Mass surveillance: Journalists confront the moment of hesitation

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

Wrestling with his fear about Googling the composition of a carbon dioxide bomb after hearing of a failed bombing at LAX, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung journalist, Peter Galison highlights one of the threats of mass surveillance to journalistic practice, “The knowledge that I might be walking into a security word search had been enough to make me hesitate.”

Following Edward Snowden’s leaks outlining the capabilities of intelligence agencies around the world to monitor, track and collate private online communications this moment of hesitation before tackling a story has become a major concern to journalists globally.

Pen International surveyed 772 fiction and non-fiction writers and found out that more than 1 in 3 writers in so-called free countries (34%) said they had avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic following the NSA revelations.

While Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept states “self-censorship is never the only available option” he acknowledges that his practices have changed:

“In the post-Snowden environment I definitely use encryption tools much more to communicate with people, mainly because more of my colleagues and contacts have now adopted these tools. It’s no longer a niche thing…the Snowden revelations were a big wake-up call for people.”

Encryption and anonymity software have emerged as the primary set of tools available to journalists to protect themselves, their stories and their sources. Indeed in the light of the leaked information, they have taken on added significance; the ability to depend on robust communication security may be the difference between coverage and self-censorship.

Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation outlines this central anxiety: “I’ve spoken to journalists who, upon realizing the extent of the NSA’s surveillance, have changed their practices. Some have adopted encryption…while others say they are afraid to cover certain topics.”

This tension between technical literacy and forms of self-censorship defines journalism in the mass surveillance age. As Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica writes: “less tech-literate journalists may not even be aware of the threats that they may or may not face”.

The advent of blogging and social media, as well as the increase of citizen journalism around the world has enabled a diverse range of voices to join the debate around key issues but as Chris Frost, the chair of the ethics council at the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) states, this can expose many more people to the threat of mass surveillance: “Freelance journalists, citizen journalists and bloggers would need to be sure that they have the technical know-how to safeguard their sources and understand the potential risks involved.”

Are key issues being avoided by those unable to guarantee total security in their communications? And if this is the case, what voices are being silenced?

This is not a threat for journalists alone. For Chris Frost and the NUJ, security and anonymity for sources is paramount: “Without the protection of sources, some people will refuse to speak to the media, for fear of being exposed.” As Ryan Gallagher says: “Quite simply, we don’t have a choice. We must protect our sources and we can’t do that if we don’t change the way we operate online.”

The ability of journalists to protect information from the state is also a vital step in protecting themselves when reporting in conflict zones. As Chris Frost writes, “if journalists are perceived as informers to the authorities, or as future witnesses in a trial, they can become a target.” Mass surveillance is a central tool for states to acquire and share information with its intelligence partners around the world. Implicating journalists as the source of the leak further endangers their safety and therefore their willingness to cover certain issues, as Ryan Gallagher articulates: “Some people may find it too daunting and just steer clear.”

The first principle on the International Federation of Journalists’ Declaration of Principles is “Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist”, and this highlights the divergent interests of the state and the media. Where truth is withheld by the state, often in the name of “national security”, the role and responsibilities of journalists in informing the public is brought to the fore. Mass surveillance technologies are powerful tools for states to hinder and restrict this process, manipulating the media landscape to benefit their own aims and objectives at the expense of an informed and engaged civil society.

How journalists learn to navigate this landscape will determine their continued willingness and ability to report on sensitive issues, defending journalism in the public interest across the globe.

But, as Ryan Gallagher reminds us, this willingness is not easily defeated: “Thankfully there are a lot of courageous reporters in the world who will work to get out important information to the public no matter what. So fear will never be completely effective at shutting down media coverage.”

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This article was posted on 28 April 2015 at

Combatting the Snowden Effect: National interest and media freedom in Australia

(Image: Shutterstock)

(Image: Shutterstock)

A piece of proposed legislation in the senate in Australia is attempting to wrestle with the legacy of the Snowden leaks with potential implications for media freedom.

In late 2013 information was released to the world that revealed the depth and breadth of the covert architecture in place to monitor and harvest personal data. The unprecedented capabilities and actions of surveillance agencies the world over ignited debate around the nature of privacy in our digital age. But the emergence was not manufactured by the security apparatus or by governments; it was the result of leaked information being published by the press.

