Perils of Censorship in the Digital Age

First published on RT OP-Edge.

The ripple effects of the Donald Trump election victory in America continue to wash over many different shorelines of public opinion, like so many mini-tsunamis hitting the Pacific rim over the last few last weeks.  The seismic changes have indeed been global, and not least in Europe.

First up, the Eurocrats have been getting in a bit of a flap about the future of NATO, as I recently wrote.  In the past I have also written about the perceived “insider threat” – in other words, whistleblowers – that has been worrying governments and intelligence agencies across the Western world.

Currently the Twittersphere is lighting up around the issue of “fake news“, with Western mainstream media (news purveyors of the utmost unsullied probity, naturally) blaming Trump’s unexpected victory variously on the US alt-media shock jocks, fake news trolls and bots, and sovereign-state media outlets such as the Russian RT and Sputnik.

In the wake of US Democrat claims that Russia was interfering in the election process (not a practice that the USA has ever engaged in in any other country around the world whatsoever), we now have the US Green Party presidential candidate apparently spontaneously calling for recounts in three key swing-states in the USA.

The German government has already expressed concern that such “fake” news might adversely influence the almost inevitable re-election for a fourth term as Chancellor, Angela Merkel.  Despite having been proclaimed the closest partner of the USA by President Obama on his recent speed-dating visit to Europe, and perhaps wary of the rising nationalist anger (I hesitate to write national socialist anger, but certainly its ugly face is there too in the German crowd) Merkal is getting in an electoral first strike.

At a slightly more worrying level, the European Parliament on 23 November voted for a resolution to counter “propaganda” from Russia – and incredibly equated that country’s media with terrorist groups such as ISIS – the very organisation that Russia is currently trying to help crush in Syria and which the West and NATO are at least officially opposed to.

Equating the content of licensed and networked media outlets – however much they may challenge Western orthodoxies – to the horrors of ISIS snuff videos seems to me to be wilfully blind if not downright and dangerously delusional. Or perhaps we should just call it propaganda too?

Whatever happened to the rights of freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights? Or the concept that a plurality of opinion encourages a healthy democracy?

In America too, we have had reports this week that Google and Facebook are censoring alleged “fake” news.  This is the start of a very slippery slope. Soon anyone who dissents from the orthodoxy will be deemed fake and disappear into the corporate memory black hole.  Google in 2014 suggested a precursor to this, the Knowledge Vault, a search system that would promote approved websites and disappear those deemed inaccurate at least by Google algorithms. But who controls those?

Once again our corporate overlords seem to be marching remarkably in time – almost a lock step – with the mood of the political establishment.

So how did this all kick off? With remarkably prescient timing, in October the arch-neoconservative UK-based think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, published a report entitled “Putin’s Useful Idiots: Britain’s Right, Left and Russia“. Well, at least it got its apostrophes right, but much of the rest is just so much hate-filled bile against those who call out the failed Washington Consensus.

The Henry Jackson Society is an odious organisation that was founded in Cambridge eleven years ago. One of its initial signatories was Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of the UK’s foreign intelligence agency MI6, and of some personal notoriety for peddling the lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that took the UK into the disastrous and illegal Iraq war in 2003, as well as feeding in the fake intelligence about Iraq trying to acquire uranium from Niger that US Secretary of State Colin Powell used as a justification for the same war at the United Nations.

Despite all this, he remains happily retired, bloated with honours, while at the same time threatening the British establishment with his full memoirs to posthumously preserve his reputation and avoid prosecution for a breach of the Official Secrets Act, as I have written before.

The Henry Jackson Society has also folded into itself an organisation called the Centre for Social Cohesion – apparently established to build better integration for the Muslim community in the UK, but which for the last decade has done nothing but stir up Islamophobia. As others have written, the phrase “modern McCarthyites” might not be stretching this concept too far. And now it seems to be turning its ire against Russia.

