Sunday, June 16, 2024

Europe to make it legal to spy on journalists

The European Media Freedom Act envisages installing spyware on journalists’ phones for the sake of “national security”. Sputnik sat down with some international observers to discuss how the provision correlates with the act’s name and basic European principles.

“There is no legitimate reason to spy on journalists,” Lucy Komisar, an investigative journalist based in New York, told Sputnik.

“Remember, this law targets people identified as journalists, not as spies or terrorists or criminals. Journalism is not a crime, unless Julian Assange does it. The real reason is to protect government officials from journalists reporting on officials’ misguided policies, abuses and corruption. It’s quite ironic in view of the EU’s self-congratulatory rules trumpeted as protecting peoples’ data from tech companies. Stealing data when a company does it is bad, stealing audio and written text when a government does it is just fine.”

The bloc’s new media regulation was proposed by the European Commission (EC) in September 2022. The initial draft stipulated that European governments could deploy spyware on journalists’ devices “on a case-by-case basis” to ensure national security or to investigate “serious crimes,” such as terrorism, human or weapons trafficking, exploitation of children, murder or rape.

However, in May 2023, Politico obtained a document penned by French policy-makers who called to narrow journalists’ immunity under the new EU rules and strike what they called “a fair balance between the need to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and the need to protect citizens and the state against serious threats.”

According to the media, Paris’ argument was accepted by the EC. As a result, the draft legislation was amended to loosen safeguards for the journalists’ immunity. The EC’s original list of “serious crimes” allowing surveillance on reporters was replaced by a broader 2002’s Council Framework Decision of the European arrest warrant consisting of 32 offenses.

The development triggered a storm of criticism from European journalist organizations, NGOs and activist groups. In particular, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), representing over 300,000 members, denounced the EU’s move as a “blow to media freedom”. The EFJ warned that empowering EU governments to install spyware on journalists’ devices under the guise of “national security” would in particular have a “chilling effect on whistleblowers” and confidential sources.

“Since the eighteenth century when newspapers began to circulate, the secrecy of sources has been sacrosanct,” Professor Ellis Cashmore, the author of Screen Society and an independent media analyst, told Sputnik. “Journalists have, over generations, respected this and steadfastly refused to reveal sources. As recently as 2005, Judith Miller, a New York Times journalist, was sentenced to prison for not revealing sources. So, it is an extremely important principle in the media.”

For their part, the British media warned that despite the UK leaving the EU, the bloc’s legislation in its current form poses a surveillance risk to British journalists residing in the EU. European Digital Rights (EDRi), a network of digital rights advocates, urged the European Council to reconsider the legislation’s spyware provisions.

The proposed legislation will not only infringe the freedom of press but contribute to the further erosion of the public trust in the Western mainstream media which is increasingly merging with the government and elitist structures, according to Sputnik’s interlocutors.

“The two cataclysmic events of the COVID pandemic and the Ukraine conflict have changed the media’s relationships with governments,” explained Cashmore. “One important effect is what we might call a neutering of the media. I mean by this that news organizations are now so reliant on governments for intel that they have been deterred from being critical of administrations. In the West, the phrase is ‘do not bite the hand that feeds you’.”

One shouldn’t delude oneself into believing that those proposing the spyware provision are really concerned about “national interests,” echoed Lucy Komisar: “The security they are protecting is not that of European nations but of themselves,” she pointed out.

According to Komisar, much of the Western media “already walks in lock-step with their governments.” The newly proposed bill “aims at the few courageous ones left, to keep the public from finding out about officials’ abuses and lies” and “to intimidate the few Julian Assanges who are left in European media that reach the broad public.”

Once the legislation is passed “real journalists will have to do what other critics of repressive governments do: user burner phones, have computers not connected to the internet, have secret meetings with brave sources,” the investigative journalist projected.

“Democracy is distorted when citizens are prevented from getting the information they need for informed choices,” Komisar warned.

Meanwhile, the latest developments don’t seem surprising against the backdrop of the West’s steady attack on freedom of speech over the last several years. One glaring example is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who has been persecuted for exposing the US-NATO criminal conduct in Afghanistan and Iraq and the CIA’s cyber-spying techniques. Assange is indicted on 18 counts of violating the Espionage Act in the US. The WikiLeaks founder has been held in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison for more than four years and is now facing extradition to the US.

Likewise, Washington charged former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden under the Espionage Act for shedding light on the US global surveillance program and spying on American civilians in a clear contradiction with the nation’s constitution. Snowden evaded Assange’s fate by finding asylum in Russia. In September 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a decree granting Russian citizenship to the whistleblower.

Belmarsh Prison, US0NATO, NSA, Jacob Mchangama, 

Most recently, the collective West has ramped up pressure against Russian media outlets by resorting to censorship and outright bans after the beginning of Moscow’s special military operation to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine.

In particular, in March 2022, the EU slapped sanctions and suspended the broadcasting activities of Sputnik and RT thus stripping Europeans of any alternative news about the Ukraine conflict and imposing a one-sided vision of what’s going on in the Eastern European military theater. Concurrently, the UK passed legislation ordering social media, internet services and app store companies to block content from RT and Sputnik.

Remarkably, some Western human rights advocates warned at the time that banning Russian media “does more harm than good”: “History offers numerous examples of emergency speech restrictions threatening the very democracies they were supposed to protect,” wrote Danish lawyer and free speech activist Jacob Mchangama in August 2022.

“I am not a conspiracy theorist, but any sentient person can see a systematic removal of the media’s ability to operate without fear or favor – that is, impartially,” said Cashmore. “A dependency has been cultivated: the media have been encouraged to rely on political powers for information and, if they don’t, they face expulsion. The ejection of Sputnik and RT from the UK illustrates the measures governments are prepared to take to eliminate not just critical but alternative commentary. So, I believe the EU is seeking a closer compliance with mainstream or dominant narratives and the minimization of perspectives that challenge or criticize.”

The value of the concept of the freedom of speech is fading given that just a handful of European parliamentarians have shown any independence or courage to uphold this basic principle of the EU, according to Komisar. She expects that the draconian legislation may be passed, apparently with a meaningless disclaimer “this should not be used to attack a free press.”

“Calling this ‘Orwellian’ becomes a cliché,” Komisar concluded.

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