Edward Snowden, former CIA analyst, revealed the extent of mass surveillance programs collecting telephone metadata in June 2013. He caused a storm, and the questions of privacy and surveillance sparked widespread concern. Where should the line be drawn between national security and the right to privacy? How far should the government be allowed to collect information on our daily activities? Two years later, these questions seems to have slowly evaporated. Where is Edward Snowden now? Did his revelations change anything? And what does whistleblowing mean in terms of freedom of speech?
What’s the situation now?
Edward Snowden appears to have lost public interest. He is currently still in Russia – if he returns to the US, he faces persecution by the authorities. During the run-up to the US elections, the democratic candidates debated on whether Snowden should be considered as a hero or a traitor. Hillary Clinton stated: “He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistlebower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised.” Governor Malley echoed this, pointing out that “Whistleblowers do not run to Russia and try to get protection from Putin.”
On Clinton’s opposing side was Bernie Sanders, who acknowledged the important role “in educating the American people to the degree to which [their] civil liberties and constitutional rights are being undermined.” And Dr Jill Stein even went as far as asserting Snowden should be welcomed as a hero. “While he broke a law, technically, he also served a much higher constitutional law which was being broken.”
Freedom of speech
Whistlebowing is protected under the Whistleblower Protection Act. The statute states:
A federal agency violates the Whistleblower Protection Act if it takes or fails to take (or threatens to take or fail to take) a personnel action with respect to any employee or applicant because of any disclosure of information by the employee or applicant that he or she reasonably believes evidences a violation of a law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
In 2013, Michael Bochenek, Director of Law and Policy at Amnesty International said that: “No one should be charged under any law for disclosing information of human rights violations. Such disclosures are protected under the rights to information and freedom of expression.” This would mean that Snowden’s actions were legally justified as what he disclosed amounted to a human right violation – the violation of our privacy.
Snowden disclosed information that he considered to be a violation of civil liberties and an abuse of authority. He would therefore be entitled to legal protection under this Act. Freedom of speech is legally respected in regards to whistlebowing as people have the right to speak against their employers to report “a violation of a law, rule, or regulation” and other mishandlings. However, this does not mean that whistleblowers can speak freely expect nothing in retaliation. Snowden revealed very sensitive information that was of great public interest. Most American politicians still believe that he broke the law and needs to face persecution. They condemned him even without a trial, “labeling him both as guilty and a traitor” – which makes it doutbful that he would have access to a fair trial if he returned to the US.
Snowden isn’t the only one
The Snowden case is still relevant today as it applies to our rights to express what we feel needs to be expressed for “the public good”. However, he is not the only whistleblower who demands our attention.
Another whistleblower who warned the public about human rights violations is Chelsea Manning. After leaking classified US government documents about the wars in Iran and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison. She also disclosed information that she felt was truly important for the public to know about, risking her own security. The documents included potential human rights violations performed by US troops abroad like the shooting of civilians from a US helicopter.
Her reasons for speaking out:
“First, I would point out that life is precious. In Iraq in 2009-10, life felt very cheap. It became overwhelming to see the sheer number of people suffering and dying, and the learned indifference to it by everybody around me, including the Iraqis themselves. That really changed my perspective on my life, and made me realize that speaking out about injustices is worth the risk. Second, in your life, you are rarely given the chance to really make a difference. Every now and then you do come across a significant choice. Do you really want to find yourself asking whether you could have done more, 10-20 years later? These are the kinds of questions I didn’t want to haunt me.”
Some concluding thoughts
A society that respects freedom of speech should strive to protect people who speak out against human rights abuses or violations of civil liberties. What we learned from Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning changed our perception of the credibility of the US government and its agencies. In the Snowden case, it also challenged the legitimacy of the British intelligence and security organisation GCHQ (Government Communications Head Quarters) which was reportedly found to collect information from “every visible user on the internet” who used/visited search engines, social media, online radio, news and pornographic websites. The secret programme, called Karma Police, also “stored metadata about people’s emails, texts and phone calls, revealing who they contacted but not what was said or written.” This amounts to a violation of our privacy and our freedom to use the Internet/phones without having to fear that we are being monitored. Snowden and Manning revealed information that affects our lives, information that should not be hidden away from us. They should not be persecuted for providing the public with that information.
Featured image source: http://www.wired.com/2014/08/edward-snowden/
This article was written by Anna Vu