Its emphasis has been unrelentingly anti-Islam for many years, so it was interesting that this establishment-embedded Society had a fully-formed report about the renewed Red Menace subverting our Western media just ready and waiting to be published ahead of the US elections.

So where does this all leave us?

It may well be that Facebook will begin to disappear so-called fake news – which could have repercussions for all the activist groups that, against all advice and common sense, continue to offer up their plans/organise events on that medium.

We may see the same censorship on Google, as well as dissident websites disappearing down the proposed memory-hole of the Knowledge Vault. Sure, such pages may be recorded on sites like the WayBack Machine et al, but who really searches through that reflexively? Most us us don’t even get through the first page of Google hits anyway. In our digital age, this will make the 20th century practice of your analogue dictator – the airbrushing of political opponents out of history – look positively quaint.

But, just as the Gutenberg Press was a radical innovation in the 15th century that led to a rapid spread of written ideas and the resulting censorship, repression and a thriving underground media, so the the current crackdown will lead to the same push-back.

Then we have to consider the potential censorship of state-owned news outlets such as RT, the Chinese CCTV, and the Iranian Press TV. Where will that leave other state-owned organisations such as the BBC, RAI and other international Euro-broadcasters? Oh, of course, they are part of the Western media club, so it’s all hunkey-dorey and business as usual.

But this can be a two-sided fight – only two months ago RT’s UK bankers, the state-owned Nat West Bank, announced that they were going to shut down the channel’s UK accounts, with no reason or redress. I gather that a similar threat was then issued against the BBC in Russia, and the case was quietly dropped.

Over the last 20 years I have been interviewed by hundreds of major media outlets across Europe, many of them state-owned.  However, it is only when I appear on RT.com that I am accused of supporting a state-propaganda outlet, of being a useful idiot – and this has become increasingly marked over the last couple of years.

All these measures smack of an ill-informed and out-of-touch panic reaction by a hitherto complacent establishment. Before they attempt to airbrush history, we need to remember that history teaches some useful lessons about such elitist crackdowns: they never end well for anyone.

Exile – ExBerliner Article

My most recent article for the ExBerliner magazine:

What is exile? Other than a term much used and abused by many new expats arriving in Berlin, dictionary definitions point towards someone who is kept away from their home country for political reasons, either by regal decree in the past or now more probably self-imposed. But there are many other ways to feel exiled – from mainstream society, from your family, faith, profession, politics, and Berlin is now regarded as a haven.

However, let’s focus on the classic definition and a noble tradition. Every country, no matter how apparently enlightened, can become a tyrant to its own citizens if they challenge abuses of power. Voltaire was exiled in England for three years and soon after Tom Paine, a former excise man facing charges for seditious libel, sought refuge in France. More recent famous exiles include David Shayler, the MI5 whistleblower of the 1990s who followed in Paine’s footsteps pretty much for the same fundamental reasons, yet Alexander Litvinenko, the KBG whistleblower of the same era, ironically found safe haven in exile in the UK.

So, being an exile effectively means that you have angered the power structures of your home country to such an extent that other countries feel compelled to give you refuge, partly for legal or principled reasons, but also for political expediency. The current most famous exile in the world is, of course, Edward Snowden, stranded by chance in Russia en route to political asylum in Ecuador.

What does the act of fleeing into exile actually feel like? It is a wild leap into an unknown and precarious future, with great risk and few foreseeable rewards. At the same time, as you leave the shores of the persecuting country, evading the authorities, avoiding arrest and going on the run, there is an exhilarating, intense feeling of freedom – a sense that the die has very much been cast. Your old way of life is irrevocably at an end and the future is a blank slate on which you can write anything.

After Shayler and I fled to France in 1997, for the first year of the three we lived in exile we hid in a remote French farmhouse just north of Limoges – the nearest village was 2 kilometres away, and the nearest town a distant thirty. We lived in constant dread of that knock on the door and the ensuing arrest. And that, indeed, eventually did catch up with him.

