LONDON — Living in self-imposed exile in Russia, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden may be safely out of reach from Western powers. But dismayed by the continued airing of transatlantic intelligence, British authorities are taking full aim at a messenger shedding light on his secret files here — the small but mighty Guardian newspaper.
The pressures coming to bear against the Guardian, observers say, are testing the limits of press freedoms in one of the world’s most open societies. Although Britain is famously home to a fierce pack of news media outlets — including the tabloid hounds of old Fleet Street — it also has no enshrined constitutional right to free speech.
A feisty, London-based news outlet with a print circulation just shy of 200,000 — albeit with a far bigger footprint online with readers in the many millions — the Guardian, along with The Washington Post, was the first to publish reports based on classified data spirited out of the United States by Snowden. In the months since, the Guardian has continued to make officials here exceedingly nervous by exposing the joint operations of U.S. and British intelligence — particularly their cooperation in data collection and snooping programs involving British citizens and close allies on the European continent. In response, the Guardian is being called to account by British authorities for jeopardizing national security. The Guardian’s top editor, Alan Rusbridger, is being forced to appear before a parliamentary committee Tuesday to explain the news outlet’s actions. The move comes after British officials ordered the destruction of hard drives at the Guardian’s London headquarters, even as top ministers have taken to the airwaves to denounce the newspaper. Scotland Yard has also suggested it may be investigating the paper for possible breaches of British law.
Nevertheless, the actions against the paper have led to growing concern in Britain and beyond. Frank La Rue, the U.N. special rapporteur on free expression, has denounced the Guardian’s treatment as “unacceptable in a democratic society.” The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, a Paris-based trade association, will send a delegation of “concerned” publishers and editors from five continents to London in January on a “U.K. press freedom mission.”
“The kind of threats and intimidation being experienced by the Guardian, especially compared to the different responses in the United States and Germany, is something that we should all be very worried about,” said Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, a London-based freedom of expression group.
Threat to national security?
The Guardian is among the global news outlets thoroughly studying the Snowden files and publishing key parts, a club that in addition to The Post has expanded to include the New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel, among others.
The Post does not show stories to U.S. officials in advance of publication, nor does it routinely agree to official requests. But language in some articles has occasionally been modified when officials cited very specific risks to certain intelligence operations and individuals, according to the paper’s executive editor, Martin Baron. A spokeswoman for the New York Times pointed to statements by executive editor Jill Abramson in which she said the paper had turned down at least one request by U.S. officials to withhold a story.
Although legal experts say the First Amendment offers stronger protection for the news media in the United States than their counterparts enjoy in Britain, U.S. authorities still have tools at their disposal to limit the disclosure of classified data. Those tools include the 1917 Espionage Act, which federal prosecutors have used to charge Snowden. Nevertheless, U.S. officials have thus far stopped short of the more aggressive tactics being deployed against the Guardian in Britain.
The German government has also taken a relatively hands-off approach. “At Der Spiegel we have not encountered anything similar,” managing editor Klaus Brinkbäumer said in an e-mail. “There is no serious pressure.”
In contrast, Rusbridger must explain to the parliamentary committee the paper’s dissemination and handling of the Snowden data. The move came after Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking on the floor of Parliament in October, offered comments that seemed to open the door for the editor’s public grilling.
Scotland Yard, meanwhile, has suggested that it might be investigating the Guardian in connection with the authorities’ continuing probe of David Miranda, the partner of Brazil-based freelance journalist Glenn Greenwald, who formerly worked with the Guardian on its Snowden stories.
In August, British authorities arrested Miranda at Heathrow Airport while he was on an information-gathering trip funded by the Guardian. British officials interrogated Miranda for nine hours before confiscating his laptop, cellphone, USB memory sticks and video-game consoles.
Miranda was released after being questioned, but the confiscated items remain in official custody.
- Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to be questioned by Members of Parliament over publication of Snowden intelligence leaks – @BBCBreaking (bbc.co.uk)
- Guardian Editor to Face Lawmakers on Snowden Leaks (theepochtimes.com)
- UN envoy ‘shocked’ by UK’s ‘unacceptable’ persecution of The Guardian over Snowden leaks . (pressall.wordpress.com)