The Pulitzer Prize Board awarded The Guardian and The Washington Post prizes for journalism on National Security Agency documents from Edward Snowden that they considered a “public service.” But, notably, the individual journalists, whose bravery and courage made the stories themselves possible, were not recognized with awards.
Snowden declared in a statement published by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, “I am grateful to the committee for their recognition of the efforts of those involved in the last year’s reporting, and join others around the world in congratulating Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Barton Gellman, Ewen MacAskill, and all of the others at the Guardian and Washington Post on winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.”
He also added, “We owe it to the efforts of the brave reporters and their colleagues who kept working in the face of extraordinary intimidation, including the forced destruction of journalistic materials, the inappropriate use of terrorism laws, and so many other means of pressure to get them to stop what the world now recognizes was work of vital public importance.”
Indeed, none of the following is intended to suggest The Guardian or The Washington Post are not deserving of the “gold medal” awards. The Post deserves recognition for publishing what the Board for continuing to publish details of widespread secret surveillance. The Guardian deserves recognition as an organization for its aggressive reporting as well. However, it would have given the journalists responsible for obtaining top secret surveillance documents from Snowden a level of protection had they been recognized individually.
Both Greenwald and Poitras, who are US citizens, had been afraid to return to the United States since they met with Snowden in Hong Kong and began to report on information from him. They came to the US on April 11 to accept a Polk award for their journalism (and were recognized along with MacAskill and Gellman).
While they were not arrested and it may seem clear they had absolutely nothing to fear, Greenwald explained during a press conference that “American national security officials and other officials in the government” had “deliberately created an environment where they wanted us to think there was a risk.”
“They have very deliberately and publicly suggested that the journalism we were doing was a crime,” he stated. “They have advocated that we be arrested. They have had their favorite media figures openly speculate about the possibility that we would be. They detained my partner for nine hours. They announced that there was a terrorism investigation pending in the UK, and they refused to give my lawyers any information at all about whether there was a grand jury investigation, whether there was an indictment under seal—very unusual behavior when dealing with these lawyers, in particular, who say that they can always get at least something.”
Poitras suggested during the same press conference, “The other risk that I think that we face as journalists right now are the risk of subpoena, where the government subpoenas our material to try to get information about our source. And we know that the government has been using the border as a sort of legal no man’s land to get access to journalists’ materials. I mean, I’ve experienced that for six years, where I’ve been detained, interrogated and had equipment seized at the border, and never told, you know, for what reason that’s happening.”
What led the UK authorities to determine that it was the right time to detain Greenwald’s husband, David Miranda, at Heathrow? Poitras and other Guardian reporters had been traveling through the airport regularly without any problems. So that suggested that the journalists were likely under intense surveillance.
Fortunately, revelations from only a small percentage of the documents from Snowden have been reported on by Greenwald and Poitras. That means they will continue to have plenty of work and stories to write. But how long does this surveillance continue? And what if it sends a message to other potential sources that they should not contact these reporters with information for new and possibly unrelated stories?
Individual journalists who report and write national security stories in this climate that President Barack Obama’s administration has created are under great risk. Think about the caution they have to adopt when interacting with family and friends.
That is not to say that media institutions are not under any risk, however, media organizations won’t be compelled in a leak investigation to testify against a source, like individual reporters like James Risen of the New York Times has been. They will face jail time if their appeals run out and no court recognizes they shouldn’t have to testify against their source.
Snowden also sought out Greenwald. He sought out Poitras. He sought out Gellman. He did not send the material to the media organizations so it could be assigned to any national security reporter. And so, the level of care, dedication, integrity, and spirit in which these stories were produced for the public are the result of key individual efforts that worked in a coalition to bring out the truth.
All of which is to say it seems disappointing that the Pulitzer Prize Board did not have the temerity to recognize the media organizations and the journalists with awards. The effect of the journalism has sent shockwaves through government and the tech industry, forcing the pursuit of reforms on a scale that no other story has in recent decades.
It would not have been unreasonable to go a step further in defending press freedom by also awarding Greenwald, Poitras, MacAskill and Gellman too.
Watch the press conference with Greenwald, MacAskill and Poitras broadcast by “Democracy Now!”