As a result, for Shayler it meant the world grew increasingly small, increasingly confined. Initially, when we went on the run, we were free to roam across Europe – anywhere but the UK. Then, after the French courts refused to extradite him to Britain in 1998 to face trial for a breach of the draconian UK Official Secrets Act, France became the only place he could live freely. If he had then traveled to any other European country, the British would have again attempted to extradite him, probably successfully, so he was trapped.

However, there are worse places than France in which to find yourself stranded. As well as being one of the most beautiful and varied countries in the world it felt particularly poignant to end up exiled in Paris for a further two years.

It was also conveniently close to the UK, so friends, family, supporters and journalists could visit us regularly and bring Shayler supplies of such vital British staples as bacon and HP source. But he still missed the simple pleasures in life, such as being free to watch his beloved football team, or being able to watch the crappy late night comedy shows that the British endlessly churn out. Despite these small lacks, I shall always remember those years in France fondly, as a place of greater safety, a literal haven from persecution.

Of course, all this was in the era before the standardised European Arrest warrant, when national sovereignty and national laws actually counted for something. Finding a secure place of exile now would be almost an impossibility in Europe if you home country really wanted to prosecute you.

Many Western expats now talk of being “exiled in Berlin”, and they may indeed be self-exiled in search of a more sympatico life style, a buzzy group of like-minded peers, work opportunities or whatever. But until they have felt the full force of an extradition warrant, before the fuzz has actually felt their collars, this is realistically exile as a lifestyle choice, rather than exile as a desperate political necessity or, in Edward Snowden’s case, a potentially existential requirement.

German Netzpolitik journalists investigated for treason

Press freedom is under threat in Germany – two journalists and their alleged source are under investigation for potential treason for disclosing and reporting what appears to be an illegal and secret plan to spy on German citizens. Here’s the interview I did for RT.com about this yesterday:

German Netzpolitik journalists face treason charges from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Anything to Say? unveiled in Berlin

Last week artist Davide Dormino unveiled his sculpture celebrating whistleblowers in Alexanderplatz, Berlin.

Called “Anything to Say?”, the sculpture depicts Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange standing on three chairs, with an empty fourth chair beside them, upon which we are all encouraged to stand up on and speak our truth.

Davide invited me to do just that for the unveiling ceremony, along with German MP for the Green Party and whistleblower supporter, Hans Christian Stroebele and Wikileaks’ Sarah Harrison. Here’s a report:

Anything_to_Say?_sculpture_unveiled_in_Berlin from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Code Red Media Launch in Perugia

I am very happy to announce a new initiative, Code Red,  that Simon Davies (the founder of Privacy International and The Big Brother Awards) and I have been organising over the last few months.  In fact, not just us, but a panoply of global privacy and anti-surveillance campaigners from many areas of expertise.

Simon and I have known each other for years, way back to 2002, when he gave one of the earliest Winston Awards to David Shayler, in recognition of his work towards trying to expose surveillance and protect privacy. That award ceremony, hosted by comedian and activist Mark Thomas, was one of the few bright points in that year for David and me – which included my nearly dying of meningitis in Paris and David’s voluntary return to the UK to “face the music”; face the inevitable arrest, trial and conviction for a breach of the Official Secrets Act that followed on from his disclosures about spy criminality.

Anyway, enough of a detour down memory lane – back to Code Red. Regular readers of this website will know that I have some slight interest in the need to protect our privacy for both personal reasons and societal good. Over the last 18 years since helping to expose the crimes of the British spies, I have worked with the media, lawyers, campaigners, hackers, NGOs, politicians, wonks, geeks, whistleblowers, and wonderfully concerned citizens around the world – all the time arguing against the encroaching and stealthy powers of the deep, secret state and beyond.

While many people are concerned about this threat to a democratic way of life, and in fact so many people try to push back, I know from experience the different pressures that can be exerted against each community, and the lack of awareness and meaningful communication that can often occur between such groups.

