Threats to journalism

David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face

As the events in a Heathrow transit lounge – and the Guardian offices – have shown, the threat to journalism is real and growing

The Guardian,

Glenn Greenwald and David Miranda
Glenn Greenwald, left, with David Miranda, who was held for nine hours at Heathrow under schedule 7 of Britain’s terror laws. Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
In a private viewing cinema in Soho last week I caught myself letting fly with a four-letter expletive at Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times. It was a confusing moment. The man who was pretending to be me – thanking Keller for “not giving a shit” – used to be Malcolm Tucker, a foul-mouthed Scottish spin doctor who will soon be a 1,000-year-old time lord. And Keller will correct me, but I don’t remember ever swearing at him. I do remember saying something to the effect of “we have the thumb drive, you have the first amendment”.

The fictional moment occurs at the beginning of the DreamWorks film about WikiLeaks, The Fifth Estate, due for release next month. Peter Capaldi is, I can report, a very plausible Guardian editor.

This real-life exchange with Keller happened just after we took possession of the first tranche of WikiLeaks documents in 2010. I strongly suspected that our ability to research and publish anything to do with this trove of secret material would be severely constrained in the UK. America, for all its own problems with media laws and whistleblowers, at least has press freedom enshrined in a written constitution. It is also, I hope, unthinkable that any US government would attempt prior restraint against a news organisation planning to publish material that informed an important public debate, however troublesome or embarrassing.

On Sunday morning David Miranda, the partner of Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, was detained as he was passing through Heathrow airport on his way back to Rio de Janeiro, where the couple live. Greenwald is the reporter who has broken most of the stories about state surveillance based on the leaks from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Greenwald’s work has undoubtedly been troublesome and embarrassing for western governments. But, as the debate in America and Europe has shown, there is considerable public interest in what his stories have revealed about the right balance between security, civil liberties, freedom of speech and privacy. He has raised acutely disturbing questions about the oversight of intelligence; about the use of closed courts; about the cosy and secret relationship between government and vast corporations; and about the extent to which millions of citizens now routinely have their communications intercepted, collected, analysed and stored.

In this work he is regularly helped by David Miranda. Miranda is not a journalist, but he still plays a valuable role in helping his partner do his journalistic work. Greenwald has his plate full reading and analysing the Snowden material, writing, and handling media and social media requests from around the world. He can certainly use this back-up. That work is immensely complicated by the certainty that it would be highly unadvisable for Greenwald (or any other journalist) to regard any electronic means of communication as safe. The Guardian’s work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon we will be back to pen and paper.

Miranda was held for nine hours under schedule 7 of the UK’s terror laws, which give enormous discretion to stop, search and question people who have no connection with “terror”, as ordinarily understood. Suspects have no right to legal representation and may have their property confiscated for up to seven days. Under this measure – uniquely crafted for ports and airport transit areas – there are none of the checks and balances that apply once someone is in Britain proper. There is no need to arrest or charge anyone and there is no protection for journalists or their material. A transit lounge in Heathrow is a dangerous place to be.

Miranda’s professional status – much hand-wringing about whether or not he’s 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 over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. 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 within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

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. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations 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. And 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 – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

The Newsroom of the Guardian in the UK. Kings Place. London. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The Newsroom of the Guardian in the UK. Kings Place. London. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age. We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won’t do it in London. The seizure of Miranda’s laptop, phones, hard drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald’s work.

The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it. Most journalists can see that. But I wonder how many have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes – and, increasingly, it looks like “when”.

We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting – indeed, most human life in 2013 – leaves too much of a digital fingerprint. Those colleagues who denigrate Snowden or say reporters should trust the state to know best (many of them in the UK, oddly, on the right) may one day have a cruel awakening. One day it will be their reporting, their cause, under attack. But at least reporters now know to stay away from Heathrow transit lounges.

