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Spooks, lies and whistleblowing

“YOU HAVE to do better; but we can help". This was the message to journalists from other campaigners on information and communications at a remarkable event in London in December.

The symposium, entitled Building an Alliance Against Secrecy, Surveillance and Censorship, was convened by the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) to organise resistance to the rapidly expanding threats to independent journalism, political freedom and democracy itself. There were investigative reporters, whistleblowers, computer hackers, lawyers and social groups.

There are plenty of gatherings of journalists to discuss the defence of our profession from mass intensified surveillance, including one organised by the NUJ and the Guardian in October, but the scope of this symposium was rare. Gavin MacFadyen, director of the CIJ, said of the participants: "Given the extraordinary dilemmas confronting journalists and hackers both, there is a natural community of interest between all of them."

The imperative for collaboration comes from the revelations of Edward Snowden, an American whistleblower who formerly worked for the National Security Agency. The secretive and unaccountable NSA is the US equivalent of the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and Snowden last year leaked millions of documents confirming that the two agencies were routinely intercepting the phone and online communications of everybody in the country.

Journalists have often enjoyed the attentions of the security services: but the new world of mass surveillance is different. Journalists have always defended colleagues from the consequences of targeted surveillance; now we have to defend everybody, and more importantly everybody has to defend us.

"We are looking to journalists because the law has let us down," said Jacob Applebaum, an American collaborator with Snowden and a prominent hacker and developer of surveillance-protected software. He was one of several to address the conference by Skype, since persistent harassment by the US authorities means he cannot risk coming to the UK.

Appelbaum said: "You need to live in a free society, but currently you don't. Britain is a surveillance state. Even doing research on the internet is dangerous unless you use encryption."

Also on Skype, from Berlin, was Wikileaks journalist Sarah Harrison, who is also director of the Courage Foundation, which raises money for the legal and public defence of journalistic sources. "The UK is having what I think is a large crackdown on press freedoms," she said, calling for a campaign in the UK to demand that journalists not be muzzled by legislation intended for terrorists.

"The government in the UK and the US as well, they like to use the rhetoric of national security, terrorism etc, basically as propaganda tools to give them the cover to operate in all sorts of abusive ways," she says, and added: "The press in the UK really needs to grow some balls."

Veteran journalist and film-maker John Pilger asked why had "so much journalism succumbed to propaganda? Propaganda is no longer an invisible government. It is the government.

"The information age that we refer to is principally a media age. We have war by media, censorship by media, retribution by media, demonology by media. A surreal assembly line of obedient clichés and false assumptions.

"If journalists in the free press had done their job, the US and UK might not have gone to war in Iraq; had they questioned and investigated the propaganda instead of amplifying it, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children might be alive today, and he infamous Islamic State might not exist."

There are two main ways of overcoming mass surveillance: individually by encrypting online communication and restricting the use of mobile phones which betray every move; and collectively by winning laws that control the activities of the security agencies. Conference organisers held workshops on encryption for the three days of the event, and a panel of lawyers advised on the legal possibilities.

Gavin Millar QC said we need a "shield law" to establish the rights of people in the face of mass surveillance. At present the police are getting hold of journalists' phone records and GCHQ is intercepting journalists' confidential material and compromising their sources - in both cases bypassing the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the Human Rights Act, which require the authority of judges to access journalistic material.

He said: "Politicians are not bothered because they feel the end justifies the means - and who cares about journalists?"

Fellow QC Ben Emmerson, who is the UN Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, said the right to privacy under human rights law must be preserved online. "Mass surveillance does not combat terrorism. Prevention of terrorism is regarded as an imperative of the highest importance but states must still comply with international human rights law. Merely to assert that mass surveillance can prevent terrorism does not provide justification in that law."

The safety of journalists' communications was underlined by healthcare whistleblower Eileen Chubb, who runs the charity Compassion in Care. "If we don't protect the protectors, nothing will change. If I did it again," she said, "I wouldn't dial P for police, I'd dial P for Panorama."

Bea Edwards, executive and international director of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection organisation in the USA, said: "It has been the press who have best protected Edward Snowden and others. We need the press and the public working together to not just address the crimes but to protect the whistleblower."

Eileen Chubb said there were now more than 1500 whistleblowers from the UK healthcare industry, and NHS America's most revered leaker Daniel Ellsberg gave an inspiring address, imploring people who wanted to expose wrongdoing to contact journalists. Former White House official Ellsberg leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971, chronicling the lies and the real truth about the Vietnam War, after agonising for more than five years.

"Don't do what I did," he said. "Don't wait for the bombs to drop and people to die. Do what I wish I'd done in 1965 or 1966."

He spoke after America's most revered journalist, the great investigative writer Seymour Hersh, who said: "The world is changing quickly; it's a very hopeful prospect now.

"The world is basically run by idiots, nincompoops and thieves. We are here to keep them in check. That's the only thing between them and chaos - fascism if you like. Because they lie. They are frigging liars; we have a role to play. We can at least keep them afraid of us."

The fellow veteran, investigative reporter Duncan Campbell, spoke of mass surveillance; in particular of the US-UK Echelon network, the "global electronic spy system" that he first reported on in 1988, which he says the more recent Snowden revelations have backed up. "We got it right!" he says.

Echelon had been set up in 1970 as "a project of equal priority, at the height of the Cold War, to spy on the population of the United States, United Kingdom and western Europe, just as much as on the Soviet Union."

Nicky Hager, a leading investigative journalist from New Zealand, said that journalists and IT people need to work together more on projects. "Investigative journalism is about focused work, strategising, and luck. It's not just waiting for leakers. Even in the age of mass surveillance, good sources will come forward."

Last modified: 13 Dec 2014 - © 2014 contributors
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