So when Simon posited the idea of Code Red – an organisation that can functionally bring all these disparate groups together, to learn from each other, gain strength and thereby work more effectively, it seemed an obvious next step.

Some progress has already been make in this direction, with international whistleblower conferences, cryptoparties, training for journalists about how to protect their sources, campaigns to protect whistleblowers, activist and media collectives, and much more.  We in Code Red recognise all this amazing work and are not trying to replicate it.

But we do want to do is improve the flow of communication – would it not be great to have a global clearing house, a record, of what works, what does not, a repository of expertise from all these inter-related disciplines from a round the world that we can all learn from?

This is one of the goals of Code Red, which launched to the media at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia a few weeks ago.  We were then lucky enough to also hold a launch to the tech/hacktivist community in Berlin a few days after at C Base – the mother-ship of hackers.

Here is the film of the Perugia launch:

Code Red – launched in Perugia, April 2015 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

AcTVism film trailer

The AcTVism Munich media collective is releasing a film on 19th April featuring Noam Chomsky, The Real News Network‘s Paul Jay and  myself.

Filmed last January, we discussed the old and new media, activism, and much more.

Here’s the trailer:

AcTVism Trailer – Chomsky, Machon and Jay from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Holistic security for journalists and sources – Logan Symposium

Here is a short talk I gave at the recent Logan Symposium in London, where I discussed a more holistic approach for both journalists and their sources:

The Logan Symposium – Dec 6th – Annie Machon from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

BM Foreign Affairs – Role of Intelligence Agencies in the Modern World

I will be speaking at BM Foreign Affairs in Berlin on 24 September at 19:00, about my assessment of the intelligence activities and inside chances. Some of the topics during this talk include:BM Foreign Affairs

  • The role of modern intelligence agencies?
  • What it’s like to blow the whistle and go on the run?
  • Oversight and proportionality of intelligence agencies within a democracy.
  • The role and control of the media.
  • The way forward?

It’s at BM – Berlin Moscow, Unter den Linden 52, 10117 Berlin. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Invitation (PDF)

New v old media – RT Crosstalk debate

I recently took part in a debate about the old versus the new “alternative” media and their relative merits on RT’s Crosstalk with Peter Lavelle:

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Whistleblowers deserve full coverage

Here is my recent RT interview about the recent dispute between Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald on what exactly the parameters should be in media reporting of whistleblower disclosures:

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Whistleblowers deserve full coverage – RT interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Of course, thanks to Wikileaks this evening, we now know the country that Glenn Greenwald redacted from his original report was Afghanistan.

Why on earth should the Afghanis not be allowed to know the sheer scale of surveillance they live under? In fact, would many be surprised? This is an excellent related article, do read.

International Journalism Festival, Perugia

Here is a panel discussion I did at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, in May 2014:

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Circumventing the Panopticon, Transmediale Berlin

Last month I was on a panel discussion at the Berlin Transmediale conference with NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, Chelsea Manning rapporteur Alexa O’Brian, and activist Diani Barreto. Here is the link to the full two hour event, and here is my speech:

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Transmediale, Berlin 2014 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

In Celebration of Whistleblowers

First published on RT Op-Edge.

In the UK last week there was a series of events to celebrate the wonderful work of whistleblowers.

In previous decades these brave and rare individuals have often been all too easily dismissed with the usual, carefully orchestrated media slanders of “disgruntled”, “too junior”, “sacked”, whatever ad nauseam. But no longer.

Now, in this era where we have been lied into illegal wars, where the banks privatise their profits yet make their risks public and get repeatedly bailed out, and when people are needlessly dying in our hospitals, more and more people realise the value that whistleblowers can bring to the public debate.

Indeed, the system is now so broken that the whistleblower is often the regulator of last resort.

Plus, of course, this is the era of Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. The concept of whistleblowing has gone global in response to the scale of the threats we are all now facing from the military-security complex world-wide.