Now, a new law proposed by Attorney-General, George Brandis, the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (no.1) outlines a number of reforms to “modernise and improve” Australia’s capabilities to tackle national security threats. If passed, it could have significant implications for Australian media.

The creation of Special Intelligence Operations (SIO) – covert operations that offer limited immunity for its participants to engage in unlawful conduct – as well as the expansion of computer access warrants are among the sweeping reforms contained within the bill.

Further reforms outline new offences for “unauthorised dealings with an intelligence-related record, including copying, transcription, removal and retention”. But as highlighted by publications such as The Guardian, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) and members of the opposition, including Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, the bill opens up the possibility for criminal culpability to lie beyond the security operatives dealing with intelligence-related records, to journalists and media outlets who report on information they receive about SIOs. The bill’s explanatory memorandum states that the offence applies to:

“[D]isclosures by any person, including participants in an SIO, other persons to whom information about an SIO has been communicated in an official capacity, and persons who are the recipients of an unauthorised disclosure of information, should they engage in any subsequent disclosure.”

The transcript of the bill’s second reading demonstrates Brandis’s opinion of Snowden, dismissing him as a “so-called ‘trusted insider’” (he has previously referred to the NSA whistle-blower as an “American traitor”). But while he has stated that the bill is not intended to threaten media outlets or limit media freedom, the wording of the bill has set alarm bells ringing. Quoted in The Guardian, ALA spokesperson Greg Barns stated that this bill “takes the Snowden clause and makes it a Snowden/Assange/Guardian/New York Times clause.”

He goes further, explaining how the structure of approving SIOs, threatens media coverage: “ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] could secretly declare many future cases to be special intelligence operations. This would trigger the option to prosecute journalists who subsequently discover and report on aspects of these operations.” This lack of clarity in the wording of the bill, as well as the limited oversight as to how the bill can be used – political appointees have the final say – sets a precedent for potential restrictions on media freedom both in Australia and, as a template for action, globally.

The size and scale of the surveillance network, involving governments worldwide, most notably the “five eyes” countries, the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia raises uncomfortable questions, with no forthcoming answers. The reforms proposed by Brandis seem to suggest that the best way of satisfying these questions is to ensure they are not asked in the first place.

Restricted by inadequate whistle-blower protections, due in part to his status as a private contractor, as well as the national security implications of the leaked documents, reaching out to the media provided to be the sole outlet for Ed Snowden. But it seems now that it could be the media who will be punished for such inadequate protections.

After two readings in the Senate, the bill is poised to be debated in September. And although Brandis has set his sights elsewhere, having mentioned data retention in an interview to ABC, the precedent set by Australia, were this bill to pass, could resonate throughout the world. Scott Ludlam outlined his concern: “I can’t see anything that conditions it or carves out any public interest disclosures. I can’t see anything that would protect journalists.”

This concern does not seem to be shared across the political spectrum. The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott called on journalists for a “sense of responsibility, a sense of national interest”, and the Liberal senator, Cory Bernardi went further by stating that “we need to make sure the press are free to report within the constraints of what is in, I’d say, the national interest”.

Would protecting national interests include the refusal to publish information surrounding the allegations that the Defence Signals Directorate, or DSD, (now called the Australian Signals Directorate) attempted to monitor the calls of the Indonesian president, his wife and senior politicians? What about the DSD’s desire to share harvested online data (or “unminimised” metadata) with other governments without any privacy restraints?

If decisions such as these are left to those who define the role of the press as one of propagating national interests, then the freedom that Bernadi speaks of is surely no freedom at all.

This article was published on August 5, 2014 at

Blunt instruments: Media repression in the Ukraine crisis

Wrestling for the rights to define the Ukrainian conflict, both Russia and Ukraine have utilised a range of tactics to control and limit media coverage in the region. This, alongside, the constant to and fro between media freedom and the skewed official lines has politicised the role of the media and manipulated perceptions of the conflict, further distancing coverage from reality.

