The UK government’s investigations of the Guardian and David Miranda are troubling

Governments harassing journalists in the name of national security isn't new -- but it is dangerous

Last year the Turkish government jailed 21 journalists working for the DIHA news agency on trumped up anti-terrorist charges. The reporters were covering the Kurdish separatist movement, but Ankara maintains the journalists reporting endangered national security.

This last weekend, the UK government detained and interrogated for nine hours, under the parameters of an anti-terrorist law, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been reporting on the excesses in the US and UK governments’ surveillance programs.

Harassing and intimidating journalists and their family members has no place in a democratic society. Doing it under the guise of national security is particularly odious, but nothing new. It’s an old trick used by dictators who fear public scrutiny of their actions. If the UK wants to maintain its standing in the world as an example of a liberal democratic society, then it must begin some mighty soul-searching in how its civil servants have been behaving.

The UK’s Metropolitan Police, after giving the US a “head’s up,” jailed and interrogated David Miranda for nine hours - without allowing the Brazilian citizen the right to contact his embassy and without giving him access to a lawyer. There is no indication that Miranda is or was ever a terrorist. Indeed, the six agents quizzed him primarily about Greenwald and his reporting. This can only be seen as a gross misuse of power and an attempt to intimidate Greenwald.

Any journalist reporting on governmental snooping can assume they are being spied on. The only way to do their job is to avoid electronic communication. That is the role played by Miranda, a marketing student. He was stopped in transit from Berlin, where he had met with Laura Poitras, a US filmmaker who has been working with Greenwald on the NSA surveillance stories.

The Metropolitan Police defended their actions, stating it was legally sound. However, the UK’s independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation told the BBC that the length of detention was unusually long and that he would meet police about the matter.

Anti-terrorist legislation exists to protect the state against a security threat. The powers governments are granted under these laws are extraordinary in the truest sense of the word. They are not to be used except under extreme circumstances of a threat to national security. Going on a fishing expedition for a journalist’s information - and confiscating mobile phones, USB sticks and computers — does not qualify. The Guardian reported today that Miranda will sue the UK and ask for his possessions back, but the damage is done.

Regardless of Greenwald’s vow not to be intimidated, it is difficult to see how harassment of his partner cannot have a chilling effect on his reporting and his ability to work. Confidential sources are less likely to talk if they now have to fear for the safety of their loved ones.

As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger divulged in a comment, the UK officials have also stooped so low as to force the paper to physically smash the paper’s computers. Although the US ostensibly enshrines free speech in its constitution, no such protection exists in Britain.

The information Edward Snowden revealed to the public through the brave reporting by Greenwald and others raises fundamental concerns about the powers of the state. Journalists cannot fulfill their role as government watchdog if they are hindered from writing about the issues. There is no informed citizenry - and therefore a weakened democracy - if the public does not have the facts.

Striking a balance between security and the public’s right to know is hard, but the UK has gone too far. That has forced the Guardian to move its reporting and editing to New York, Rusbridger said. But that should not put Rusbridger or any journalist at ease. The Obama administration has been equally as ruthless in intimidating journalists as the UK.

In a statement yesterday, a US government spokesman said America played no part in the harassment of Miranda. Still, the Guardian only weeks earlier disclosed that the National Security Agency paid £100 million over the last three years to its UK counterpart GCHG to secure access to and influence over the British intelligence program.

It is disingenuous to think that the Obama administration was not involved and did not condone Miranda’s harassment. As James C. Goodale, the New York Times’ lawyer during the Pentagon Papers trial, recently noted, “Obama has relentlessly pursued leakers ever since he became president. He is fast becoming the worst national security press president ever, and it may not get any better.”

Just one of many examples: Lawyers for the government have asked the judge presiding over the Bradley Manning trial to consider a 60-year sentence as a preventative measure to discourage other leaks.

Smashing a paper’s computers, harassing a reporter’s partner and calling for severe punishment as a preventative measure lend the appearance that US and UK governments do not want an informed public debating their actions. That we, the governed, should not question governmental actions. That they view investigative journalists like Greenwald as spies and anyone who helps them, like Miranda, guilty of committing an enemy act.

In a dictatorial society, the first right that is lost is free speech. Journalists in Turkey - and Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Russia, North Korea, Azerbaijan and China - know that all too well. In the name of national security, we in the western world are discovering our right to speak out is also being muted in the name of national security.

We should be very worried about this trend.

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna. Tags: , , , ,