Snowden doccie’s message for South Africa – wake up!


CitizenFour shows that only courageous, collective action can stop secret state abuses

**Byline** Ghalib Galant and Murray Hunter

Edward Said once wrote that “history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten.”

The documentary CitizenFour is a rare glimpse into the history of the US surveillance state being “unmade” by Edward Snowden and three journalists who he agreed to meet in a hotel room in Hong Kong. Over 8 days, Snowden talked the journalists through an uncounted numbers of leaked documents that exposed illegal mass surveillance schemes designed by the US National Security Agency and many of its allies across the world, which allowed them to snoop on almost every digital communication available. Within days the first stories appeared, setting off a chain reaction that would shake the US surveillance state to its very foundations.

He gave this account in full knowledge that it would probably cost him his freedom, and while he remains in hiding, he now faces espionage charges under the draconian US Espionage Act. (He is the eighth US whistleblower to be charged with espionage under the Obama administration.)

More than two years later, we live in a different world. While most of these invasive surveillance schemes remain intact, they have lost their moral high ground. For the first time in decades, US lawmakers have stood up against the privacy invasions of the national security state, and the courts have ruled that some of the key schemes are illegal. In Europe, a raft of rulings and new measures have been put in place to curb such surveillance.

Many technology companies, having been exposed for helping governments to spy on their customers, have at last found some courage – offering better security and privacy protections against surveillance.

And more than anything, Snowden awoke the public to secret abuses of their rights. While there is so much more to be done, the public has not disappointed. On the two-year anniversary of his disclosures this year, Snowden wrote, “There were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing — that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations. Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong.”

So two years later, what lessons can Edward Snowden offer South Africa?

The first is a lesson of the power and importance of courageous whistleblowing and journalism. All these seismic shifts would never have happened if Snowden had not had the courage to speak out, and journalists and editors had not had the courage to listen and report. For the journalists closest to Snowden, the risk was almost as great.

The second lesson is on the potential for an informed public to force an end to practices which undermine their rights.

Why should South Africa care? Because we see mounting evidence that South Africa’s intelligence structures are intruding on democratic spaces and need to be reined in. The SSA’s much decried ‘investigation’ of alleged CIA affiliations of Thuli Madonsela and others may be just the tip of the iceberg.

In April, it emerged that the Spy Tapes contained transcripts of conversations between Mail&Guardian journalist Sam Sole and a source in the National Prosecuting Authority. This means either Sole or his source, prosecuter Billy Downer, had been put under direct surveillance – or both. This is the surest sign that surveillance is being used to target investigative journalists in South Africa since it emerged that police had bugged Sunday Times journalists in 2010.

Earlier this year, R2K also brought out a report on the surveillance of activists, which pointed to growing evidence that intelligence resources are being used to monitor the activities of ‘troublemaker’ citizens. This included members of Numsa and the ‘United Front’ who say intelligence operatives tried to recruit them as informers. It also documented environmental activists whose were closely monitored by state spies during the COP17 climate talks in 2011, and even community leaders who encountered undercover government agents had been posing as ‘concerned citizens’ to ask questions about their activities. In particular, the report highlighted the extent to which the police’s Crime Intelligence Division appears to be allocated huge resources to gather intelligence on community activists and organisations concerned with service delivery. The intimidating effect of this is destructive to citizens’ rights to associate and to campaign.

These revelations have also shed light on the fact that the spies appearing to be running amok. For this reason, R2K has now started campaigning for real oversight of the spies. The Inspector General of Intelligence, which is meant to hold the spooks to account, has been a dormant office for too long. Parliament for too long has given the intelligence structures free rein.

These efforts are the start of a citizen-led movement to resist surveillance – laying the groundwork for a campaign, long overdue, to have these practices investigated, exposed, and curtailed. It may not be on the scale of the seismic shifts in the privacy landscape achieved by Snowden and others, but it’s a start.

Unlike a police truncheon or rubber bullet, surveillance is an abuse that leaves no bruises or broken bones, but it can be just as destructive. We may not always see the damage, but it is being done – and it is time for it to stop. If we act now, and act together, history can be made.

Galant and Hunter are spokespeople for the Right2Know Campaign.

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