An active, healthy, and unrestricted press is one of the pillars of democratic society and a basic requirement for freedom. Without anyone to hold government and corporate players to account, a free society becomes totalitarian. When we shine a spotlight on our institutions, we are better able to stop them from shining a spotlight on every aspect of our lives. In this way, a free press is essential for privacy.
Journalism has changed drastically in a few short years, shaped by the digitization of government and industry, a regular cadence of leaked information, and always-on mobile devices with cameras that are capable of live streaming. The Internet surrounds us with more information than ever and there is an increasing need for thoughtful analysis as well as fearless, investigative journalism. As Freedom of the Press Foundation's 2019 report puts it, "It’s no secret that press freedom is under threat both in the U.S. and around the world. Worse yet, journalists are increasingly attacked by authoritarians who refuse to bow to public pressure."
At The Privacy Issue, we've decided to make our contribution to press freedom by highlighting repression of journalists in five countries, below. This list is not comprehensive and each case is deserving of a lengthier examination, but discussing them in tandem reveals disturbing similarities, connections, and trends.
Brazil's right-wing President Bolsonaro came to power in 2018 after a turbulent and controversial election, which included the purging of millions of voters from the rolls and Bolsonaro supporters holding guns and taking selfies as they cast their ballots. It's easy to predict that a candidate who advocated torture and police killings during his campaign would become an enemy of the press in office. With the Amazon burning and becoming a source of carbon emissions for the first time in history, strong and fearless journalism is perhaps needed more than ever. Bolsonaro dismisses the deforestation as "lies" and, among other denials, refuses to recognize there are millions of people suffering from hunger in the country. Brazil is becoming a place where "truthiness" reigns, a reality that requires the jailing of independent journalists.
Brazilian resident Glenn Greenwald became a household name in 2013 by telling the world about the NSA's massive and pervasive surveillance programs. Thanks to Edward Snowden's trove of documents, carefully verified and mined by Greenwald and a small team of international journalists, there can be no doubt that the U.S. counter-terror programs of the early 2000s resulted in near-total surveillance of the Internet, as well as targeted attacks on both allies and enemies, domestic and foreign. It's impossible to overstate the importance of the Snowden revelations, a watershed moment in the 21st century that has led to both an evolution in counter-surveillance technology and an increasing sophistication in nation-state cyber warfare.
Greenwald has not rested on his laurels and continues the investigative journalism that made him famous for The Intercept Brasil. In 2019, he published an explosive exposé on high-level corruption behind the Operation Car Wash investigations and legal proceedings. The government's Operation Car Wash probe started in 2014 and resulted in thousands of warrants and the jailing of former President Lula.
An anonymous source leaked an archive of conversations and other evidence to Greenwald that suggests judges and prosecutors in the Operation Car Wash probe were collaborating to prevent then-President Lula's political party from winning the 2018 elections. These reports ultimately led to the release of Lula and have sparked criticism of Bolsonaro and his powerful justice minister, Sergio Moro, a former judge in the Operation Car Wash cases. As The Intercept describes:
Perhaps most remarkably, after Bolsonaro won the presidency, he created a new position of unprecedented authority, referred to by Brazilians as “super justice minister,” to oversee an agency with consolidated powers over law enforcement, surveillance, and investigation previously interspersed among multiple ministries. Bolsonaro created that position for the benefit of the very judge who found Lula guilty, Sergio Moro, and it is the position Moro now occupies. In other words, Moro now wields immense police and surveillance powers in Brazil — courtesy of a president who was elected only after Moro, while he was a judge, rendered Bolsonaro’s key adversary ineligible to run against him.
Greenwald was charged with cybercrimes in January 2020 to silence his ongoing series on Operation Car Wash. The move to charge him was denounced internationally and across the political spectrum, widely viewed as criminalization of journalism. Whether there was a U.S. government role in this persecution of Greenwald is not known.
