Brazil Files Criminal Complaint Against Glenn Greenwald

Julian Assange isn’t the only one targeted by government. Brazil is trying to prosecute Glenn Greenwald.

Governments have been increasingly going after journalists in the last few years. In many cases, the journalists do nothing wrong, governments are becoming increasingly creative to dodge accountability. Last year, after passing anti-encryption laws, the Australian government used the new laws to conduct raids against journalism companies found to be critical of the government. The move was condemned by international journalism advocacy organization, Reporters Without Borders. The organization condemned the raids as a “grave threat” to journalistic freedom.

In another high profile case, Julian Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for the comparatively trivial offence of skipping bail. The United Nations slammed the sentence as disproportionate. As Assange’s personal health continued to deteriorate in maximum security, Reporters Without Borders called for the release of Assange. All that came about after a regime change in Ecuador and a massive loan issued by the US government in seemingly exchange for the removal of Assange’s political asylum.

Of course, these people aren’t the only ones facing government backlash for journalistic activities. Glenn Greenwald, another journalist who followed the diplomatic cable leaks closely, is being targeted by Brazilian authorities. After authorities tried attacking Greenwald and threatening jail time, a previous attempt to bring criminal charges failed to pass judicial muster. Faced with the possibility of watching a journalist go free, Brazil took to so-called “cybercrime” laws in an effort to make a charge – any charge – stick. From the EFF:

Unfortunately, legal prosecution and character attacks are familiar tools used to silence investigative journalists who expose corruption. The use of cybercrime laws to do so, however, is relatively new. This case is garnering special international attention in part because the current charges fly in the face of a decision by the Supreme Court of Brazil last year, in which the Court preemptively halted investigations against Greenwald. That decision upheld the rights of journalists to communicate directly with their sources, and stated that Greenwald’s acts deserved constitutional protection—regardless of the content published, or its impact on government interests.

In an apparent attempt to circumvent the ruling, the charges now include “intruding computer devices.”

Around the world, cybercrime laws are notoriously hazy. This is in part because it’s challenging to write good cybercrime laws: technology evolves quickly, our language for describing certain digital actions may be imprecise, and lawmakers may not always imagine how laws will later be interpreted. And while the laws are hazy, the penalties are often severe, which makes them a dangerously big stick in the hands of prosecutors. Prosecutors can and do take advantage of this disconnection, abusing laws designed to target criminals who break into computers for extortion or theft to prosecute those engaged in harmless activities, or research—or, in this case, journalists communicating with their sources.

With the prosecution of Greenwald, we see how the misapplication of computer crime law can also have a chilling effect on journalism and harm the public’s right to know. Coupling the vague law with the severe penalties it contains, charging journalists as hackers may become a uniquely powerful tool for silencing those who seek to keep the rest of us informed.

While we don’t yet know all the details of the case against Greenwald, we see no actions detailed in the criminal complaint that violate Brazilian law. Journalists routinely communicate at length with sources, and in fact must do so to ascertain the veracity of any documents. Furthermore, a Brazilian Supreme Court Justice has already declared that Greenwald’s publication of leaked messages was protected under the Brazilian Constitution.

Indeed, the rise in governments using cybercrime laws to crack down on journalism has become a worrying trend around the world. When journalists are not legally permitted to hold government to account for their actions, free speech in general suffers. This over top of the copyright crisis the world is already suffering. It makes the future seem quite grim.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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