Brazil’s attack on Greenwald mirrors the US case against Assange


Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Over the years, Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald has made a number of enemies with his journalism. What some of his fans and supporters see as a crusade for truth and justice can strike others—including those who become the targets of his journalistic crusades—as needlessly hostile and potentially biased. But there is one enemy that has stood out among all the others of late, and that is Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose government has been the subject of wave after wave of coverage by Greenwald, all of it negative (with good reason, Greenwald would no doubt argue). Now the Brazilian leader has struck back with force: On Tuesday, prosecutors charged the Intercept writer with aiding a criminal conspiracy for his role in the hacking and leaking of cellphone messages belonging to members of his government.

The Intercept has published a number of articles based on the leaked messages, stories that raised questions about a corruption investigation involving some of Brazil’s most powerful players in both business and politics. As the New York Times describes, the stories questioned the integrity of the judge who oversaw that investigation, a man named Sergio Moro, who is now Bolsonaro’s minister of justice. The case resulted in a number of powerful businessmen and political figures going to prison, including former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a popular leftist. His departure in turn created an opening for Bolsonaro, a man who is often compared to Donald Trump because of his right-wing leanings and his use of social media as a weapon for pursuing vendettas against the media and others. Last year, he called Greenwald a derogatory term and warned that he “might wind up in jail.”

The criminal complaint filed against Greenwald says that the Intercept’s Brazilian operation, which he founded, didn’t just receive the hacked messages and then publish some of them in news stories. Instead, it argues that Greenwald co-operated with the hackers, and that he therefore played a “clear role in facilitating the commission of a crime.” Among other things, the prosecutors say Greenwald encouraged the hackers to delete archives of leaked material in order to make it more difficult to connect them with the leaks. They also argue that the Intercept writer was in communication with the hackers while they were listening in to private conversations through apps such as Telegram, and that therefore he had ceased to operate as a journalist and instead became a member of a criminal conspiracy.

This strategy—of trying to paint a journalist as an active participant in a crime, as opposed to just the recipient of leaked material—is clearly a heinous breach of freedom of the press protections, something journalists and anyone in favor of free speech should be up in arms about. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, the case against Greenwald happens to be almost a carbon copy of the Justice Department’s argument in the affidavit it filed against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange last year, which contains more than a dozen charges under the Espionage Act. Just like the Brazilian government, US prosecutors try to make the case that Assange didn’t just receive leaked diplomatic cables and other information from former Army staffer Chelsea Manning, but that he actively participated in the hack and leaks, and therefore doesn’t deserve the protection of the First Amendment.

Regardless of what we think of Julian Assange or WikiLeaks, this is a clear and obvious attack on press freedom, just as Brazil’s legal broadside against Glenn Greenwald is a an obvious attack by Bolsonaro on someone who has become a journalistic thorn in his side. A man who helped win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on leaked documents involving mass surveillance by US intelligence, files that were leaked to him by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. And the charges come even after Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled last year that Greenwald could not be prosecuted for the hacking case because of press freedom laws. In a statement, Greenwald called the Brazil charges “an obvious attempt to attack a free press in retaliation for the revelations we reported about Minister Moro and the Bolsonaro government” and said he and the Intercept plan to continue publishing. And so they should.

Here’s more on Greenwald and the Brazil case:

Outrageous assault: Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union issued the following statement: “The United States must immediately condemn this outrageous assault on the freedom of the press, and recognize that its attacks on press freedoms at home have consequences for American journalists doing their jobs abroad.”

A threat to democracy: The Electronic Frontier Foundation said: “It is a threat to democracy when authorities use cyber-crime laws to punish their critics, as the Brazilian government has done here with Glenn Greenwald, and it discourages journalists from using technology to best serve the public.” The Brazilian authorities used anti-hacking laws to charge Greenwald, just as US prosecutors did with Assange.

Sham charges: The Freedom of the Press Foundation, which Greenwald helped found, said in a statement: “These sham charges are a sickening escalation of the Bolsonaro administration’s authoritarian attacks on press freedom and the rule of law. They cannot be allowed to stand. We call on the Brazilian government to immediately halt its persecution of Greenwald and respect press freedom.”