So last week was rather invigorating and involved a number of events that gave due credit to the bravery and sacrifice of whistleblowers.

First up we had the international launch of the UK whistleblower support group, The Whistler. This is a British organisation designed to provide a legal, psychological and social support network to those in the UK brave enough to come out and blow the whistle on incompetence and crime from any sector, public or private, and many hundreds have over the last few years, particularly from the financial and health sectors.

Sadly all experience the same treatment; vilification, suppression, and even the loss of their careers for daring to expose the incompetence and even crime of others.  Sadly, while there is a law in place that is supposed to provide some protection, all to often this has failed over the last 16 years.  The Whistler provides a much needed service.

A number of international whistleblowers were in the UK for the week for other events, and The Whistler was able to host them and hear their stories. Gavin MacFadyen of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, and the indefatigable campaigner Eileen Chubb hosted the event, and former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, NSA whistleblower Tom Drake, Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability project (The Whistler’s US counterpart), and myself spoke. The Whistler will officially be launched in the UK on 20th March, so watch this space.

The next night we found ourselves at the prestigious Oxford Union Society, which was kind enough to host the award ceremony for the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence for the second year running. You may remember that last year the award went to Dr Tom Fingar, whose US National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 single-handedly halted to rush to war against Iran.

The Sam Adams Associates is a group of intelligence, government and military whistleblowers and campaigners.  Each year we vote to confer an award on a member of the intelligence community or related professions who exemplifies CIA analyst, Sam Adams’ courage, persistence and telling truth to power, no matter what the consequences.

Since its inception in 2002, the award has been given to truth tellers Coleen Rowley of the FBI, Katherine Gun of GCHQ, Sibel Edmonds of the FBI, Craig Murray former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Sam Provance former US army Sgt, Major Frank Grevil of Danish intelligence, Larry Wilkerson former US army Colonel, Julian Assange of Wikileaks, Thomas Drake of NSA and Jesselyn Radack of the Department of Justice, Dr Thomas Fingar former Deputy Director of National Intelligence, and Edward Snowden former NSA contractor.

This year the award went, unanimously and inevitably, to Chelsea Manning, and many Sam Adams associates travelled to the UK to attend and to honour her achievements and 2013 SAA laureate Edward Snowden sent through a congratulatory message. Sadly and for obvious reasons Chelsea could not receive the award in person, but her old school friend, Aaron Kirkhouse read out a powerful and moving statement written by her for the occasion.

The following night the Union hosted a debate on “This house would call Edward Snowden a hero”. I had the pleasure of arguing for the proposition, along with US journalist Chris Hedges, NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, and former UK government minister Chris Huhne, and we won – 212 to 171 was the final tally, I believe.

I very much enjoyed the events, so a massive thanks to Polina Ivanova, the current Union president, and her team who organised the events.

The best part of the week though, apart from the set events, was having the time to be with other intelligence whistleblowers and fellow campaigners. While in London we also all had the opportunity to do a range of media interviews with programmes such as Brian Rose’s London Real TV and Afshin Rattansi’s “Going Underground” on RT.

Sadly but rather predictably, the old media chose not to take advantage of such a rich source of expertise in town.  Despite repeated invitations, the MSM failed to attend any of the events or interview any of the whistleblowers. But perhaps that’s better than the appallingly off-beam coverage the Guardian gave to Dr Fingar’s award ceremony last year.

But the old media are behind the times, which are definitely a’changing. In this post-Wikileaks, post-Manning and post-Snowden world, the tone of the debate has changed for good. Whistleblowers are increasingly valued as brave individuals of conscience and there is much more awareness and interest in the issues of privacy, human rights and the meaning of democracy. Indeed, in the fundamental meaning of freedom.

Voice of Russia radio interview about spies, oversight, whistleblowers, and Snowden.

Here is an interview I did for Voice of Russia radio in London last week about spies and their relationship with our democratic processes, oversight, Edward Snowden and much more:

Voice of Russia radio interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.