Fifty years after US President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in West Berlin, Barack Obama tried to replicate history by delivering a rousing speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate. However recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s Boundless Informant spying programme seem to have dented the “Obamamania” that kept his popularity so high for many years. And given German history, it is not surprising to hear so many scornful comments, including a member of German Parliament likening Prism to “American-style Stasi tactics”.
Obama’s visit could not come at a worse time with WikiLeaks’ Assange marking one year since he walked in at the Ecuadorian embassy to seek refuge, the trial of private Bradley Manning, the source of the leaks, opening in a military courtroom in Fort Meade in Maryland and the NSA spying scandal, the most far-reaching leak since the Pentagon Papers in the 70s.
Throwing oil on the fire, FBI director Robert Mueller admitted to the Senate intelligence committee that he used drones to spy on citizens in US soil, triggering a wider debate. “Governments will use whatever technology is available to them to combat their primary enemy – which is their own population," wrote Noam Chomsky yesterday morning in the London Guardian.
Many years ago, the IFJ warned about spying on journalists. We strongly protested when the EU made fundamental changes to the 1997 EC Directive on privacy and telecommunications allowing states to introduce new laws requiring communications providers to keep traffic data and make it accessible to law enforcement agencies.
We knew then that this was the tip of the iceberg and we are not surprising to know now how agencies, such the National Security Agency in the US or GCHQ in the UK, have been spying on their citizens. In the case of GCHQ, they have even admitted spying on delegates to G20 summits and international conferences that have nothing to do with terrorism or crime.
This has now triggered the widest debate worldwide. There are those who consider Assange, Manning and Snowden to be heroes and those who berate them as traitors for having revealed important secrets of governments. The Q&A session by Snowden arranged for the Guardian was dissected by mainstream media everywhere and tens of thousands of tweets were devoted to it.
Other equally furious debates have been focusing on the effectiveness of the “oversight” procedures, the chilling effect on the open Internet, the lack of transparency and the overarching powers of the Fisa court in the US. These are important questions, but equally important is how all this, both the snooping and the attacks on sources, is affecting journalists.
The White House spying scandal on Associated Press journalists was not the first instance of eavesdropping on journalists and more incriminating evidence coming out all the time show that internet snooping by the NSA will get even worse now that it is revealed they may not even need a warrant. Crucially the issue that is at the heart of journalists’ preoccupation – protection of sources – is not even debated.
All the three main whistleblowers are now been hounded with a vengeance: Assange holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London trying to avoid being extradited to Sweden from where he fears he would be sent to the US to face potential espionage charges. Manning’s trial has just opened and, although prosecutors said they will not ask for the death penalty, the most serious of the charges, “aiding the enemy,” can get him prison for life. As for Edward Snowden, by and large the most wanted man, he has gone underground for fear of might happen to him. His future looks grim as US officials queue up to demonise him almost daily. From the days of Nixon, the only reaction from governments has been to destroy the credibility of any whistleblower as they seek to distract attention from their own wrongdoings. For journalists, protecting their sources may well become the biggest challenge for a free press and a cardinal task, perhaps as important as tackling the power of secrecy.