequately cover these stories, or as a celebration of independent news media, without which we would remain either uninformed or misinformed about these crucial stories and issues."

The presentation of these stories extends the tradition originated by Professor Carl Jensen and his Sonoma State University students in 1976, while reflecting how the expansion of the Project to include affiliate faculty and students from campuses across North America has made the Project even more diverse and robust.

During this year’s cycle, Project Censored reviewed over 300 Validated Independent News stories (VINs) representing the collective efforts of 283 college students and 24 professors from 15 college and university campuses that participated in the Project’s Campus Affiliates Program during the past year.

Here are their findings.

1. Justice Department’s Secret FISA Rules for Targeting Journalists. October 8, 2019

A pair of 2015 memos, from former attorney general Eric Holder to the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, show how the government could use court orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to monitor the communications of journalists and news organizations.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Freedom of the Press Foundation obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and a lawsuit challenging the lack of disclosure that request yielded.

Since 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has processed requests by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies for electronic surveillance, physical searches, and other forms of investigative actions for foreign intelligence purposes. Holder’s pair of memos spell out the circumstances for processing FISA applications that target “known media entities” or “known members of the media.”

As Cora Currier reported for the Intercept, the secret rules “apply to media entities or journalists who are thought to be agents of a foreign government, or, in some cases, are of interest under the broader standard that they possess foreign intelligence information.” Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney with the Knight Institute, told the Intercept, “There’s a lack of clarity on the circumstances when the government might consider a journalist an agent of a foreign power.” For example, because RT America registered with the Department of Justice as a “foreign agent” in November 2017, reporters working for RT America—and their sources—could be subject to FISA court-ordered surveillance.  For its part, RT reported that the details specified in the memos suggested that it was “highly likely” that both the Trump and Obama administrations had surveilled journalists that they considered to be “foreign agents.”

The revealed memos raise three “concerning” questions about the government’s surveillance of news organizations and journalists, according to Trevor Timm, director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. First, how many times have FISA court orders been used to target journalists, and are any journalists currently under investigation? Second, why did the Justice Department keep these rules secret when it updated its “media guidelines” in 2015? And, third, is the Justice Department using FISA court orders—along with the FBI’s similar rules for targeting journalists with national security letters (NSLs)—to “get around the stricter ‘media guidelines’”?

Historically, the First Amendment has limited surveillance of journalists, as well as efforts to determine their sources. As Cora Currier reported for the Intercept, in January 2015, after the Obama administration secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press and named a Fox News reporter as a co-conspirator in a leak case, Attorney General Eric Holder revised the set of procedures, known as the “media guidelines,” for when government officials could subject journalists to surveillance.

Though the secret 2015 memos specify that FISA applications must be presented to the attorney general or the deputy attorney general for approval before they are submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the memos allow for exceptions and, as Trevor Timm and others noted, FISA rules are “much less stringent” than the Justice Department’s media guidelines for obtaining subpoenas, court orders, and warrants against journalists.

The procedures governing FISA surveillance and national security letters allow government officials to circumvent the media guidelines’ requirements that the information sought is “essential” to a successful investigation, that “reasonable alternative attempts” have been made to obtain the information, and that the government inform the journalist and negotiate with them.

Although reporters are probably aware that they may be subject to surveillance, their sources may not be. The unredacted portions of the Justice Department memos do not specify how to handle information that is gathered, or how to mitigate risks posed by exposing journalists’ sources.

Corporate news outlets reported little to nothing in September 2018 when the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Knight First Amendment Institute made public the two secret memos on targeting journalists and news organizations.

In Spring 2019, a flurry of news stories and editorials, triggered partly by the Mueller Report, focused on Carter Page—a petroleum industry consultant who served as Donald Trump’s foreign-policy adviser during his 2016 presidential election campaign. In October 2016, the FBI had wiretapped Page under authority of a FISA warrant based on evidence that he was operating as a foreign agent on behalf of Russia. However, controversy over the use of a FISA warrant to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser has done nothing at all to raise awareness of the threats posed by FISA warrants that target journalists and news organizations.

