Yesterday, Brazilian prosecutors announced charges against Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist most famous for publishing documents leaked by Edward Snowden that exposed the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program in 2013.
Greenwald has recently been reporting on prosecutorial misconduct in Brazil, exposing the political motives at the heart of the prosecution of Brazil’s popular former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. His stories ultimately led to the ex-politician’s release from prison.
The current Brazilian government is accusing Greenwald of “helping guiding and encouraging” hackers who obtained the Brazilian officials’ text messages that informed his reporting. But the charges are suspect—for starters, because Greenwald’s stories embarrassed the very same prosecutors who came after him by revealing the political motives for Lula’s prosecution.
The leader of Brazil’s governing party, Jair Bolsonaro, is also widely regarded as an authoritarian figure who has in the past been criticized by rights groups for his attacks on the press. For example, in October, Reporters Without Borders said it was “appalled” by threats Bolsonaro had made against a national news outlet that he accused of “betraying Brazil.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) said that the charges against Greenwald pose a threat not just to journalists in Brazil but to journalists everywhere.
“For Brazil to invoke anti-hacking laws in an attempt to criminalize reporter-source communications, as well as the receipt and publication of newsworthy information, is a clear threat to press freedom,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of RCFP. “It carries dangers not only for American journalists reporting in the region but for journalists everywhere because these types of general laws are pervasive worldwide and governments around the globe are looking for new ways to squeeze reporters and cut off coverage they perceive as unfavorable.”
Gabe Rottman, director of RCFP’s Technology and Press Freedom Project, tied the case to the leak prosecutions happening in the United States.
“Journalism is not a crime, and yet aggressive moves against the press using spying laws, computer crime statutes, or other criminal sanctions—including, for instance, this case in Brazil and the proliferation of ‘leak’ prosecutions in the United States—are increasingly forcing journalists to find criminal defense expertise,” Rottman said in an e-mail. “Computer crime laws are particularly worrisome when applied to newsgathering because they are often vague and can be misused to cover innocuous activity—activity which in the U.S. also has constitutional protections.”
Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI) described the prosecution as part of a series of attacks by the Bolsonaro administration on the media. “President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has consistently undermined and attacked the free press who have sought to hold him and his Cabinet accountable for troubling actions taken since the 2018 election,” Pocan said in an e-mail. “This is just the most recent attack on voices seeking to expose corruption and it is unacceptable. Be it in our nation or anywhere else, we cannot allow the press to be silenced—ever.”
The Nation contacted over a dozen presidential candidates and congresspeople for comment. At the time of this writing, the only presidential campaign to reply was that of Bernie Sanders, which referred us to the following statement:
The free press is never more important than when it exposes wrongdoing by the powerful.
That is why President Bolsonaro is threatening Glenn Greenwald for the “crime” of doing journalism.
I call on Brazil to end its authoritarian attack on press freedom and the rule of law. https://t.co/NfcVnxT50F
—Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 22, 2020
The Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Yang, and Steyer campaigns did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Asked about the case, Representative Ted Lieu said, “Any and all attacks on journalists, either here or abroad, should be condemned. Safeguarding freedom of the press is essential for healthy democracies because it ensures transparency and accountability.”
The US State Department declined to criticize the case, noting instead that “we generally do not share information with the media about private U.S. citizens absent their written consent. Due to privacy considerations, we cannot comment further.”
Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, replied via e-mail, “This is horrific—and part of the rise in crackdowns on dissent by the authoritarian Bolsonaro regime. Freedom of press is a pillar of democracies worldwide and one of the key markers of a free society. As an ally of Brazil’s, we must speak with one voice in condemning this crackdown—and use the diplomatic tools at our disposal to fight it.”
While the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engels (D-NY), did not respond to requests for comment, former NSA director Michael Hayden did. Hayden oversaw the mass surveillance program that Greenwald detailed using Snowden’s leaks while serving as NSA director from 1995 to 2005, before becoming CIA director in 2006. Hayden publicly joked about putting Snowden on a kill list.
“This is fascinating information,” he said in an e-mail.
Hayden declined to comment further.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Michael Hayden’s position before and during the publication of Snowden’s papers.