Interview: Press Freedom NGO on the Snowden Case

We talked with Ioana Avădani, director of the Center for Independent Journalism

Rights groups from across the world have signed a joint letter that was sent to David Cameron earlier this week. The message sent by organizations fighting for human rights or for the freedom of the media is that the actions taken thus far by the British government against journalists that have published articles based on the NSA files of Edward Snowden, along with the continuous threats brought to the table, are eroding freedom as a whole.

One of the organizations that signed up on the letter is the Center for Independent Journalism from Romania. Ioana Avădani, the executive director of the NGO, has been kind enough to discuss the entire situation in an interview for Softpedia.

Softpedia: The United Kingdom’s position towards the leaks has angered human rights associations across the globe, as well as media institutions, such as the Center for Independent Journalism. David Cameron has even threatened with measures against publications that write about the documents, such as The Guardian. What’s the worst case scenario for the newspaper?

Ioana Avădani: The worst case scenario does not apply only to The Guardian, but to all British media and, by extension, to all European media. The newspaper is just the most visible case, given its circulation, reputation and influence.

And bad scenarios are already at work: the political agreement over a Media Charter drafted (and approved) without the consultation of media themselves. The revealing of the reasons that led to Miranda's, The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald's partner, arrest - the belief that he was promoting a "political or ideological cause". Security forces have already forced The Guardian to destroy information after the newspaper had refused to hand it over.

These are scary facts that should concern all of us. Europe is such a close continent, the governments prove to be so eager to engage in a down-spiraling trend of using state security as an argument against civic freedoms... It should concern all of us.

Softpedia: Do you believe David Cameron and the British government will take a step back as a reaction to the letter sent this week by dozens of human rights organizations?

Ioana Avădani: I find the context our letter to Mr. Cameron highly ironic: we were at the Open Government Partnership Summit in London, the very place where the same Mr. Cameron addressed the 1000-strong audience from all over the world, pleading for a more transparent governance and pledging an affluence of open data in UK to secure a stronger civic oversight over the Government's work.

I have to admit that Mr. Cameron's speech was flawless - well written, beautifully delivered. The effort was - alas! - partly lost on us, who knew that these inspiring words are not mirrored by an equally inspiring internal policy on media freedom. Will Mr. Cameron back? Your guess is good as mine. What I am convinced of is that the era of concealed information is over - for good or for bad. That Government can punish and imprison individuals or retort to media outlets, but reversing the trend seems, for now, impossible.

Softpedia: The US offers much more rigorous protection to journalists. Should there be more rules set down in the European Europe to offer journalists a legal-umbrella just as safe as the one the American media enjoys?

Ioana Avădani: I would dare to advance the US used to protect their journalists better. The First Amendment is a great tool and it is still at work. But also at work are laws that place state security above anything else.

Starting with 2000, some 10 journalists and editors have been jailed for various lengths of time for refusing to unveil their sources, according to The First Amendment Center. Nowadays, journalist Barrett Brown is facing 100 years in prison for just linking to secret information previously hacked by the Anonymous group.

In Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, the supreme body in human rights matters, repeatedly ruled in favor of the protection of sources by the journalists and their right to revel the facts as they know them if it is in the public interest. This should be enough for all the national court - as a guidance.

What we see is happening is that the two parties - US and Europe - are diverging in the administration of human rights. US consider that the First Amendment type of protection should be extended only to US citizens, such as it’s obvious by the last summer ruling by a New York court that allowed Chevron access to the e-mails of the eco-activist in Ecuador, claiming that they were not Americans.

At the same time, US does not seem to recognize the privacy protection offered to European citizens, claiming that they are... well, just European. I do not think that legislation can, by itself, sort this problem. It takes political will, from all the actors involved, to sincerely respect human rights and liberties.

Softpedia: The British government has said numerous times that publishing the Snowden documents is affecting national security. Do you believe this to be the case about any of the revelations made so far?

Ioana Avădani: Of course they did. But so have done the breaches of the national security by other governments. What Snowden documents revealed was a huge hypocrisy related to what we believed were solid partnerships at the highest of levels, as well as related to our fundamental right to privacy and our presumption of innocence.

Softpedia: What do you make of the NSA and GCHQ operations revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaked documents?

Ioana Avădani: In a way, the Snowden documents just confirmed something that some people have already suspected - and others were convinced of. What is really scary is the scale of all this surveillance, the technical capability to intercept, analyze, process and store all the information generated by innocent and unsuspecting civilians communicating. Not to mention the huge costs (read public money spent) of such operations that, in my opinion, do not add substantially to our security.

I am surprised by the relative lack of reaction of the people, who allow their governments to get away with this kind of breach of trust. Most of them consider that they don't have to fear as long as they don't do anything bad. I tend to disagree. I strongly believe in the respect of the rights as a shield against any abuses.

If the governments CAN have access to our communications, they WILL use them, one day or another. The fact that the current governments swear that they do not is not guarantee enough for me. And I am afraid that this kind of trust is broken forever.

The scandal is huge and took (apparently) a lot of governments by surprise. For example, it took the Belgian government some weeks before reacting officially to the revelation that GCHQ had penetrated the Belgian main telecom company, whose major customers include institutions like the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament. It appears that 50 years of peace taught the EU how to deal with the (potential) enemies, but not with their allies.

Softpedia: Did Edward Snowden make the right decision to go straight to the media to reveal what he thought was morally and legally wrong or should he have gone to the government? Would we still be having this discussion under different circumstances?

Ioana Avădani: Frankly, I do not believe that he had any other solutions. The splash of the tree he felled was so huge that the risk of him mysteriously disappearing was huge. The best protection for such a whistleblower is in plain broad light. Once again, I find it sadly ironic that he has to "hide'" in Russia, fleeing from the wrath of all these human rights-respecting and transparency-loving governments of ours, democratic countries.

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