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GCHQ actions are a threat to press freedom

ByOliver Lemarchand

Jan 27, 2015

In a month that has witnessed unparalleled levels of discussion surrounding the question of ‘freedom of the press’, UK agency GCHQ has been revealed to have been intercepting the emails of prominent journalists, worldwide. The emails, unearthed by omnipresent adversary of Western intelligence Edward Snowden, numbered a staggering 70,000, all of which were intercepted in less than ten minutes in November 2008. What this most recent episode affirms is the existence of a genuine threat to the freedom of the press, stemming from an unforgiving climate of governmental self-interest. The efforts to protect the press from such incursions remain, therefore, as significant as ever.

The documents brought to light by Snowden are at best concerning and at worst wholly alarming. The exposé, alongside details of emails hacked into between journalists from such publications as the Guardian, Le Monde and the Washington Post, lists the prioritising of exterior threats to the government. Within such stratification, inbetween terrorists and hackers, lies the investigative journalist. Indeed, to borrow a phrase from the documents, these journalists are described as ‘of particular concern’. Notwithstanding the irony contained, this insight into the attitude of core intelligence services towards journalism is deeply unsettling. Not only does it reveal the hollow nature of the government’s recent declarations in favour of a free press, it indicates an attitude within intelligence services which strays dangerously close to press regulation.

Furthermore, the language within the leaked reports symbolises a growing chasm between the attitudes of the government and the public towards a free press. There has been a vast quantity of pieces online, in print and on television that have sought to protect freedom of the press, and in more generalised terms, of expression. The need to defend the cause appears just as vital as in the wake of the attacks in Paris. In spite of such a defiant manifestation of public support for a free press in the weeks since, the government continues to push for its restriction. Within the leaked reports, for example, there is reference to journalists’ accessing of ‘information to which they are not entitled’. This occurs alongside statements that the exposure of classified documents by investigative journalists is ‘for what they deem to be of public concern’. The evident disparity in viewpoint, between that of the increasing majority expressing a desire for more transparency and less regulation, and that of the intelligence services, is a strong reminder of the continual need to protect the press. The very fact that Edward Snowden, a man who (regardless of personal motives) stands for the values of liberty of expression, is portrayed to the population as a marginalised, dissident criminal, indicates that these values are by no means guaranteed.

Whilst some may argue that complete freedom of the press may never be guaranteed, this should not extinguish the will of those who seek to continue its protection. The criminalisation of journalists, particularly of the investigative journalist, and of Snowden himself, highlights that the problem of the threat to a free press remains. GCHQ has since claimed that all of its work is undertaken within a ‘strict legal and policy framework’. Indeed, that a legal framework exists which permits the interception of 70,000 journalists’ emails on an unauthorised basis adds to the evidence that the state appears to oppose press freedom. Thus it appears fundamental that the manifestations of public support for press liberty continue, that there is a veritable threat to this notion cannot now be in doubt.


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