Glenn Greenwald: Exclusive Video Message for the Frontline Club Awards 2013
transcript from video by Alessandra Neve
“Good evening everyone, thank you so much to the Frontline Club for inviting me to speak with you tonight, thanks as well for inviting me to speak in person: I wish I could have accepted that and been there in person, if the UK and US governments were trustworthy to protect basic freedoms I would be, but they’ve proven that they clearly are not, and therefore I’m not. But I am there with you in spirit and I’m happy to be able to talk with you.
I was speaking a couple of weeks ago with Laura Poitras, the partner with whom I’ve been working on the NSA reporting since we went to Hong Kong together in early June and she’s working on a documentary about everything that happened both in Honk Kong and with the broader scheme of surveillance and she said something very interesting to me, she said as she’s editing her film in Hong Kong she found that we were spending as much time – the three of us, meaning Laura and myself and Edward Snowden – talking about issues of journalism and media strategies as much as we were issues of surveillance.
That was a little bit surprising to me, but the more I thought about it the more I realized how much sense it made, because we knew very early on, when we decided that we were going to report these stories and try to report them as aggressively as we could, that issues of journalism would be at least as much at the forefront of what we were doing as issues of surveillance. We knew that there would be a great debate that would take place over the proper relationship between journalistic outlets and governments, between people who call themselves journalists and those in power, what the responsibilities and obligations are for people who want to do actual adversarial investigative journalism.
And it really turned out that that has – I think – proven to be the case, and there have been at least as many debates spawned about the nature of journalism, about the role that media outlets play in democracies as much as there has been debate over internet freedom, individual privacy and manners of allowing a suspicion system of surveillance to be constructed in the dark. And I think it’s a very good thing, I think we needed to have that kind of a debate about the role of journalism.
One of the reasons that there has been such a debate, I think one of the most revealing aspects to those events, is that traditionally when you have our government, people in power, who’re trying to delegitimize and even criminalize genuinely adversarial journalism, they’re trying to target journalists, they prosecute them, they imprison them, they come up with theories about why it poses a grave danger to the state and cannot be permitted, that’s all to be totally expected. People in power always detest investigative journalism.
Thomas Jefferson, two hundred and fifty years ago, said that the most important thing to have a society run on freedom and reason is to protect freedom of the press because those who do bad things in power are always the first to try and shut up those who bring transparency. That’s totally to be expected, but what I think is different and revealing is that it isn’t really so much political officials or governments which take the lead in trying to delegitimize and criminalize real investigative journalism in the United States and the UK; amazingly enough it’s actually journalists themselves who do that, or at least television actors who play the role of journalists or people who pose as journalists in print, who take the lead from states in demanding that journalism be criminalized.
In the United States the chorus for criminalizing the journalism that we’ve been doing in reporting on NSA and GCHQ spying really didn’t come from government officials, there were a few far right authoritarian figures in congress and elsewhere who called for prosecution first but the person who actually mainstreamed that idea was David Gregory, the NBC host of “Meet the Press”, who really is something of a master of ceremonies for official Washington, who asked me in an interview whether or not I ought to be prosecuted for my work with Mr. Snowden. The following day Andrew Ross Sorkin, who’s a reporter covering Wall Street very favorably, from the perspective of Wall Street, for the New York Times went on his CNBC programme and said that I ought to be arrested, something for which he later apologized, but he created this atmosphere in which the prospect of criminalizing journalism had become actually normalized.
Then when my partner David Miranda was detained at Heathrow airport, a journalist who’s a legal expert for both CNN and The New Yorker magazine went on CNN on two or three consecutive nights in prime time and called David a “drug mule”, an interesting choice of words for someone from Latin America, but even more interesting because it analogized the act of journalism, which is what David was helping to promote and support by carrying documents between myself and Laura for our work for the Guardian, with drug trafficking, the implicit premise being that journalism and investigative journalism is actually criminal.
And to have actual journalists taking the lead in demanding that journalism be criminalized rather than the state having to do this is really quite a remarkable feat but I think it shows just how intensely subservient journalists have become, when it comes to bolstering the interest of the state rather than serving its adversarial watchdogs over it. This has been going on for a long time, when the Obama administration announced a criminal investigation or launched a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks for doing pure acts of journalism, that is receiving confidential information from its government’s source and then publish that information to inform the world about what the most powerful factions were doing – something that poses a profound threat to basic press freedom, just the existence of that criminal investigation – not only did most American journalists not object, they actually cheered that and led the way in demanding the head of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks for the crime of committing journalism. That’s a very dangerous thing when the government can induce journalistic outlets not only to abdicate the responsibility to defend press freedoms but lead the way in demanding their erosion, and that’s one of the reasons why press freedoms in the United States have become so threatened.
And what you seen in the UK is really as profound an assault on press freedoms as we see in any of the countries that we’re trained, as westerners, to conceive of as oppressive whether it be Iran or Russia or China, beginning with the GCHQ’s entry into the Guardian newsroom back in July when they coerced and pressured and bullied the Guardian into destroying their own computers and the materials that were kept on those computers that enabled them to do their reporting on these stories, to the detention of my partner under a terrorism law for the crime of carrying journalistic materials between journalists working for a major newspaper, and they’ve since now not only said that there’s an active criminal investigation pending into the crime of journalism but have also filed people in court explicitly equating journalism with terrorism by defending their invocation of the Terrorism Act, detaining David on the grounds that publication of these stories is and abets the terrorists. The UK is now so abusive of its power that it literally equates journalism with terrorism, there’s now an investigation pending in Parliament into the Guardian to determine whether or not crimes were committed for the act of doing journalism.
So here you have a story, the NSA story, that has created worldwide debate where the source of the story, Edward Snowden, is a hero in many, many countries around the world, where he’s received whistleblower awards, where the reporters working on the story, including the Guardian, have received all kinds of prestigious journalism awards for the reporting that they’re doing. All over the world this is recognized as journalism, except in the United States and the UK, especially the UK, which increasingly is starting to embrace the theory, with greater and greater vigor, that bringing transparency to the world’s most powerful factions for the wrongful acts in which they engage is no longer journalism but it’s actually criminality and even terrorism.
I don’t think we’ve seen threats to press freedom quite this pronounced in the west in many, many years and I think that, back in Hong Kong, when we conceived this story as being at least as much about journalism as about surveillance we proved to be right with the exception that I don’t think any of us had anticipated just how radical and extremist the threats would become to the journalism that we were doing in the US and the UK, and I hope that everybody who believes in press freedom, who values it, who cherishes it, is willing and eager to stand up for it. Not just in this case but in all the instances where basic press freedoms are being threatened.
So thank you very much again for coming this evening and listening, thank you again so much to the Frontline Club for hosting this event and for inviting me to come and speak.”