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Fate of Whistle-blower Divides American Media | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Edward Snowden speaks via video link at a news conference for the launch of a campaign calling on President Barack Obama to pardon him on September 14, 2016 in New York City. AFP

London-Remember Edward Snowden? Well, he is the whistlebower who,let’s say, lifted thousands of official secret documents and handed them over to a syndicate of newspapers that published a selection.

Strictly speaking, Snowden is a thief because he took what did not belong to him and handed it over to those who had no right to it. However, to many in America, and others beyond it, Snowden is also a hero who exposed excessive use of government power to pry into the private lives of citizens. The positive aspect of his action has already been acknowledged with an amendment of the much derided Patriot Act with a more liberal USA Freedom Act. Though he is not a journalist, Snowden’s “revelations” secured for newspapers that published them, the Pulitzer Prize, the highest US award for outstanding journalism.

And yet, Snowden, who fled the US and – after a global trek – ended up in Moscow remains a fugitive for justice. The only thing that President Barack Obama and both Hillary Clinton, the Democrat Party’s presidential nominee, and her Republican rival Donald Trump agree upon is that Snowden must “face the music” by standing trial on unspecified charges that could include treason.

Feeling homesick in Moscow, where he has experienced first hand living under an authoritarian regime, Snowden is almost begging to be allowed to return to the United States, where he had tasted a freedom that he appreciates only now-provided he is not sent to prison.

Until recently, the US media seemed to have reached a consensus that the young “whistle-blower” should not be treated too harshly. After all, he has not personally profited from his crime, apart from the fame he has gained which, in later years, may win him juicy book and TV contracts.

Now, however, that consensus is under pressure, partly because The Washington Post which led the way by publishing the stolen documents has come out in favour of Snowden being punished in accordance with the law.

While The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal also support some form of punishment for Snowden, The New York Times and USA Today won’t go beyond a rap on the knuckle for the culprit.

What is interesting in all this is that the broader, and perhaps more important, issues involved are almost never discussed.

For example, how could one regard Snowden as a thief but ignore those, i.e. the newspapers that published what he had stolen?

If you steal a car and have it sold through a “re-seller”, both of you could face criminal charges. So why make an exception in this case? The answer, of course, is that in a democracy such as the United Sates, press freedom is sacrosanct. You cannot put editors in jail as you would do vulgar salesmen of stolen cars.

That’s all very well. But how could we describe as journalism the act of reproducing stolen documents which fell into our hands thanks to serendipity?

Journalism is about reporters going after a story, finding it, checking it, re-checking it, subjecting it to a diversity of views and shaping it for publication. In the case of the Snowden documents, none of that happened.

In fact, the only story that The Washington Post could have run would read like this: Today we had a visit from a young contractor with the National Defence Agency who claims to have secret documents that indicate violations of citizens’ rights.

What to do next would have depended on the FBI, the judiciary, the Congress and whatever other institutions of the state that might have seemed relevant to the case.

Sadly, we live in the post-Watergate era of journalism in which every cub reporter dreams of himself as Saint George killing the Nixon dragon. However, the Watergate saga, too, was not a work of journalism. It was produced by Nixon’s opponents who brought the compromising information to The Washington Post, using the daily as a point of sales for their stolen goods. Then, too, all organs of a democratic state were circumvented in the interest of a political cabal on one hand and a fake scoop on the other.

Should Snowden go to prison? Our answer should be: “no”. He has violated the terms of his contract and should be punished in accordance with its terms which do not include imprisonment. If Snowden has committed a crime it is encouraging lazy journalism under which reporters and editors wait until a cat comes to them bringing with it something from the outside.