Every fact is a battle to be fought and won. Who made up the Ukrainian protest movement? Activists and other members of civil society, or thugs, neo-Nazis or far-right extremists?  What are Russia’s motivations? Geo-political revisionism, a nationalistic desire to rebuild empire or for the protection of a persecuted minority? There is not one answer to questions like these; indeed the answers appear to changes depending on where they come from.

A sure-fire tactic to control the number of answers on offer is to limit the number of journalists able to cover the story. There have been a number of cases across the region where journalists have either been detained or refused entry to key areas of the conflict. In May, it was reported that three journalists, including a writer for Russia Today, had been detained by Ukraine’s Security Services (SBU), with a further three refused entry at the border. With no clarification of the grounds for their detention, as well as refusing them access to legal representation, the legality of such acts is dubious at best; as Human Rights Watch (HRW) states: “Failure to provide information on the whereabouts and fate of anyone deprived of their liberty by agents of the state, or those acting with its acquiescence, may constitute an enforced disappearance.”

This however, is not a tactic employed exclusively by Ukraine. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Russian authorities and pro-Russian separatists detained five journalists in Crimea and mainland Ukraine. On 2 June in Donetsk, unidentified armed men in camouflage raided the offices of regional newspapers Donbass and Vecherny Donetsk, detaining senior editorial staff, and accusing the publications of “incorrect reporting”. It is reported that the captor’s demands included the stipulations that the editors, “change the papers’ editorial policy”.

This proved to be effective. The deputy editor of Donbass stated that both his paper and Vecherny Donetsk were “discussing the separatists’ demands and were considering shutting down the outlets for fear of future retaliation”.

Beyond limiting the freedom of journalists covering the conflict, state-led censorship and propaganda is creating media vacuums in key areas, promoting narrow and strictly controlled interpretations of the conflict.

Attacks on the media in Russia have ramped up significantly following Putin’s return to the presidency and have taken on a distinct urgency with the continuation of the Ukraine conflict. One example is the legislation pushed through the Duma banning the publication of negative information about the Russian government and military. This positions Russian activities in Ukraine at the heart of controlling perceptions of Russia in the media. Quoting the official explanatory note to the legislation, HRW reports: “’The event in Ukraine in late 2013-early 2014 evidenced…an information war’, and demonstrated the necessity to protect the younger generation from ‘forming a negative opinion of [their] Fatherland.’”

Another key piece of legislation at play in this context is the “Lugovoi Law”, which allows Roskomnadzor, the Russia state body for media oversight, to block online sources without any court approval. One publication that was blocked was Grani.Ru due in part to its criticism of the state’s handling of the Bolotnaya Square protests. Grani.Ru have unsuccessfully appealed the ruling, but Yulia Berezovskaya, director-general of Grani-Ru is not surprised.

Roskomnadzor has not lost a single case against the media. The Office of the Prosecutor General and Roskomnadzor refused to indicate the “offensive” materials that should have been removed from the website so that access could be restored.

Berezovskaya continues to see this as part of a larger shift in the state’s relationship to the media in the light of the Ukrainian crisis: “The Ukrainian crisis is a major part of Russian TV news while domestic issues are not covered.”

Rolling out robust limitations against opposition or independent media outlets in Russia, at times irrespective of the events in Ukraine, guarantees in a large part the allegiances of media bodies covering the crisis. Indeed with many voices absent from the debate, the state can be confident the official line is being towed, at times, irrespective of fact.

The manipulation of fact has come to define a large part of pro-Russia content. Moscow Times reports “when Vesti.Ru described clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Kiev protesters in Simferopol…it showed footage of earlier protests in Kiev, which were more violent.” Channel One, when alleging that violence in Ukraine has sent a flood of refugees heading for Russia’s Belgorod region, used footage, not of the Ukrainian-Russian border, but of the Ukrainian-Polish border.

By restricting who can report on the Ukrainian crisis through access or censorship, the state can identify which untruths should be accepted as “truth” and which truths should not be seen. But as the conflict endures, the battle to shape perceptions, both home and abroad will continue. As it does, how can we identify the true actions, motivations and responsibilities, before untruths take hold and become something more, something resembling and assumed to be fact?

This article was published on 25 June 2014 at