Ramya Krishnan, the staff attorney for the Knight Institute, summarized the stakes: “National security surveillance authorities confer extraordinary powers. The government’s failure to share more information about them damages journalists’ ability to protect their sources, and jeopardizes the newsgathering process.”

Trevor Timm, “Revealed: The Justice Dept’s Secret Rules for Targeting Journalists with FISA Court Orders,” Freedom of the Press Foundation, September 17, 2018,, republished by Common Dreams, September 17, 2018,

Ramya Krishnan, “Targeting Journalists under FISA: New Documents Reveal DOJ’s Secret Rules,” Knight First Amendment Institute (Columbia University), September 17, 2018,

Cora Currier, “Government Can Spy on Journalists in the U.S. Using Invasive Foreign Intelligence Process,” The Intercept, September 17, 2018,


2. Think Tank Partnerships Establish Facebook as Tool of US Foreign Policy.  October 8, 2019

Under the guise of fighting “fake news” and protecting US democracy from “foreign influence,” in 2018 social media giant Facebook established partnerships with the Atlantic Council, a NATO-sponsored think tank, and with two US government creations from the Cold War era, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

As a number of independent news organizations reported, despite lofty rhetoric about safeguarding Western democracies, these partnerships have resulted in what amounts to state censorship, with Facebook serving as a tool of US foreign policy.

On May 17, 2018, Facebook announced that it would join forces with the Atlantic Council in order to “identify emerging threats and disinformation campaigns around the world” and to “fight abuse on our platform.” According to Facebook’s director of global politics and government outreach, Katie Harbath, the partnership with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab would “increase the number of ‘eyes and ears’ we have working to spot potential abuse on our service—enabling us to more effectively identify gaps in our systems, preempt obstacles, and ensure that Facebook plays a positive role during elections all around the world.”

As Jake Johnson reported for Common Dreams, “While Facebook’s statement fawned over the Atlantic Council’s ‘stellar reputation,’ critics argued that the organization’s reliance on donations from foreign oil monarchies and American plutocrats puts the lie to the project’s stated mission of shielding the democratic process from manipulation and abuse.”

The Atlantic Council is a Washington, DC–based think tank funded by the US Department of State, the US Navy, Army, and Air Force, and major multinational corporations—including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, global asset management firms and banks, and top military contractors. According to a 2014 New York Times article, between 2008 and 2013 “at least 25 countries” donated tens of millions of dollars to the council. Its conservative-leaning board of directors includes former CIA directors, retired US generals, and hawkish former State Department officials like Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice.

 In a May 2018 article, FAIR’s Adam Johnson noted that, although there is “some diversity of opinion” within the Atlantic Council, “it is within a very limited pro-Western ideological framework—a framework that debates how much and where US military and soft power influence should be wielded, not if it should in the first place.”

In the name of fighting the scourge of “fake news,” Facebook altered its proprietary algorithms in ways that significantly reduced traffic to progressive websites such as Common Dreams and Slate. Without formal warning, Facebook shut down left-wing, Venezuela-linked Facebook pages such as teleSUR English and Venezuelanalysis (although both were reinstituted after protests about their removal). In October 2018, numerous independent news outlets reported on what Jonathan Sigrist, writing for Global Research, described as “one of the greatest Facebook account and page purges” in the platform’s troubled history.

In total, Sigrist reported, 559 pages and 251 personal accounts were “instantly removed” in the name of fighting “fake news” and “Russian propaganda.” Many of the pages and accounts that Facebook took down, Sigrist wrote, were “political (often leftist), anti-war, independent journalists and media outlets” that had been targeted in 2016 by PropOrNot, the website endorsed by the Washington Post but subsequently discredited.

In September 2018, FAIR’s Alan MacLeod detailed how Facebook planned to join forces with “two propaganda organizations founded and funded by the US government: the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI),” allegedly in an effort to combat “fake news.”

The NDI and the IRI were both established under an umbrella organization called the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a nonprofit created by the US Congress in 1983 to influence politics and elections in developing countries.

Facebook’s collaboration with these organizations is especially concerning because, as MacLeod wrote, both organizations have “aggressively pursued regime change against leftist governments overseas.” In the 1980s, the NDI worked to destabilize the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and the IRI supported the attempted 2002 coup d’état against Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chávez.

