Sunday Star, 25 August 2013
Media issues are universal In western attempts to balance between public information and privacy rights, only the pundits are winning.
BEHIND THE HEADLINES BY BUNN NAGARA
These are bad times for freedom of information in the West. That’s mainly a problem for the media. These are even worse times for the image of Western media freedom, particularly in Britain and the US. And that’s largely a problem for their governments, especially when they try to lecture other countries on greater democratic freedoms.
Spying scandal: A still frame grab showing Edward Snowden speaking during an interview with ‘The Guardian’ newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong in June. Snowden’s exposé was described as ‘the most significant leak in US history’ by fellow whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. — AFP
First there was the case of Julian Assange, whose Wikileaks online service publishes secret information in the public interest. When it revealed classified US documents, Washington scrambled diplomats to pressure other countries to “get” Assange. So Assange was soon assailed with allegations of sex offences in Sweden in a case pursued by prosecutors rather than the supposed victims. Taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, he said he would face those charges if Stockholm could guarantee he would not be extradited to the US for the Wikileaks case. Sweden refused to give the guarantee, in effect confirming the sex allegations as a pretext. US authorities then went after the alleged source, former US army private Bradley (a.k.a. Chelsea) Manning. US prosecutors filed several charges including “aiding the enemy,” pressing for a sentence of 60 years in prison. The court threw out that charge and gave Manning 35 years, still a longer term than for some murder convictions.
Manning also leaked a video clip showing a US military helicopter shooting two groups of unarmed civilians in Baghdad, including children and some journalists. Sickened by the consistent cover-ups of such wanton attacks, Manning leaked the biggest stash of secret US information ever. Next came the Edward Snowden saga, when the former CIA and National Security Agency analyst released classified NSA information to the US and British press. The Snowden case involved the secret actions of two governments in spying on people, often their own: the US and Britain. Snowden thus leaked the information to two liberal newspapers of repute: the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian. In the 1970s the Post exposed the Watergate scandal that forced the unprecedented resignation of the president (Nixon) and the conviction of dozens of his aides over a political burglary and its coverup. This time, Snowden’s exposé was described as “the most significant leak in US history” by fellow whistle blower Daniel Ellsberg. Snowden once had faith in President Obama’s promise of change, but soon became disappointed. He then proceeded to let the public know about official acts against them conducted as actions by officials in their name (democracy). However, although Snowden’s leaks can expect to attract opprobrium among compatriots, he is not without support among the general public, celebrities and politicians. Former Democratic president Jimmy Carter and former Republican senator Gordon Humphrey are among his supporters. At a closed-door US-British meeting in Atlanta last month, Carter said Snowden’s releases would be better for society since US spying had gone too far and the country no longer had a “functioning democracy.” Der Spiegel, Huffington Post and Inquisitr.com reported on that but not any US mainstream media. In Congress, while the House Intelligence Committee in June was cordial towards the Obama administration’s questionable surveillance activities, the House Judiciary Committee in July wasn’t. None other than Congressman James Sensenbrenner, sponsor of the Patriot Act, became visibly irritated by the Obama administration’s excesses. He said the original purpose was for surveillance to cover national security issues, not everything involving everybody. Washington’s practice of collecting information on “all of this plus all of that” and then making all of it secret to everyone is now of bipartisan concern. Earlier claims of collecting only “relevant” information and spins about basic “metadata” failed to impress. The only impressive feature of the spying scandal is its scope, which is also its most disturbing factor. The NSA is known to run the world’s most extensive spying network, and now British spies are found to operate most extensively online. GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) in Cheltenham spies on some 600 million emails and phone calls a day by secretly accessing global fibre optic cable networks. It is closely linked with RAF Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire, whose name may placate local sentiments since the complex is run by the NSA which forms two-thirds of its 1,200 staff. Its many controversies include allegedly illegal equipment said to violate international arms control agreements and the use of spying activities in industrial espionage to favour US companies internationally. Menwith Hill can tap more than 100,000 phone calls simultaneously.
The Guardian had previously warned readers of the extensive nature of state surveillance, but was not taken seriously. Snowden has now provided the vindication, and in heavy doses. The intelligence data collected is routinely shared among the so-called “Five Eyes” Anglo countries: the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. With Israel accessing US defence information as well, six countries are effectively in the secrets club. Meanwhile New Zealand, jealously guarding its “neutral” image and a measure of goodwill from that with third countries, flatly denied it had been operating under US instructions. But while somewhat credible a decade or two ago, such denials have become rather worn. Amid Wellington’s denials, investigative journalist Nicky Hager revealed a confidential order which lumps journalists together with enemy spies and terrorists. One result was an official claim to revising the order, which has yet to happen. For Britain, Snowden revealed that not only had it been working as chief handmaiden to the US, it was in the spotlight itself – and it reacted vigorously. London went into full attack mode. GCHQ spies recently entered The Guardian’s London office and, without citing legal authorisation, forced journalists to destroy hard drives containing information from Snowden. Their subsequent actions showed further vindictiveness and vengefulness. While the CIA and the NSA would like to have Snowden for lunch, British authorities focused on writers like The Guardian correspondent Glenn Greenwald working from Snowden’s information. The tactics have included pressure, threats and bullying in targeting not just Greenwald but also his partner and assistant, David Miranda. British authorities at Heathrow Airport detained and harassed Miranda, confiscating his belongings and earning an unusually tough rebuke and charges of double standards from the Council of Europe, which operates the European Court of Human Rights. Now Britain is seeking to criminalise the leaks by opening a criminal inquiry into it. All of this has come on the heels of Britain’s Leveson Inquiry on new media regulations. Ironically, it was The Guardian that was instrumental in brokering the need for the inquiry, following widespread phone-hacking by the former News of the World newspaper. The Guardian had warned that hacking by unscrupulous media was more widespread than imagined, only to be pooh-poohed by the ineffectual Press Complaints Commission (PCC). But not only was the PCC proven wrong, some of its top officials were also implicated in the scandal. The result was the Leveson Inquiry, underscoring the need for a new media watchdog. With concerns over a muzzled media set against privacy rights threatened by intrusive media, however, there has been no progress. Regardless of politics or ideology, the need remains for a satisfactory balance between media freedom and privacy. And this is one issue which developed countries are no better off in than developing ones. Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.