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A Chilling Effect on Newsgathering

As more and more details about the mass surveillance activities surface, various news organizations and journalists express concern about the effect ubiquitous eavesdropping has on journalism. Although research and articles are shedding some light on the effect spying has on our society and journalism, the disclosures seem to be far from being over and far more research needs to be done. One thing can be said already though: The little we know is reason for concern.


In an earlier blog entry from September 6th, I discussed the importance of news media in a democratic society and gave some examples of how institutions agencies have attempted to intimidate journalists. My article from September  29th shows why mass surveillance concerns us all. In this article, I will specifically enlarge upon the consequences of mass surveillance on journalism.

Needless to say, hampering a democracy’s press is hampering  democracy itself. In a public comment to the Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies convened to President Obama, a group of scholars, journalists and researchers from Columbia Journalism School and the MIT Center for Civic Media say that mass surveillance “presents a grave threat to the effectiveness of an independent press.” The 15-page letter argues that there is a “discrepancy” between the NSA’s eavesdropping activities and the existing law and policy designed to protect the confidentiality of journalist-source communications. What’s more, a “climate of secrecy” established by mass surveillance methods is itself “harmful” to journalism, as sources aren’t able to find out when they might be spied on, or how “intercepted information might be used against them.” As the letter shows, the NSA does not have to adhere to the policy of the Department of Justice. The double standard is not only “intolerable”, but endangers the communications between journalists and their source. The review group calls for “one set of rules.”

Furthermore, the authors reject the logic of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which asserts that collecting information on everyone is no different than doing the same on specific individuals. “The surveillance of essentially everyone has effects far beyond the surveillance of journalists alone. […] For a free press to function we must also protect the means of communicating with a journalist.” The comment also says that sources have become nervous about talking to reporters, as reported by journalists from various news organizations including the New York Times and the Washington Post. Summing their appeal up, the groups states that “mass surveillance is a serious threat to the constitutionally protected function of a free press, and therefore to democracy itself, because it impinges on the ability and confidence of every possible source who might talk to a journalist.” The possibility for journalists’ communication to be monitored everywhere and anytime poses new challenges for our profession.

At an online news association conference in late October in Atlanta, media professionals were told that they needed to learn about secure and safe communication, meaning they have to use encryption and good security practices. Jonathan Stray from Columbia University reminded participants that while encryption is vital, it doesn’t protect the metadata, i.e. sender, recipient, time, and more. Stray called journalists “targets” who are working in a “high-risk” profession, while media lawyer Nabiha Syed said the bigger problem is that we are missing “clear and transparent procedures that protect right.”

Glenn Greenwald & partner Miranda

Glenn Greenwald & partner Miranda

On August 18, David Miranda, partner of Guardian interviewer of whistleblower Edward Snowden Glenn Greenwald, was detained for nine hours and questioned at Heathrow airport. A controversial British law, which applies only at airports, ports and border areas, allows officers to stop, search, question and detain individuals. Miranda was released, but officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.

In the middle of October, a British Parliamentary committee announced it would investigate The Guardian’s reporting on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks as part of a broader counterterrorism inquiry, while a poll found that more British citizens oppose the whistleblower’s leaks than favor them. At the same time, however, a Pew  Research poll shows that the public values the watchdog role of the of the press more today than before the Snowden leaks. In an August survey, seven in 10 agreed that news organizations “keep leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done”, up from a low of 55 percent a decade ago.


Former Independent editor Chris Blackhurst criticized The Guardian’s publication of the leaks, arguing that they’re not much of a story and that if government authorities contend that they’re not in the public interest, “who am I…to disbelieve them?” Glenn Greenwald responded in an article on his own, attempting to refute Blackhurst’s arguments. Greenwald said Blackhurst’s opinion is a “predominant mindset among many in the media class.” Moreover, he said that that  when journalists do talk this way, “they do us a service, as it lays so vividly bare just how wide the gap is between the claimed function of establishment journalists and the actual role they fulfill.”

Blackhurst's article in The Independent

Blackhurst’s article in The Independent

On October 25th, the N.S.A.’s director, General Keith Alexander, accused journalists of “selling” his agency’s documents and called for an end to the steady stream of public disclosures of secrets. In a roughly 30-minute interview with the Defense Department’s “Armed With Science” blog, Alexander says “it’s wrong that newspaper reporters have all these documents, the 50,000 – whatever they have and are selling them and giving them out as if these – you know it just doesn’t make sense.” He added: “We ought to come up with a way of stopping it.” It doesn’t get much more obvious that this does not comply with the First Amendment.

