The fallout from the period following Edward Snowden’s leak of files has claimed another victim. Because of its harsh response to the revelations, the United Kingdom has seen its standing among nations diminished- at least according to Freedom House. FH is a US based NGO established at the beginning of World War Two which has been chronicling countries’ press freedoms for more than three decades. They annually publish a list of countries after examining their policies towards democracy, human rights and press freedoms. Because primarily of the UK government’s crackdown on the Guardian over the Snowden disclosures, it saw its ranking slip from 31st to 36th -alongside Malta and Slovakia. This is out of nearly 200 countries monitored. Countries are graded from zero to 100 with regards to press freedom. The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden topped the list; not surprisingly, North Korea was at the bottom.
The UK’s decline was due to the British taking a harsher approach to the Edward Snowden affair than even the US. It sent two members of the GCHQ to the Guardian’s home office to supervise the destruction of hard drives which contained the leaked documents. They also threatened legal action, deleted reporter’s stories and prevented the return of one of the reporters, David Miranda of Brazil, from departing the UK for Rio. In the Freedom of Press 2014 rankings the UK scored 23 points, down from 21 but remained classified as ’free’. Below a score of 31 would mean a designation as only ’partly free’. Curiously, the US scored better- a 21- but that reflected a drop of a couple of notches.
The question that is often raised is why. Why the draconian response by the UK government? The British intelligence services argue that the leaks disclosed in the Guardian seriously hampered their ability to monitor terrorists. According to the GCHQ, terrorists have altered their methods of communication as a result of the publication of the classified documents. Stephen Fipson, of the office for security and counter-terrorism stated, ’ Our adversaries, the terrorists out there, now have full sight of the sorts of tools and range of techniques that are being used by government. I can tell you data shows a substantial reduction in the use of those methods of communication as a result of the Snowden leaks.”
The Freedom of Press 2014 report had a different view. It said, ’Authorities used the Terrorism Act to detain the partner of (Guardian) investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald (Miranda), who broke the story. (They) raided the offices of the Guardian newspaper and destroyed the hard drives containing potentially sensitive source material. And subsequently threatened the Guardian with further action.”
Taking a broader look, Turkey fell into the ’not free’ category. Greece and Montenegro joined the United Kingdom in registering significant declines. Overall their findings point to regressive measures in Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Ukraine and the aforementioned Turkey. None of which boded well for press freedoms worldwide in 2014. The report’s project director, Karin Karlekar said, ’We see declines in media freedom on a global level, driven by governments’ efforts to control the message and punish the messenger.”
All who cherish privacy and freedom can only hope that this is not a trend for the foreseeable future and that calmer heads will prevail in the on going battle between governments and its peoples.