Leak investigations and the right to report

silencedLast night, I moderated a discussion that followed the screening of Silenced, a new documentary that tells the stories of three whistleblowers who exposed torture, mass surveillance and government waste. Directed by Jamies Spione, funded partly by a $40,000-Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and executive-produced by Susan Sarandon, it’s a powerful film that shows how these insiders in the national-security establishment were intimidated and penalized for exposing the abuse of government power.

Their stories are not new. What Spione brought to the screen was the humanity of the whistleblowers and the patriotic idealism that compelled them to work in government agencies like the NSA and the CIA and then to speak out against the excesses they saw there. If anything, Silenced dramatizes how the landscape of government secrecy has changed dramatically since 9/11 and the war on terror. It makes the argument that whistleblowers play an essential role: Leaks are a necessary prophylactic, especially when they reveal the abuse of public authority and the harm done to the rights of citizens.

Investigative journalism is all about uncovering secrets, but no journalist will dispute that governments have the right to keep things under wraps. Secrecy, however, is also prone to abuse. Not all secrecy is justified, and it can be argued that whistleblowers and leakers deserve protection if they disclose important, if secret, information that is in the public interest.

These questions have come to the fore as technology has made leaking easier — the estimated 1.7 million documents that NSA contractor Edward Snowden supposedly has in some hard drives is a good example. At the same time, more advanced tools of email and phone surveillance have enhanced the ability of governments to track the sources of leaks.

Until this month, I thought that the U.S. government’s aggressive pursuit of media leaks was confined to state secrets and national security. But as it turns out, it’s not just the CIA, the National Security Agency or the Justice Department that has gone after unauthorized information disclosures.

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Muckraking in Putin’s Russia

Putin aims a tranquilizer gun at a tiger at a nature reserve. Photo from  premiere.gov.ru.

Putin aims a tranquilizer gun at a tiger at a nature reserve. Photo from premiere.gov.ru. (Creative Commons license)

Can the worst of times for media and political freedoms in post-Soviet Russia also be the best of times for watchdog reporting?

Elizaveta Osetinskyaya, the editor of  Forbes Russia, the most prominent business magazine in that country, seemed to think so. It’s a paradox, she said. The Russian media is confronting some of the most formidable political and financial challenges it has faced since the fall of communism. Yet she thinks investigative reporting has never been more vibrant nor its quality better. “Nowadays you can’t hide anything,” she said,” the declarations of officials, their assets overseas, you cannot even hide your offshore accounts.”

“Second,” she continued, “Western [media] brands came to Russia in the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, bringing high standards and technologies for investigative journalism. I started as a journalist in 1995. A lot of investigative pieces at that time came from leaks from oligarchs. This is not the way I would prefer to find information myself. Nowadays that is more possible than before. Third, despite more restrictive laws, there are now more clear and transparent rules [for businesses and for officials], such as international standards of accounting. Now we have a lot of databases. We have information about tenders. You can find a lot of information about the schemes of private companies. Fourth, there are a lot of independent bloggers who help us do our jobs.”

Osetinskaya was speaking at Columbia’s Harriman Institute, which brought in brought in five of Russia’s leading muckrakers in a forum last week. Put five Russian investigative journalists together in a room and you’re bound to have fireworks. The consensus: Vladimir Putin is bad news for for the Russian press. Since his election to a third term last year, the State Duma has recriminalized defamation and passed new laws that would authorize state censorship of critical websites. There is now far less tolerance for critical reporting than there was during the previous president, Dmitry Medvedev. At the same time, violent assaults on journalists continue.

So it was no surprise that others didn’t quite share Osetinskaya’s optimism. Elena Milashina has been for 16 years an investigative journalist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where she continues the work of her slain colleague Anna Politkovsyaka, reporting on Chechnya and also investigating attacks on journalists. Last year, Milashina was attacked and beaten up by unknown men while on her way home. The beatings were so severe, she suffered a concussion, 14 blood clots and a broken tooth.

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Countering electronic surveillance

In a chilling account in this month’s issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, freelance journalist Matthieu Aikins recounts how hackers in the employ of the Libyan government were able to access the email accounts of foreign journalists. It wasn’t that difficult – nothing that a  hacker of average skills in  say, Manila or Bucharest, couldn’t do.  Among other things, Libyan authorities got  a spreadsheet from a CNN email  account; it had a list of names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of the network’s underground sources in Tripoli.

In the past few years, the surveillance capacities of intelligence bodies around the world have multiplied beyond imagination, thanks in part to surveillance technologies developed in the U.S. and Western Europe. But even without those technologies, governments in many countries have been able to count on the cooperation of telecoms companies who willingly release data on subscribers in exchange for leniency on their licensing and other requirements. Read the rest of this entry »


Keeping watchdogs safe 2: An engaged public is the ultimate line of defense

El Caminito, the cocaine transit route used by the Texis cartel in El Salvador, begins in the poor village of San Fernando in the province of Chalatenango. (Photo by Frederick Meza, courtesy of El Faro)

We live in a new world of news, writes Frank Smyth, senior security adviser to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “News organizations that publish primarily or entirely online are now in the thick of front-line, in-depth journalism.”

“With the attention,” he continues in an introduction to CPJ’s extremely helpful  Journalist Security Guide, “has come risk.”

Around the world, a new breed of news online-only news organizations has emerged. They do some of the most exciting and innovative watchdogging work. They are small, feisty, independent. They don’t compete in the breaking news arena but focus on holding the powerful to account. The Internet has given them a platform for disseminating their work and engaging their audiences. It has amplified their voices and given them influence and clout. But they are also vulnerable. Without the resources of large news organizations, they are mostly left on their own to fend off legal and security threats. Read the rest of this entry »


Keeping watchdogs safe1: Good reporting is the first line of defense

The story was told in the signature literary style of  El Faro, an independent online-only news site published in El Salvador. It was on the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang,  which has left a trail of murder and mayhem in Central America, Mexico and the U.S.  It began like this:

El Muchacho received a call on his cell phone Friday morning. It came from the jail in Ciudad Barrios, to explain the new instructions from the Mara Salvatrucha: they would have to “calm down.” In the gang’s language, that amounted to saying that until further notice, there should be no killings and no new extortions.

We had arranged to meet El Muchacho at a shopping center. He’s in his 30s, and very slender. He’s the palabrero (leader) of a clica (cell) of the MS-13 gang. Orders received from the jail cannot be questioned, so he got his cell members together and gave them the message. “We’re on vacation,” he jokes, laughing as he says it.

The report went on to reveal a secret deal in which local gangs would pull back on killings in exchange for concessions from the government, including more lenient treatment for gang members currently in jail. The revelations shook El Salvador, a country reeling from gang violence as it emerged in the last few years as the new pathway for narcotics to enter the U.S.

 

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