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Snowden's flight highlights government double standards

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By Bill Sweeney/CPJ Editorial Director

Edward Snowden's global travels have highlighted the chasm
between the political posturing and actual practices of governments when it
comes to free expression. As is well known now, the former government
contractor's leaks exposed
the widespread
phone and digital surveillance being conducted by the U.S. National Security
Agency, practices at odds with the Obama administration's positioning of the United
States as a global leader on Internet
freedom
and its calls for technology companies to resist foreign
demands for censorship and surveillance. 

After disclosing his role as the leaker, Snowden left his
Booz Allen Hamilton position in Hawaii for Hong Kong, which brushed aside U.S.
extradition requests about the same time The South China Morning Post cited Snowden as saying the NSA was tapping into the networks of Chinese mobile phone
providers. Authorities in Hong Kong operate under a one-country, two-systems
model--that country being China, where the press is subjected to widespread
surveillance
and where ethnic
minority journalists
are jailed for reporting that doesn't conform to
official censorship rules.

It was on then to Moscow for Snowden. Russian officials, no doubt aware of
Snowden leaks claiming the U.S. conducted surveillance
of Dmitry Medvedev
at a 2009 G-20 summit in London, initially professed
having no jurisdiction over his travels. Surveillance of journalists is not unfamiliar to Russian authorities. A former Russian interior ministry
official pleaded guilty last year to orchestrating the
surveillance
that led to the 2006 murder of investigative reporter Anna
Politkovskaya. With the main plotters of the killing still unpunished,
the Politkovskaya case is far from being solved--as are 14 other journalist
murders in Russia over the past decade, constituting one
of the world's worst records
of impunity.

Snowden is said to be seeking asylum in Ecuador, with passage reportedly through
Venezuela. Leaks of sensitive government information are growing less likely by
the day in the two nations, which have moved aggressively to silence
independent reporting. Venezuela has effectively
eradicated
independent broadcast outlets through its politicized regulatory
system. Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, has pursued criminal
prosecution
of his critics. His government went even further this month, as
CPJ's John Otis recounted,
with the adoption of sweeping legislation that criminalizes critical follow-up
reporting and obligates news media to cover government-prescribed activities.

Back in the UK, where the story all began when the Guardian broke the first of Snowden's
leaks, the public has been debating
a surveillance bill
that critics derisively call the "snoopers
charter." The bill would expand the intelligence service's ability to
monitor digital communications, but one wonders how much weight David Cameron's
government gives to public debate. Among the latest revelations via Snowden and
the Guardian: For 18 months, the British
spy agency GCHQ has been secretly
tapping
into vast amounts of data carried by fiber-optic cable.


Bill Sweeney is CPJ's editorial director, responsible for all of the organization's online and print publications. He is former New York City news editor for The Associated Press.


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