Greenwald does not feel safe in the U.S. — and he is correct to fear federal prosecution or detention, given the U.S. government's attempts to get their hands on Edward Snowden and his subsequent exile in Russia. In pursuit of Snowden, the U.S. was able to influence the actions of many countries. This included the rerouting and grounding of the President of Ecuador's plane in Austria and the detention of David Miranda, Greenwald's partner, at a UK airport under "Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act".
It is appropriate, then, to heed Snowden's warning about the charges against Greenwald: "The most essential journalism of every era is precisely that which a government attempts to silence. These prosecutions demonstrate that they are ready to stop the presses — if they can."
A judge eventually decided not to proceed with the cybercrime charges "for now", leaving the window open to try Greenwald in the future. As we'll see in other countries, allegations of "hacking" and other cybercrimes are a continuing source of press repression, and have resulted in the jailing of both journalists and their sources.
It may be no surprise to see Saudi Arabia on this list, given the reputation of its leaders for repression, cruelty, and rigid control of the population. With the strong support of the U.S., a partnership that has seen billions of dollars flow between the two states, Saudi Arabia continues to dominate Middle East politics. This grip is strengthened by harsh limits on press freedom that go far beyond the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
In a detailed 2020 report, Amnesty International describes Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) as "an instrument of repression to silence dissent". As in other countries, this court was established for the stated purpose of counter-terrorism, a mandate that has been expanded to include cybercrime. Since 2011, however, at least 95 individuals involved in peaceful activism and journalism have been tried before the SCC — and calling the proceedings "trials" is far too kind. As Amnesty describes:
Trials before the SCC are a mockery of justice. The hearings are frequently held wholly or mostly in secret. The judges demonstrate clear bias against defendants. They do not rigorously examine and question prosecutors’ assertions,and routinely accept defendants’ pre-trial “confessions” as evidence of guilt without investigating how they were obtained, even when the defendants retract them in court and say they were extracted by torture.
The report is an eye-opener and outlines case after case where any iota of free expression is silenced and both human rights activists and journalists are arbitrarily detained and punished. The list includes Abdullah al-Duhailan, journalist and Palestinian rights activist, and Fahad Abalkhail, a prominent supporter of the "Women to Drive" campaign. Since April 2019, they and at least 11 other activists have been detained without charge.
As the most powerful and influential actor on the world stage, the U.S. plays a strong role in the suppression of a free press, both at home and abroad. Rather than document a long history of abuses, let's focus on the crossroads of the global information system and the U.S. war machine, a connection that shapes journalism worldwide. Data leaked from U.S. wars and published on the Internet has proven to be a powerful tool to inform public debate, giving us transparency about the actions and intentions of the world's largest military.
Chelsea Manning was a U.S. Army intelligence analyst with a conscience. She could not ignore U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and, when faced with the evidence, decided the world should know. While stationed in Iraq in 2010, she had access to SIPRNet (the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network) and JWICS (the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System) and decided to exfiltrate approximately 400,000 documents about operations in Iraq and 91,000 documents about Afghanistan.
After contacting the New York Times and Washington Post, which were either not interested or never replied, she disclosed the archive to WikiLeaks via their submission form over the Tor anonymity network. This trove of documents became known as the "Iraq War logs" and the "Afghan War logs" and revealed information on human rights abuses and the killing of civilians by U.S.-led coalition forces, as well as a history of the wars that is undoubtedly within the public interest.
Through connections in U.S. hacker culture, Manning made contact with high-profile "grey hat" hacker Adrian Lamo. She confided in Lamo, who reported her to the FBI and U.S. Army authorities, stating that Manning was not only responsible for the war logs but also the "Collateral Murder" video and a huge archive of diplomatic cables. Manning was promptly arrested, and what followed was a long series of detention in military bases that included gross mistreatment and what can only be described as physical and psychological torture. Eventually, after a guilty plea and a commutation of her sentence, she was released in 2017.