No tax on words

Elections are a big thing in Bangladesh. Going back to his village at peak season was an expensive option for my neighourhood fruit seller, Siddique Ali. The election wasn’t so critical in his case, as his candidate was going to get elected virtually unopposed. But he was going to vote all the same.
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My workaholic colleague Delower Hossain had also taken leave, not only to vote but to campaign for his candidate. Our electrician was working late into the night so he could get to Dinajpur in time. He too faced a one-sided election, but wasn’t going to take chances.

An Awami League Supporter at Sheikh Hasina's pre-election speech at Paltan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th December 2008. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
An Awami League Supporter at Sheikh Hasina's pre-election speech at Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 26th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The euphoria in the streets was contagious. It felt good to be milling with the crowds. The smell of the street had its own magic. Contrary to the usual political rallies, These were not filled with hired crowd fillers or party goons, but people who genuinely loved their party and their leader.
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Siddique Ali and Delower, like so many other ordinary Bangladeshis, were hard working, honest and politically astute. When I asked Siddique how well his candidate Shahjahan had done in his previous term, he gave a pragmatic answer. “He was an Awami League MP in a BNP government. You can’t expect him to achieve much.” Still, millions like Siddique and Delower voted. Still, they believed in the power of the people.
The security around the two main leaders, particularly Sheikh Hasina was extremely tight. There have been several assassination attemps on the ex prime minister. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. The 26th December 2008.
The security around the two main leaders, particularly Sheikh Hasina was extremely tight. There have been several assassination attemps on the ex prime minister. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. The 26th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Parking my bicycle near the stadium I followed the crowd into Paltan. There were hundreds of policemen along the way, and everyone was being checked. My camera jacket and my dangling camera allowed me to get through several of the checks, but I did get stopped and politely asked to show the contents of my camera bag. There wasn’t the rudeness that greets one at a western airport, but they were making sure. Times had changed.
In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.
In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia's victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I remembered crowding around Hasina and Khaleda during the 1991 campaigns. Ershad had just been removed and there was hope in the air. Whoever won, we would have democracy. At least that was what we felt then
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As another military government was stepping down, I knew too well, that this elected government was unlikely to yield democracy outright. The young man with Hasina painted on his chest reminded me of Noor Hossain, the worker killed by Ershad’s police, because he had wanted “Democracy to be Freed”. I remembered that the autocratic general Ershad was back, an ally of the Awami League. And the party made up of war criminals, Jamaat, was on course, an ally of BNP.
Mural of Noor Hossain painted in the campus of Jahangirnagar University in Savar. Bangladesh. 1987.
Mural of Noor Hossain painted in the campus of Jahangirnagar University in Savar. Bangladesh. 1987.? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Reminiscent of Noor Hossain, the young worker killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987, during the movement to bring down General Ershad.
Reminiscent of Noor Hossain, the young worker killed by police bullets on the 10th November 1987, during the movement to bring down General Ershad. He had painted on his back "Let Democracy be Freed". ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