There has been very little corporate news coverage of Facebook’s partnerships with US government propaganda organizations. As of January 31, 2019, one of the only articles on the topic in the establishment press was a Reuters report that MacLeod referenced in his piece. CNN, Fox News, and NBC News have provided offhand coverage, with only the most basic information, but none have framed Facebook’s actions in terms of censorship.

Adam Johnson, “Media Ignore Government Influence on Facebook’s Plan to Fight Government Influence,” Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), May 21, 2018,

Elliott Gabriel, “Facebook Partners with Hawkish Atlantic Council, a NATO Lobby Group, to ‘Protect Democracy,’” MintPress News, May 22, 2018,

Jake Johnson, “‘Alarming’: Facebook Teams Up with Think-Tank Funded by Saudi Arabia and Military Contractors to ‘Protect’ Democracy,” Common Dreams, May 18, 2018,

Jonathan Sigrist, “Facebook Censorship and the Atlantic Council,” Global Research, October 14, 2018,


3. Indigenous Groups from Amazon Propose Creation of Largest Protected Area on Earth.   October 8, 2019

Sweeping development throughout the Amazon rainforest is an abiding concern for indigenous groups. The Amazon’s extraordinary biodiversity is being destroyed for profits and political gain. In response, an alliance of some five hundred indigenous groups from nine countries, known as COICA—the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin—is planning to safeguard a “sacred corridor of life and culture” covering more than 700,000 square miles, an area about the size of Mexico.

The alliance presented its Bogota Declaration, outlining “the principles and joint vision of the indigenous confederations to protect the Amazon rainforest by using a traditional and holistic perspective,” at the 14th UN Biodiversity Conference, held in Egypt in November 2018.

A report for Common Dreams quoted Tuntiak Katan, the alliance’s vice president, who called the Amazon rainforest “the world’s last great sanctuary for biodiversity” and said, “It is there because we are there. Other places have been destroyed.”

The alliance aims to protect biodiversity in the “triple-A” corridor that spans the Andes mountains, the Amazon, and the Atlantic Ocean. This region faces challenges from agribusiness, mining, and the global climate crisis. But members of the alliance also aim to address territorial rights. As Common Dreams reported, they “don’t recognize modern national borders created by colonial settlers.” Katan, COICA’s vice president, observed, “We know the governments will try to go over our heads.” He said, “This is nothing new for us. We have faced challenges for hundreds of years.”

New right-wing leaders in Brazil and Colombia threaten to undermine COICA’s plans. In October 2018, Jair Bolsonaro, who is now Brazil’s president, indicated that he would only stay in the Paris climate agreement if Brazil was guaranteed sovereignty over indigenous land and the “triple-A” region.

Juan Carlos Jintiach of COICA told Common Dreams that Bolsonaro’s comments about environmental and indigenous issues are especially concerning because three-fourths of the environmental defenders assassinated in 2017 were indigenous leaders, and opposition to agroindustry is “the main cause for assassination of our leaders.”

Although the corporate and independent press have covered right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro’s intent to undermine indigenous rights in order to open Amazonian land for development, the coverage has almost entirely ignored COICA’s proposal to create the world’s largest protected area.

For example, in January 2019 the New York Times covered Bolsonaro’s order to transfer responsibility for certifying indigenous territories as protected lands to the business-friendly Ministry of Agriculture. This otherwise detailed article made no mention of COICA’s proposal for a sanctuary. In March 2019, the Times ran an article on efforts by indigenous groups to resist Bolsonaro’s policies, but the Times positioned the article as an opinion piece rather than a news report. The penultimate paragraph of that article included one sentence on the coalition of indigenous groups proposing an Amazon sanctuary, noting simply that Bolsonaro’s election “calls into question the fate” of their proposal; this sentence linked to the Guardian’s November 2018 report.

Jessica Corbett, “Calling for ‘Corridor of Life and Culture,’ Indigenous Groups from Amazon Propose Creation of Largest Protected Area on Earth,” Common Dreams, November 21, 2018,

Jonathan Watts, “Amazon Indigenous Groups Propose Mexico-Sized ‘Corridor of Life,’” The Guardian, November 21, 2018,



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