Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger arrives at parliamentary hearing to defend his newspaper's publication of leaked intelligence documents. He carried a copy of the banned 1987 book Spycatcher. which caused scandal by revealing history of MI5 spy agency. Photo: AFP/Ben Stansall/Getty Images.
Britain may be on its way to making journalistic history – and not in a good way.
According to Reuters, Brit police are pondering whether to investigate Guardian newspaper staff for “terrorism offences” because they received and published material handed over by Edward Snowden, the now exiled American spy agency contractor who went rogue with up to 200,000 classified U.S. and British documents.
Yes, you did read that right. Terrorism offences.
Right up there with Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, Al Nusra and the Haqqani Network. And all the other suicide bombers, hostage-takers and would-be underwear bombers who are hunted down, jailed and put on international no-fly lists, if they survive their dastardly deeds.
So what did these journalistic jihadists do to set the security establishment's collective teeth on edge?
The MPs who grilled Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger this week said it was making top secret information public and sharing it with other news organizations. They pointed to Section 58A of the Terrorism Act (you know this already) which makes it a crime to “publish or communicate” any information about the armed forces or intelligence services.
But here’s the thing: “it isn’t only about what you’ve published, it’s about what you’ve communicated,” said Tory MP Michael Ellis, a member of the home affairs committee, airing a view seconded by London’s Specialist Operations chief Cressida Dick.
Broadly speaking, “communicated,” could mean that anyone who receives any information that might be verboten under the act is at risk of a terrorism prosecution. In Britain, that could get you up to 10 years in jail.
As expected, the international media community was not amused.
“Horrifying is how I’d describe it,” says Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. “How can you have investigative journalism when you can’t even get a brown envelope without fear of a charge? This could have a major effect.”
And he points out, although Britain already has more draconian muzzling laws than North America, the Guardian case goes even farther.
“Labelling journalism as a crime and terrorism is frightening language,” he says. “It stinks of dictatorial rule.”
Watergate journo Carl Bernstein wrote the Guardian a letter of support, pointing a finger at the authorities’ “dangerously pernicious” attempt to turn the embarrassing surveillance debate on government secrecy back on the media.
The Guardian has been a leader in exposing massive monitoring of private phone, email and social media communications by the U.S. and its allies, including Britain and Canada. It denies that it has published any names or details that put spy personnel or operations at risk.
In the latest revelation, Wednesday, the Washington Post said that the U.S. National Security Agency – the world’s largest harvester of private data – gathers nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cell phones around the world, allowing it to track customers’ locations and relationships “in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.”
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East, Europe and U.S. She also follows the ballooning of Big Data.