Wed, Aug 21, 2013 - Page 9 News List

UK attempting to constrain press freedom amid Snowden leaks

By Alan Rusbridger  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Miranda’s professional status — much hand-wringing about whether he is a proper “journalist” — is largely irrelevant in these circumstances. Increasingly, the question about who deserves protection should be less: “Is this a journalist?” than “Is the publication of this material in the public interest?”

The detention of Miranda has rightly caused international dismay because it feeds into a perception that the US and UK governments — while claiming to welcome the debate around state surveillance started by Snowden — are also intent on stemming the tide of leaks and on pursuing the whistleblower with a vengeance. That perception is right. Here follows a little background on the considerable obstacles being placed in the way of informing the public about what the intelligence agencies, governments and corporations are up to.

A little more than two months ago, I was contacted by a very senior UK government official claiming to represent the views of British Prime Minister David Cameron. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others in government favored a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just more than a month ago, when I received a telephone call from the center of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.”

There followed further meetings with shadowy government figures. The demand was the same: Hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I said that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from the government looked mystified.

“You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more,” he said.

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian’s reporting through a legal route — by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government’s intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. However, my experience over WikiLeaks — the thumb drive and the First Amendment — had already prepared me for this moment.

I told the man from the government about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organizations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. Had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

The man was unmoved and so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred: Two security experts from the Government Communications Headquarters (the British intelligence agency responsible for providing signals intelligence) oversaw the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal that could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents.

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