That's not the end of the story — Manning is now in prison again for refusing to testify in the U.S. case against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. In May 2019 she was detained and held in "effective solitary confinement". She was released in May 2019 and, later that month, detained again for her inability to pay exhorbitant court fees. Her continuing detention is an affront to whistleblowers and journalists around the world, sending a strong message from the U.S. government that anyone attempting to provide public transparency about war crimes will be severely punished. Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, described Manning's 2019 confinement unequivocally as "torture":
I express serious concern at the reported use of coercive measures against Ms. Manning, particularly given the history of her previous conviction and ill-treatment in detention. It is my understanding that the practise of coercive deprivation of liberty for civil contempt... involves the intentional infliction of progressively severe mental and emotional suffering for the purposes of coercion and intimidation at the order of judicial authorities. Indeed, victims of prolonged coercive confinement have demonstrated post-traumatic symptoms and other severe and persistent mental and physical health consequences.
Supporters of a free press and public transparency must make their voices heard and oppose Chelsea Manning's detention, a particularly-poignant case given its connections to anti-press prosecution on the opposite side of the Atlantic.
The UK is undergoing a transformation, due not only to Brexit but also to a rise in surveillance and a growing police presence in daily life. A pioneer in closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras, the UK has now implemented facial recognition technology (FRT) across British public spaces, silently rolling out FRT and fining anyone who tries to cover or obscure their face. This technology is particularly ubiquitous in London, where Julian Assange has been deprived of liberty since 2012.
Assange is the pioneering editor of WikiLeaks, a publisher that has gained both notoriety and acclaim for its commitment to public transparency. The organization may be best known for revealing the correspondence of the U.S. Democratic Party in 2016, but they have also disclosed leaks about the inner workings of politics and war in many countries, including a giant archive of documents about Russian surveillance contractors.
WikiLeaks also helped to improve global cybersecurity by publishing Vault 7 and Vault 8, a stockpile of U.S. cyberweapons that could target nearly every computer and phone on the planet and much of our Internet infrastructure. Without responsible disclosure of these exploits by WikiLeaks and the subsequent mitigation and patching of vulnerabilities by developers and companies, the Internet would be a much more volatile and dangerous place.
Julian Assange's legal troubles began in 2010, with him becoming the subject of sexual assault allegations by two women in Sweden. Extensive legal proceedings followed, ultimately resulting in Assange's application for political asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012. He offered to answer more questions from Swedish authorities about the 2010 allegations, but would not leave the Ecuadorian Embassy for fear of extradition to the U.S. After many years of confinement in the embassy, no progress in any legal proceedings, and no formal charges against Assange having been filed, it became clear that he was in limbo — under arbitrary detention at the embassy, as the UN's Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded in 2015:
Mr. Assange has been subjected to different forms of deprivation of liberty: initial detention in Wandsworth prison which was followed by house arrest and his confinement at the Ecuadorian Embassy. Having concluded that there was a continuous deprivation of liberty, the Working Group also found that the detention was arbitrary because he was held in isolation during the first stage of detention and because of the lack of diligence by the Swedish Prosecutor in its investigations, which resulted in the lengthy detention of Mr. Assange... The Working Group therefore requested Sweden and the United Kingdom to assess the situation of Mr. Assange to ensure his safety and physical integrity, to facilitate the exercise of his right to freedom of movement in an expedient manner, and to ensure the full enjoyment of his rights guaranteed by the international norms on detention.
Despite these conclusions and escalating fears for his health, Assange was confined in the embassy until police stormed the building, forcibly dragged him from it, and put him in custody. Assange now faces U.S. extradition for charges made public in 2018 when federal prosecutors mistakenly revealed the case made against him under the Espionage Act. Charged with the crime of conspiring with Chelsea Manning to gain unauthorized access to a confidential computer system, he awaits the outcome of his legal battles in Belmarsh Prison in London, where he was held in solitary confinement with steadily-deteriorating health until January 2020, when he was moved to the general inmate population. Though his transfer from a medical wing may be a "dramatic climbdown" by prison authorities, Assange must still defeat extradition to the U.S., where he might face torture or capital punishment for his alleged crimes. There are powerful political forces at work here, as Edward Snowden has noted:
I think it’s really disheartening to see this happen for a number of different reasons. On one, when you look at the timeline behind Ecuador’s decision to revoke asylum from Julian Assange in the first place, they got a loan from the IMF for some ridiculous amount of money, like $4.2B, one month before they decided to do this. And then the week after Julian has been kicked out of the embassy and taken off to prison for his work with the Chelsea Manning disclosures back in 2010, we have Ecuador’s President going to the United States to get a pat on the back and a "nice job" and whatever we’ll hear about in 15 years.
