Journalists need to tool up

Pub­lished in the Huff­ing­ton Post UK:

Over the last week more sound, fury and indig­na­tion has cas­caded forth from the US media, spill­ing into the European news, about the Amer­ic­an gov­ern­ment and the Asso­ci­ated Press spy­ing scan­dal.

Last week it emerged that the US Depart­ment of Justice mon­itored the tele­phones of, gasp, journ­al­ists work­ing at AP. Appar­ently this was done to try to invest­ig­ate who might have been the source for a story about a foiled ter­ror­ist plot in Yemen. How­ever, the drag­net seems to have widened to cov­er almost 100 journ­al­ists and poten­tially threatened gov­ern­ment­al leak­ers and whis­tleblowers who, in these days of sys­tem­at­ic secur­ity crack­downs in the US, are fast becom­ing Pub­lic Enemy No 1.

Now it appears that the US DoJ has been read­ing the emails of a seni­or Fox News report­er. And this has got the US hacks into a fright­ful tizz. What about the First Amend­ment?

Well, what about the fact that the Pat­ri­ot Act shred­ded most of the US Con­sti­tu­tion a dec­ade ago?

Also, who is actu­ally facing the secur­ity crack­down here? The US journ­al­ists are bleat­ing that their sources are dry­ing up in the face of a sys­tem­at­ic witch hunt by the US admin­is­tra­tion. That must be hard for the journ­al­ists — hard at least to get the stor­ies and by-lines that ensure their con­tin­ued employ­ment and the abil­ity to pay the mort­gage. This adds up to the phrase du jour: a “chilling effect” on free speech.

Er, yes, but how much harder for the poten­tial whis­tleblowers? They are the people facing not only a loss of pro­fes­sion­al repu­ta­tion and career if caught, but also all that goes with it. Plus, now, they are increas­ingly facing dra­coni­an pris­on sen­tences under the recently rean­im­ated and cur­rently much-deployed US 1917 Espi­on­age Act for expos­ing issues in the pub­lic interest. Ex-NSA Thomas Drake faced dec­ades in pris­on for expos­ing cor­rup­tion and waste, while ex-CIA John Kiriakou is cur­rently lan­guish­ing in pris­on for expos­ing the use of tor­ture.

The US gov­ern­ment has learned well from the example of the UK’s Offi­cial Secrets Acts — laws that nev­er actu­ally seem to be wiel­ded against real estab­lish­ment trait­ors, who always seem to be allowed to slip away, but which have been used fre­quently and effect­ively to stifle dis­sent, cov­er up spy crimes, and to spare the blushes of the Estab­lish­ment.

So, two points:

Firstly, the old media could and should have learned from the new mod­el that is Wikileaks and its ilk. Rather than asset strip­ping the organ­isa­tion for inform­a­tion, while abandon­ing the alleged source, Brad­ley Man­ning, and the founder, Juli­an Assange, to their fates, Wikileaks’s erstwhile allies could and mor­ally should cam­paign for them. The issues of the free flow of inform­a­tion, demo­cracy and justice are big­ger than petty argu­ments about per­son­al­ity traits.

Plus, the old media appear to have a death wish: to quote the words of the former New York Times edit­or and Wikileaks col­lab­or­at­or Bill Keller, Wikileaks is not a pub­lish­er — it is a source, pure and simple. But surely, if Wikileaks is “only” a source, it must be pro­tec­ted at all costs — that is the media’s prime dir­ect­ive. Journ­al­ists have his­tor­ic­ally gone to pris­on rather than give away their sources.

How­ever, if Wikileaks is indeed deemed to be a pub­lish­er and can be per­se­cuted this way, then all the old media are equally vul­ner­able. And indeed that is what we are wit­ness­ing now with these spy­ing scan­dals.

Secondly, these so-called invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ists are sur­prised that their phones were tapped?  Really?

If they are doing prop­er, worth­while journ­al­ism, of course their comms will be tapped in a post-Pat­ri­ot Act, sur­veil­lance-state world. Why on earth are they not tak­ing their own and their sources’ secur­ity ser­i­ously? Is it ama­teur night?

In this day and age, any ser­i­ous journ­al­ist (and there are still a few hon­our­able examples) will be tak­ing steps to pro­tect the secur­ity of their sources. They will be tooled up, tech-savvy, and they will have atten­ded Crypto-parties to learn secur­ity skills. They will also be pain­fully aware that a whis­tleblower is a per­son poten­tially facing pris­on, rather than just the source of a career-mak­ing story.

If main­stream journ­al­ists are ser­i­ous about expos­ing cor­rup­tion, hold­ing power to account, and fight­ing for justice they need to get ser­i­ous about source pro­tec­tion too and get teched-up. Help is widely avail­able to those who are inter­ested. Indeed, this sum­mer the Centre for Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism is host­ing talks in Lon­don on this sub­ject, and many oth­er inter­na­tion­al journ­al­ism con­fer­ences have done the same over the last few years.

Sadly, the level of interest and aware­ness remains rel­at­ively low — many journ­al­ists retain a naïve trust in the gen­er­al leg­al­ity of their government’s actions: the author­it­ies may bend the rules a little for “ter­ror­ists”, but of course they will abide by the rules when it comes to the media.….

.…or not. Water­gate now looks rather quaint in com­par­is­on.

As for me: well, I have had some help and have indeed been teched-up. My laptop runs the free Ubuntu Linux (the 64 bit ver­sion for grown-ups) from an encryp­ted sol­id state hard drive. I have long and dif­fer­ent pass­words for every online ser­vice I use. My mail and web serv­er are in Switzer­land and I encrypt as much of my email as pos­sible. It’s at least a start.

And here’s what I have to say about why journ­al­ists should think about these issues and how they can pro­tect both them­selves and their sources: Open­ing key­note “The Big Dig Con­fer­ence” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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