One could have predicted Hasina’s speech. There was not an iota of remorse. Not the slightest admission of wrong-doing. With the arrogance that has become her hallmark, she glorified her previous rule, and villified her opponent. And went on to insult the intelligence of the crowd by promising that every young man and woman would be given a job.
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Through her proposed Internet revolution, no villager would ever again need to go to the city. The complete eradication of poverty was thrown in for good measure. The saying in Bangla ‘kothar upor tax nai’ “there is no tax on words” could not have been more apt.
Khaleda Zia at her pre-election speech in Paltan Maidan, chose not to go behind a bullet proof glass while addressing the rally. 27th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh.
Khaleda Zia at her pre-election speech in Paltan Maidan, chose not to go behind a bullet proof glass while addressing the rally. 27th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Khaleda, the following day, had done no less. Her promise of leaving no family homeless, was perhaps less extreme than the promise of a job for every youth, but it was still sheer hype. She too promised the magic of the computer, which apparently, could solve all problems. Having overseen the most corrupt five years of Bangladesh’s history.
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Having had her second attempt at a rigged election derailed by a fighting opposition and a defiant public, she spoke of how, if voted into power, she would shape a corruption free Bangladesh! Bypassing the most blatant misdeeds of her sons and their cronies, she spoke of the ill deeds of her opponents. The master vote-stealer even warned of vote stealing. There was perhaps one significant difference between the two. Khaleda did acknowledge that perhaps some mistakes might have been made, and if so, apologised for them. Even such half admissions of blatant misdeeds, is a landmark in Bangladeshi politics.
Apart from briefly emerging above the bullet proof glass, Sheikh Hasina chose to shelter behind her see-through armour during the rally at Paltan Maidan on the 26th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Apart from briefly emerging above the bullet proof glass, Sheikh Hasina chose to shelter behind her see-through armour during the rally at Paltan Maidan on the 26th December 2008. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The security was less stringent for Khaleda, and I was able to get to the inner corral without being frisked or having my camera bag checked. Significantly, she chose not to use the bullet proof glass that had protected Hasina the day before. I had been surprised by the lack of women at Hasina’s rally, where I estimated less than a thousand women had gathered.
At Khaleda’s a rough head count yielded figures well below one fifty. Predictably however, there were many white capped men, and the yellow head bands of Jamaat’s militant student wing Shibir. Her’s was a more jubilant crowd, with slogans and chanting going on right through the rally, even during her speech. In comparison, Hasina’s rally had been a more reserved affair. Perhaps an indication of Khaleda’s younger following.
Many people recorded the speeches of their leaders and took videos of the rallies using mobile phones. By Dhaka Stadium. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Many people recorded the speeches of their leaders and took videos of the rallies using mobile phones. By Dhaka Stadium. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

They had plenty of ammunition. Hasina reminded voters of the foreign bank accounts of Khaleda’s sons, and that the BNP had teamed up with war criminals. Khaleda reminded them of the one party rule of BAKSHAL, and the irony of Hasina’s statement that the partners of autocrats were traitors to the nation. Despite Khaleda’s tangential reference to ‘possible mistakes’, neither leader made any direct admission to any of the misdeeds that had ravaged the nation.
Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was part of the security team at Paltan during the pre-election rallies. RAB is believed to have been responsible for over 300 extra judicial killings over the last two and a half years. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was part of the security team at Paltan during the pre-election rallies. RAB is believed to have been responsible for over 300 extra judicial killings over the last two and a half years. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I felt insulted and humiliated. But I could not deny, that both leaders had their followers. Many of the people in the crowd did love them dearly, though there was little evidence to suggest that their leaders deserved, or respected this unrequited love.
Members of Chatro Shibir, the militant student wing of Jamaat e Islam, an ally of the BNP lead coalition. Jamaat is accused of harbouring war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Members of Chatro Shibir, the militant student wing of Jamaat e Islam, an ally of the BNP lead coalition. Jamaat is accused of harbouring war criminals of the 1971 war of liberation. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

So why this great longing for an elected government? Why this great love for undeserving leaders? An election offers the one hope for a disenfranchised public to be heard. They cling on to these unlikely champions of democracy as their only real hope for a system of governance that may eventually value their will.
BNP supporters climb a tree to get a better view of their leader Khaleda Zia. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
BNP supporters climb a tree to get a better view of their leader Khaleda Zia. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 27th December 2008. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hopefully the misadventures over the last two years has taught the military that the Bangladeshi public is a tough nut to crack. Even these two arrogant leaders face a more robust media and a more questioning public than they’ve been used to. Delower and Siddique Ali might not get the democracy they deserve, but their love for democracy, will eventually force a change.
Relatively few women attended the pre-election rally of Khaleda Zia. The female attendance at Sheikh Hasina's rally the earlier day, while larger than at Khaleda's was still low. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Relatively few women attended the pre-election rally of Khaleda Zia. The female attendance at Sheikh Hasina's rally the earlier day, while larger than at Khaleda's was still low. Paltan Maidan. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

More election pictures at DrikNews.
Current election photos from www.driknews.com
Current election photos from www.driknews.com