Julian Assange will continue to be a polarizing figure but he is also a political prisoner. As he feared all along, he is now facing extradition as an enemy of the U.S. state for his "conspiring" with Manning — work that is, put in proper context, a journalist communicating with his source.
Assange's extradition is not yet a certainty. Those who value press freedom and the human rights of journalists must support Assange's release from prison and the dropping of all charges against him, joining the voices of a growing number of people around the world.
At first glance, New Zealand may seem like a place where there is no repression of journalists. The Pacific island is seemingly isolated from world politics, but nothing could be further from the truth. Kiwis are a part of the Five Eyes alliance with U.S. intelligence agencies and, like neighboring Australia, strategically important due to their proximity to Asia. Through Five Eyes information sharing, the population of New Zealand is also subject to U.S. dragnet surveillance. As Edward Snowden stated in 2014:
Let me be clear: any statement that mass surveillance is not performed in New Zealand, or that the internet communications are not comprehensively intercepted and monitored, or that this is not intentionally and actively abetted by the [Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB)], is categorically false. If you live in New Zealand, you are being watched. At the NSA I routinely came across the communications of New Zealanders in my work with a mass surveillance tool we share with GCSB, called “XKEYSCORE.” It allows total, granular access to the database of communications collected in the course of mass surveillance. It is not limited to or even used largely for the purposes of cybersecurity, as has been claimed, but is instead used primarily for reading individuals’ private email, text messages, and internet traffic. I know this because it was my full-time job in Hawaii, where I worked every day in an NSA facility with a top secret clearance.
One journalist who knows all-too-well what this means is Suzie Dawson, who has reported on Anonymous, Occupy, WikiLeaks, and the U.S. prosecution of fellow Kiwi Kim Dotcom. Dawson believes she was targeted by intelligence agencies for a period of roughly 2011 to 2015, for both her journalism and solidarity with dissidents. For this reason, she now resides in Russia, where she has been seeking temporary asylum. As Dawson describes the situation in her 2016 statement, "Being directly targeted by agencies which are supposed to investigate terrorists, not journalists, has wreaked havoc upon myself and my family. It was made impossible for us to live safely in our home country." When she tried to confirm with government officials whether she was one of the 88 New Zealanders targeted by GCSB and U.S. intelligence, the official responses supported her fears. Dawson remains in Russia, hoping to keep her family safe while she continues to speak, blog, interview, and write deep dives into Five Eyes surveillance.
These cases barely scratch the surface of journalist and source repression around the world. What they do reveal, however, are common themes such as the global influence of the U.S., the accusation of cybercrime as a weapon against journalists, and the chilling effects of violence, surveillance, and detention.
As the Freedom of the Press Foundation's impact report emphasizes, the laws in the U.S. need to be changed:
For government whistleblowers and the journalists they communicate with, fear of Espionage Act prosecution is a major (and growing) obstacle to bringing important stories to the public. And yet, perhaps because the law’s chilling effects on journalism itself are under-appreciated, the urgent need for its reform or repeal has not been widely felt. To wit, despite the trend of its use in both more and worse situations touching critical press freedom issues, the Espionage Act has not yet been a priority of either an outside group nor of any member of Congress.
Protecting the freedom of the press goes well beyond just changing laws, however. As Christopher Parsons, from University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, reminds us, "One of the difficulties we have with mass surveillance as it operates today, especially in the Five Eyes countries, is that there is the law you and I can read — but then there’s the secret law authorizing and empowering the kinds of activities that raise so many concerns."