What’s in the public interest? The Snowden Archive
The small cooperative work space for journalism students at Ryerson was crowded with professors, working journalists, community members and the few j-schoolers who could squeeze in. Suddenly, U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden appeared on a large screen—the moment we were waiting for. I was prepared to live blog the event, but being a journalist, a thought occupied me the moment Snowden spoke: Is it in the public interest to live blog every word he says? Instead, I chose to live tweet, which in my opinion gave me a chance to filter what’s in the public interest.
Snowden was telecasting into Ryerson for the launch of the Snowden Archive by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. The archive includes 400 documents already published by media outlets around the world—a small portion of the 50,000 turned over by Snowden to his original collaborators. It’s now live, with more documents to be made available as they are published by media outlets around the world. As CJFE mentions on its website, the archive does not include documents that have not already been published by other sources.
I have tested the archive and found it easy to navigate. It’s something that I found marvellous: being able to read and write about documents with crucial information that matters to lives of people in Canada and abroad. Mass surveillance affects everyone and journalists are not the only ones able to read these documents. Unless I have a story with a different angle, I will end up writing something that another journalist have written about. Documents on the archive are already published. Therefore, other journalists made the decision for us on what to be available to the public, other reporters and researchers like me. That’s something I will keep in mind if I plan to pitch any story that might involve any information from the published documents that appeared on major news outlets.
During the Q & A, Snowden talked about the importance of determining what’s in the public interest. “This matters to people, when we talk about mass surveillance,” he said. However, he believes that journalists must use their “public interest judgment” to determine which documents or information should be made available to people through media outlets. Snowden further added that he is not at a position to decide what’s in the public interest. He also told the audience that journalists have the duty to determine what information might cause “harm to particular individuals,” including those who work at governments’ intelligences. The assumption is that responsible journalists will make the right decision that’s in the benefit of the society.
I agree that the archive is a useful tool—mainly for research. Making certain documents available to people raises their awareness about issues that matter to them. As Snowden said, matters linked to mass surveillance and policies related to that “need to be debated.” And they won’t be debated if information is not made available to the public. However, I doubt that the archive will be of great use to journalists. The documents in the archive have been published by media such as The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Mundo and The Intercept. Would their “public interest judgment” be the same as of other journalists if documents were leaked to them?
Image courtesy of Frederic BISSON.