Glenn Greenwald and the Intimidation of Journalists

It is both a good and bad time to be a journalist. The internet means there’s more access to information, it’s easier to make yourself heard without a big news agency behind you and news breaks from around the world in moments. But it is also a dangerous time to be a journalist, every day it seems like someone has found a new way to spy on you, more journalists are in jail as of last year than any other time in the last decade and it seems like people are having more and more trouble deciding what a journalist is.

Photo from UN - Sec Gen briefs Journalists
Photo from UN – Sec Gen briefs Journalists

The US Senate seems to think you need some corporation or agency behind you to be a journalist or that it matters how long you’ve been employed. I’ve talked about this before and I disagree. I believe it is the lengths you go to in order to share the truth with the public, to information and educate and provide the context to understand the world we’re in, that makes you a journalist. However those criteria discount many of the overpaid talking heads the Senate seems to have had in mind.

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I’ve also already written about the deeply troubling story of Barrett Brown’s arrest and imprisonment after months of harassment by the FBI for investigating military contracting that the US government would have rathered he hadn’t. Glenn Greenwald was the journalist who first broke the documents leaked by former NSA consultant Edward Snowden.

The reaction to the revelations of widespread illegal surveillance by the NSA was surprising. Rather than turning on their government, many mainstream American journalists turned on Greenwald, calling him an “activist” or a “blogger” rather than a journalist.

Then in August, while travelling between Berlin and their home in Rio, Greenwald’s partner David Miranda was stopped and held for 9 hours under the UK’s terrorism powers.

“One US security official told Reuters that one of the main purposes of the British government’s detention and questioning of Miranda was to send a message to recipients of Snowden’s materials, including the Guardian, that the British government was serious about trying to shut down the leaks.” However it is not part of British law that terrorism powers can be used simply to “send a message”.

Lord Falconer is a qualified barrister and the former UK lord chancellor and he helped write the terrorism powers act and he says: “schedule 7 powers can only be used

“for the purpose of determining whether the detained person is a terrorist. The use of the power to detain and question someone who the examining officer knows is not a terrorist is plainly not for this purpose, so it would neither be within the spirit nor the letter of the law. There is no suggestion that Miranda is a terrorist, or that his detention and questioning at Heathrow was for any other reason than his involvement in his partner Glenn Greenwald’s reporting of the Edward Snowden story.”

During Miranda’s 9 hour illegal detention in Heathrow, his phone, laptop and external hard drive were confiscated. He was forced to give up the passwords to his social media sites.

It’s hardly as if British security forces thought that Miranda was hiding classified material on Twitter. No, this was a tactic of intimidation and humiliation.

Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

When Greenwald said in an interview that he would continue to report on Snowden documents that had not yet been released it was reported as if he were vowing some mad revenge scheme.

“The US and UK governments are apparently entitled to run around and try to bully and intimidate anyone, including journalists – “to send a message to recipients of Snowden’s materials, including the Guardian”, as Reuters put it – but nobody is allowed to send a message back to them. That’s a double standard that nobody should accept.”

Then on Monday the 19th of August only days after Miranda’s detention, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, revealed that UK authorities had been threaten the Guardian UK for weeks if they did not destroy all their materials provided by Edward Snowden.

Agents were then sent to supervise the physical destruction of hard drives in the paper’s basement. Rusbridger described the behaviour as “thuggish” but also useless as of course there were multiple copies around the world so they achieved nothing but, in Greenwald’s own words, to make “themselves look incompetently oppressive”.

The destroyed hard disc and Macbook that held information leaked by Edward Snowden Photograph: Roger Tooth

Multiple journalist protection  and human rights organisations around the world have condemned these acts of intimidation and attempted censorship by the British government, including the Committee to Protect Journalists among others.

The British government are not alone in believing it can silence dissent. Russian authorities have a history of dealing harshly with critical press but recently has cracked down on those reporting on problems around construction in Sochi in preparation for the 2014 Olympics. Azerbaijan has similarly targeted journalists and academics.

There must be vigilance and caution when observing attempting abuses of journalistic freedoms, particularly in countries such as the UK and US that previously so highly valued their freedom of the press.

Reading the story of the detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner and the following harassment of the Guardian, should concern everyone. It should frighten people. The censorship of the press, intimidating and threatening a journalist’s family are hardly the precursors to good times. In fact I would go out on a limb and say that they are a consistent and undeniable sign that we are losing control of government agencies allegedly in place to protect us. Unfortunately we are now subject to them regardless of what country we are citizens of, rather than the agencies being subject to the will of their citizens.

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