The Snowden revelations have sent a chill through those reporters covering national security issues. If the NSA can easily gather details about who a reporter phoned or emailed, that sends a signal to whistleblowers that their anonymity can no longer be protected. David Sirota, columnist, journalist and author, shows in his article Obama’s war on journalism how the U.S. President prevented a Yemeni journalist from being pardoned by calling Yemen’s leader. After Abdulelah Haider Shaye exposed his government’s coverup of a US missile strike that reportedly killed “dozens”, he was sentenced to five year in prison. In Sirota’s article, New York Times media correspondent David Carr says that “suggesting that there is a war on the press is less a hyperbole than simple math.”

The CEO of the Associated Press Gary Pruitt recently said that there has been a “chilling effect on newsgathering“.

On the plus side, the disclosure seem to have animated a plethora of media outlets to do in-depth reports and dedicate many of their staff and resources to the effort to inform the public. To which extent they feel genuinely  convinced that this topic deserves all the attention or if they merely jumped on the bandwagon is, I believe, secondary, because all the reports enable readers and viewers to really educate themselves about the surveillance activities. Another positive development, which is in keeping with the extensive coverage, is the international debate Snowden’s leaks have sparked.

However, there seem to be grave detrimental effects on journalism as governments and agencies around the world fear that their inner-most secrets may be revealed. I believe we are at crossroads, both as a society and journalism. Will the vast majority of journalists, sources, and potential whistleblowers be too afraid to speak up? Or will courageous, idealistic men and women not allow governments and institutions to intimidate them and emulate people like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald? It’s up to every single one of us.


A Real Test For Our Profession

After a summer whose number one topic in the news was how the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies were eavesdropping its own people and its allies, I am surprised that I have heard very few people talk about it and read fairly little about it in the news now that I am back in the States.


NSA headquarters in Ford Meade, Md.

After the initial outrage seems to have died down a bit, I thought it was about time to see what people think about the topic and what the media in the US have to say about it. After all, I believe it is an all-important matter, for it concerns our personal freedom.

Two recent articles not only show how the disclosures are far from being over, but they also enlarge upon the media and its specific role in it. The first article, found on, is a reminder how pervasive and alarming the matter still is; the second article, found on the, explicitly shows what can happen to investigative journalists. Since every journalist should have a keen interest in this matter, I highly recommend both pieces.

The crucial role news media play in a democratic society has seldom been more evident than it was this summer. Without newspapers, online news websites, television newscasts, and other media outlets, the world would have never learned about the previously unthinkable extent to which various intelligence agencies around the globe have access to metadata, thanks to the surveillance program PRISM, and even the content of phone calls and e-mails through XKeyscore. Therefore, they can potentially know everything about us. Although Edward Snowden was instrumental in making the news public, he could have never done it with the same effect, credibility, and scope without the help of the media.

Personally, I thought that British daily newspaper The Guardian and the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel which collaborated in publishing Snowden’s disclosures,  struck the balance of informing the public while omitting information that could have endangered people associated with the program. Although they could not prevent the clandestine information from spreading, they are now trying to do what is in their power to avert future leaks. It is disturbing how the U.S. and U.K. governments respond to journalists reporting on the leaks. The surveillance state is obviously scared that journalists unveil secrets and facts about their eavesdropping activities, which I am sure means only one thing: That intelligence agencies like the NSA or the British GCHQ have got a lot more skeletons in their closet. Their legitimacy, even their right of existence, so to speak, is at stake.

How else do you explain David Miranda’s detention at Heathrow Airport on August 18th? Several journalists and UN representatives have subsequently warned the British government, saying that “the protection of national security secrets must never be used as an excuse to intimidate the press into silence and backing off from its crucial work in the clarification of human rights violation.”

These violations of the press prove once more that there is a need for a debate on how much privacy we are willing to give up as a society to ensure that threats like terrorism can be effectively countered. In other words: How much privacy and individual freedom do we have to sacrifice in order to ensure that terror acts can be prevented?

At the same time, however, it is also encouraging to see how journalists are not only standing up for their craft and their peers but for those who they serve by informing them, namely the public. However, while the majority of journalists seem to support their peers, some are being publicly criticized by fellow journalists. Mr. Greenwald, who was the liaison for whistleblower Edward Snowden for The Guardian, has come under intense criticism, just like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has been inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012.

The news media must not let the government, let alone some of their own intimidate them. The current events shed light on an important dynamic that is vital to the functioning of our so-called democratic society. We need the news media to ask the tough questions and to investigate where it hurts, because this is the only way we as a society can exert pressure and influence on the government. How are we, as a public, supposed to make our voices heard if we don’t find out what is going wrong?

I firmly believe it is the duty of our profession to collaborate with whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden and give them a platform to release their revelations. This is not to say that everything that whistleblower want to make public is ethically or morally defensible. There is certainly a fine line between disclosing something that the public has a right to know about and an information that is not essential and/or could put someone’s life in danger.

Yet, in the midst of shrinking budgets and concerns about quality, investigative journalism, the press needs to stand together and show authorities and governments that acts of intimidation will not prevent it from unveiling what every authority fears: the truth.

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