Shooting the messenger: In an editorial on the case, the New York Times said the Brazilian government’s filing of charges against Greenwald is “an increasingly familiar case of shooting the messenger and ignoring the message” and a dangerous threat to the rule of law. The paper also said that while Trump hasn’t made a dent in press freedoms in the US, “his outrageous attacks on reporters… have provided encouragement for the likes of Mr. Bolsonaro.”

Other notable stories:

In a story that sounds like the plot of a spy novel, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had his smartphone hacked after he clicked on a video link that was sent to him during a WhatsApp chat with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to a report in The Guardian. The paper’s investigation says the message Bezos opened from the Saudi leader contained a malicious file that infiltrated the Amazon founder’s phone and extracted “large amounts of data.” What kind of data was taken and what happened to after that remains unknown, the Guardian said, but several months later there was a report in The National Enquirer about Bezos’s divorce, a story that included private text messages sent by the Amazon CEO.

The staff of the alt-weekly Miami New Times and the Phoenix New Times announced on Tuesday that they plan to unionize, part of a wave of unionization that has moved through a number of media outlets over the past several years, as financial pressure has forced owners to make broad cuts. “We do this work because we love it,” the Miami and Phoenix group said in its mission statement. “But we often find that we do this work in spite of low pay and substandard benefits, inconsistent mandates from management, steady turnover, and insecurity about the future.”

After a number of somewhat embarrassing incidents — including a recent column from Bret Stephens called “The Secrets of Jewish Genius,” which cited a discredited study published by a white supremacist — the Opinion section of the New York Times will now be overseen by standards editor Phil Corbett, the same way the rest of the paper is. In an email, executive editor Dean Baquet, managing editor Joe Kahn, and Opinion editor James Bennet said opinion writers are different from news staff, but their work “is rooted in common standards for accuracy, fairness, and integrity.”

Senator Bernie Sanders apologized to former Vice President Joe Biden on Monday for an op-ed written by one of his campaign surrogates that claimed Biden has a “big corruption problem.” Sanders told CBS News that “it is absolutely not my view that Joe is corrupt in any way. And I’m sorry that that op-ed appeared.” The opinion piece was published in The Guardian and was written by law professor Zephyr Teachout. In the article, she claimed that Biden “has perfected the art of taking big contributions, then representing his corporate donors at the cost of middle- and working-class Americans.”

According to a report by Axios, a number of digital media outlets turned a profit in 2019, in some cases for the first time ever. Those publishers include Business Insider, The Information, Vox Media, Axios, and Politico, said media reporter Sara Fischer. Other outlets that expect to turn a profit this year include The Athletic, BuzzFeed, and Vice, the Axios report said. The Athletic also just closed a new funding round of $50 million that theoretically values the company at $500 million, Fischer reported. Meanwhile, there are reports that Spotify could acquire The Ringer, the podcasting production company founded by former ESPN host Bill Simmons.

Bloomberg has launched a vertical devoted to environmental news called Green, a site that editor-in-chief John Micklethwait said he hopes will become a symbol of the climate-change revolution. “We want Bloomberg Green to be the indispensable guide to anyone who wants to understand this great transition,” he wrote in an opening letter. Meanwhile, a group of independent climate reporters have launched their own portal, called Drilled News. The group will produce the Drilled and Hot Take newsletters and sponsor the Heated newsletter written by Emily Atkin, and is part of the Climate Change Now project that CJR helped launch last year.

Documents released in a legal case in Puerto Rico, one involving seven university students who are on trial for participating in a nonviolent protest two years ago, show that Facebook gave the government’s Justice Department access to private information posted by student news outlets, according to a report from The Intercept. The case has raised fears among civil liberties advocates of a return to a dark time in Puerto Rico’s history when police routinely targeted citizens for surveillance.

Apple reportedly considered allowing iPhone users to encrypt backups of their devices that are stored on the company’s iCloud remote servers, but dropped those plans after the FBI complained that offering this service would make it more difficult to access data during its investigations, according to six sources familiar with the matter who spoke with Reuters reporter Joseph Menn. An Apple spokesman declined to comment on the company’s handling of the encryption issue or any discussions it has had with the FBI.

Quibi CEO Meg Whitman lashed out against the media at an “all-hands” staff meeting last Thursday, according to a report from The Information. The site said that Whitman made an analogy between reporters who cultivate sources and sexual predators who prey on underage victims, according to two people who heard her comments. Whitman was reportedly upset because someone leaked an internal memo from the company’s chief financial officer about a recent fundraising.

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