Outraged media gathered to protest outside the Egyptian Embassy in London yesterday over the detention and prosecution of journalists for alleged “terrorist” offences. The disgraceful behaviour of the unelected Cairo rulers in rounding-up journalists who dare criticise the regime and then labelling them as terrorists merely for doing their job bears all the hallmarks of a dictatorship which has no time for press freedoms.
Sadly there’s no moral high ground for Western journalists to stand on in the UK because just down the road from the embassy three High Court judges ruled that while the detention of another journalist by the British authorities was “an indirect interference with press freedom” it was justified and legitimate due to “very pressing” issues of national security.
The journalist in question is David Miranda who was detained at Heathrow Airport last August for nine hours under the Terrorism Act, 2000. The Brazilian national was carrying secret documents leaked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. He had received the documents from journalist Laura Poitras in Berlin to hand over to another journalist, his partner, Glenn Greenwald, in Rio de Janeiro.
Their stories were published by the Guardian and New York Times and caused a media furore; most of that probably stemmed from professional jealousies.
Miranda, who still lives in Rio de Janiero with Greenwald, will appeal against the decision in a higher court despite permission to appeal being refused by the High Court.
Greenwald appears to have predicted yesterday’s outcome when he wrote: “The UK Government expressly argued that the release of the Snowden documents (which the free world calls “award-winning journalism”) is actually tantamount to “terrorism”, the same theory now being used by the Egyptian military regime to prosecute Al Jazeera journalists as terrorists.
“Congratulations to the UK government on the illustrious company it is once again keeping. British officials have also repeatedly threatened criminal prosecution of everyone involved in this reporting, including Guardian journalists and editors.”
Of course, equating journalism with terrorism is nothing new when powerful people in powerful places will do whatever it takes to thwart those who practice this noble profession with sincerity. The US State Department cancelled my journalist visa in the same week that the Pentagon press office invited me on another media trip to Guantanamo Bay following the success of my documentary film Inside the Wire at the prestigious Roma TV Film festival. Some spuriously vague excuse citing “national security” was given at the time.
Perhaps my request to interview Monica Lewinsky for another documentary I was making was too much to bear for the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. My lawyers are still waiting for the US Embassy in London to respond to their appeal for more information but to date they’ve been met with an uncharacteristic wall of silence from the Americans who usually have plenty to say on national security, the war on terror and their much-lauded freedoms and liberties.
What all of this exposes is the duplicity, hypocrisy and double standards we put up with in the West. The simple fact is this: anti-terrorism laws are being used to stifle press freedoms in Europe and America. What saddens me, though, is the reaction of the Western media to what is happening; it seems to be in a collective soporific state over the precarious position of press freedom.
Editors are sitting back, in virtual silence while their rivals are being targeted and criminalised in a world where telling the truth is now regarded as a terrorist act. Some condescending wimps have, rather unbelievably, made muted responses about protecting national security and the irresponsible behaviour of Guardian journalists.
It’s true that the pompous invective often spewed from the Guardian’s plush office in King’s Place is nauseating and its frequent claims to moral superiority can be bile-inducing, but when press freedoms and liberties are being attacked we do need to set aside old rivalries and prejudices and stand together. It is not our job as journalists to bow and scrape before the lawmakers. It is our job to hold them and others in positions of power to account. National security is not a get-out-of-jail-free-card.
Some of those sitting anonymously behind their desks in GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and other counter-terrorism agencies are complicit in criminal acts, of that we can be sure. And some of their underlings are engaged in more dirty dealings in the field committing crimes in the name of national security. If we protect them through lazy, servile and compliant journalism or fail to challenge them and fail to demand a transparent system then we may as well hand over whatever is left of our freedoms and liberties, along with our integrity, pack up and go home.
Greenwald wrote that Miranda will take his appeal to the highest UK court and then to the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary “because of the press freedoms at stake”. They may not be getting much open support from their journalistic colleagues but the couple can at least take heart from the actions of Glasgow University students who yesterday voted overwhelmingly to appoint Edward Snowden as their new rector. At least the younger generation is showing some backbone and moral fibre. Is there any evidence of that in what is left of the old Fleet Street titles?
If we can’t hold our own politicians and lawmakers to account in Britain then what hope do we have that a tin-pot dictator in the Middle East is going to be swayed by a protest in London to release journalists being tortured and held in his prisons? The writing is on the wall, guys; wake up before it’s too late.
British journalist Yvonne Ridley is a member of the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, and a founder member of Women in Journalism.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.