Whistleblower Series I: Should a ‘Whistleblower Journalist’ Be Exempt From Going to Prison?

November 8, PRAGUE—TheFeedUNeed is thrilled to announce a political-article series on the topic of whistleblower journalists aka the ‘Whistleblower Series’. Writers will reflect on the ethical and legal struggles of whistleblowing information for public interest via concrete examples of journalists who have been considered whistleblowers. The first one focuses on Glenn Greenwald.

When journalist Glenn Greenwald opened his e-mail on a December morning in 2012, he found a message from an anonymous source asking for his public encryption key – also known as the ‘Pretty Good Privacy’ encryption (shortly PGP) – in order for them to be able to communicate privately in a secure way. Greenwald didn’t have one then, and it seemed time-consuming at the time, as he was writing a book (incidentally, it dealt with how the media control discourse about politics), working on columns for The Guardian, and writing content for his blog. He later said, “It was this Catch-22: Unless he tells me something motivating, I’m not going to drop what I’m doing, and from his side, unless I drop what I’m doing and get PGP, he can’t tell me anything.”

After a month, the seemingly anonymous source (Edward Snowden) gave up on trying to reach him. Six months later, his friend and documentarist Laura Poitras told Greenwald that Snowden had contacted her, suggesting she and Greenwald form a partnership. In June, the three of them met in a hotel room in Hong Kong, where Snowden handed over thousands of classified documents that exposed the National Security Agency’s collection of American citizens’ private data.

The later published evidence sparked an extensive discussion on the governments’ use of surveillance in contrast with an individual’s right to privacy. Greenwald broke the news that the NSA has been “collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon.” He followed with an article saying the NSA “has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other U.S. Internet giants.”

What we learned thanks to Greenwald’s investigative journalism was that, in the current state of America, as a citizen, you are not to question the government, and as long as you mind your own business, you’ll be fine. Do not challenge authorities who, according to Greenwald, “control everything”, if you wish to lead a private life. You should be obedient. You should conform.

Before covering Snowden’s story, he criticized, among many other individuals and groups, President Obama, the Republicans, the Tea Party, and the mainstream media for ingratiating to power. Based on an article from Rolling Stone, Greenwald is “Famously combative, he ‘lives to piss people off,’ as one colleague says. … ‘I crave the hatred of those people. If you’re not provoking that reaction in people, you’re not provoking or challenging anyone, which means you’re pointless,’ Greenwald says.”

In his book No Place To Hide (2015), he writes, “By ordering illegal eavesdropping, the president had committed crimes and should be held accountable for them. My position was straightforward.” There are laws in the United States against government surveillance on its citizens as well as laws against the leakage of official government documents. By saying it is all “straightforward”, Greenwald is essentially following a legal framework he created himself, by only following laws he likes and being oblivious to the rest. Yet if Snowden, as the ‘original whistleblower’, is to be sent to prison, why should the intermediary, in this case, Greenwald, be exempt from it?

According to the Daily News, “Rep. Pete King (R–L.I.) has called for Greenwald to be prosecuted over the disclosures, saying ‘there has to be legal action taken against him.’ Greenwald said that kind of reaction is ‘what happens when you take on’ an administration.”

As Greenwald said himself, “there are both formal and unwritten legal protections offered to journalists that are unavailable to anyone else. While it is considered generally legitimate for a journalist to publish government secrets, for example, that’s not the case for someone acting in any other capacity.” My question is, should this elite of “journalists” be given the exception in the system of laws? Who even are “journalists” in the current age of blogs? In the end, can’t just about anyone be called a journalist by publishing his/her ideas today?

However, what truly poses a problem is that, according to Greenwald, Snowden told him to “use his own judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see.” What I’m asking is, should one person be trusted to be in control of what information gets leaked to the public – especially in a cause as important as Snowden’s? Similar issues have also been covered in connection to WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange before.

As stated in the New York Times, “Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.”

So what is it that we should do about the leaks of national security information by whistleblower journalists? Should we demand them to be arrested, or should we celebrate them for their journalistic courage? In Greenwald’s case, the Pulitzer Prize jury aimed for the second option because, after all, Greenwald did, of course, ‘get the scoop’ as the documents were the first to reveal the NSA’s eavesdropping on US citizens. As far as ethics go, I personally believe revealing information about the government’s lawbreaking is for the common good of the public. It is information people should know about.

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
George Orwell

Featured photo by Vincent Yu / Associated Press

Written by Huyen Vi Tranová.