Much has been written about the role of the media as the Fourth Estate: watching over the country’s interest by exposing government corruption or inabilities. In South Africa, we have legislation that is making it more and more difficult. Government keeps accusing ‘the media’ of being unpatriotic and never focusing on positive news.
I know our media has hardly covered the case of Edward Snowden versus the United States government, other than following his 007-style ‘escape’ from Hawaii via Hong Kong, and that he is now stuck in Moscow. That’s spy thriller stuff that beats John le Carré. European media, however, are up in arms about his revelations of PRISM – the US National Security Agency’s top secret programme that has direct access to databases of Google, Apple and Facebook – and a few governments are quite upset.
Not so in the US where it’s simply not a story. And to make it even stranger, it seems to be a case of shoot the messenger, not the message. A country that has been for long the self-proclaimed epicentre of democracy and freedom has used the threats of terrorism since 2001 to create a mainstream media environment that is the opposite of transparency, independence and everything else journalism traditionally stands for.
Not surprisingly therefore, the US media is taking potshots at the “liberal” Guardian, and journalist Glenn Greenwald in particular. After all, The Guardian is not American, and hence does not understand how important security is. Never mind that Britain also suffered its fair share of terrorist attacks, in the heart of London.
On 1 July, journalist Paul Farhi of the Washington Post wrote an article titled ‘The Guardian: Small British paper makes big impact with NSA stories’. Let me just quote from the first section: “For a newspaper that’s small and underweight even by British standards, The Guardian has a knack for making some big noises, both in its home market and across the pond.” He later continues: “Not a bad run of scoops for a financially struggling, frankly liberal newspaper with a newsprint circulation of fewer than 160 000 copies daily (which makes it roughly the size of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette) but with a significantly larger digital following worldwide.”
It does not end there. A few days later, Walter Pincus takes the next stab. Pincus is a leading columnist for the Washington Post, who wrote about Watergate, uncovered many secret service scandals and received a Pulitzer. In his column ’Questions for Snowden’, and filed under the category ‘National Security’, he alleges that Greenwald and Snowden are ‘directed’ by WikiLeaks. The column is now carrying a correction, but only after Greenwald wrote an open letter in the Washington Post (‘Email to Walter Pincus’).
David Brooks, in The New York Times, calls Snowden someone who betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all co-operative activity. Why? “For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and co-operation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures.”
Similar tones are sounded by MSNBC and other large media organisations. Janine Gibson, heading up The Guardian‘s US operation, says that when it comes to issues of national security, US media seem to suffer from a collateral ”lack of scepticism on a whole in the media” where critical questions are considered ”unpatriotic”.
What can we as journalists in South Africa learn from this? Personally, the above gives me the chills. Media should be hailing Snowden and Greenwald and not shooting the messengers. Protecting a nation from such information is not a security concern. Bring the information into the open and let the public decide what is right and what is wrong. Remain the messenger, but don’t become the judge.