On October 12, 2012, the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize for contributing to the “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” The EU should show itself worthy of this honor and show its will to defend freedom of information, regardless of fears of political pressure from its so-called closest ally, the United States.
Now that Edward Snowden, the young American who revealed the global monitoring system known as Prism, has requested asylum from 20 countries, the EU nations should extend a welcome, under whatever law or status seems most appropriate.
Although the United States remains a world leader in upholding the ideal of freedom of expression, the American attitude toward whistleblowers sullies the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In 2004, the UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression, as well as his counterparts in the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a joint call to all governments to protect whistleblowers from all “legal, administrative or employment-related sanctions if they act in ‘good faith.’” Whistleblowers were defined as “individuals releasing confidential or secret information although they are under an official or other obligation to maintain confidentiality or secrecy.”
More recently, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe resolved in 2010 that, “the definition of protected disclosures shall include all bona fide warnings against various types of unlawful acts.” The Assembly’s Resolution 1729 concluded that member countries’ laws “should therefore cover both public and private sector whistle-blowers, including members of the armed forces and special services.”
Some are calling for a manhunt for Snowden on the grounds that he is a traitor, and others are trying to cloak the issues he raised in legalistic complexities. But what serious person can deny that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower?
The digital communications specialist’s revelations have enabled the international press, including the Washington Post, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, to shine a light on a surveillance system that tracks tens of millions of citizens, Europeans among them.
Targeted by an apparatus that threatens their sovereignty as well as their principles, the EU countries owe Snowden a debt of gratitude for his revelations, which were clearly in the public interest.
This young man will remain abandoned in the transit zone of the Moscow airport only if the European countries abandon their principles, as well as a major part of the raison d’être of the EU. Expressions of diplomatic outrage will be empty gestures if the person responsible for the revelations is left isolated and abandoned.
Beyond the necessity of providing a legal shield for whistleblowers, the protection of privacy is a matter of clear public interest, especially in the realm of freedom of information. Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, noted in a report last June that “arbitrary and unlawful infringements of the right to privacy...threaten the protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
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The confidentiality of written and oral exchanges is essential to ensuring the exercise of freedom of information. But when journalists’ sources are compromised, as happened in the case of The Associated Press; when the United States abuses the Espionage Act, a 1917 law that has been invoked a total of nine times against whistleblowers, six of these cases under the Obama administration; when the government tries to silence WikiLeaks by imposing a financial embargo on the organization and by subjecting associates and friends of Julian Assange to abusive searches when they enter the United States, when the site’s founder and his colleagues are threatened with U.S. prosecution, more than American democracy is threatened.
Indeed, the very model of democracy that the heirs of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are responsible for upholding has been robbed of its essence.
By what right is the United States exempt from principles that it demands be applied elsewhere?
In January, 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a historic speech in which she defined freedom of expression as a cornerstone of American diplomacy. She reiterated that position in February, 2011, in another speech in which she said that “on the spectrum of internet freedom, we place ourselves on the side of openness.”
Eloquent words. They may have brought encouragement to dissidents in Tehran, Beijing, Havana, Asmara, Ashgabat, Moscow and so many other capitals. But how disappointing to find that the skyscrapers of American surveillance have reached a size to match China’s technological Great Wall.
The White House and State Department message of democracy and defence of human rights has lost considerable credibility. One sign of widespread concern – Amazon has reported a 6,000% increase in sales of the George Orwell classic, 1984.
Now, with Big Brother watching us from a Washington suburb, the key institutions of American democracy must play their assigned roles of counterweight to the executive branch and its abuses. The system of checks and balances is more than a slogan for avid readers of Tocqueville and Montesquieu.
American leaders should realize the glaring contradiction between their soaring odes to freedom and the realities of official actions, which damage the image of their country.
Members of Congress must be capable of holding back the tide of security provisions of the Patriot Act by recognizing the legitimate rights of men and women who sound the alarm. The Whistleblower Protection Act must be amended to ensure effective protection for whistleblowers who act in the public interest – an interest completely separate from immediate national concerns as intelligence services interpret them.
A French version of this article first appeared in Le Monde on Wednesday.