Opinion

Sunday 13 July 2014

Saluting 'Forbidden Voices' who defend free speech

Brave whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and journalists often risk their lives to uncover the truth, writes Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

Published 29/12/2013|02:59

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Edward Snowden: revealed the existence of mass surveillance programmes
Edward Snowden: revealed the existence of mass surveillance programmes

AS Edward Snowden said so succinctly during Channel 4's alternative Christmas Day message: "Privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be."

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 In exposing details of electronic surveillance by US and British spy services, Snowden has ignited a debate on the value of free speech and why it must be protected.

Earlier last week the National Archives released documents relating to our own surveillance "Watergate", or what former journalist Geraldine Kennedy called "the most difficult time in my personal and professional life". Thirty years ago it was formally confirmed by the new Minister for Justice, Michael Noonan, that both Kennedy and Bruce Arnold's phones had been tapped -- Kennedy's from July to November 1982 under a new category of "national security" (she had been writing about dissent in the Fianna Fail ranks).

We sometimes forget that crusading journalists can risk life and limb to uncover dark and hidden secrets -- in officialdom and elsewhere -- in the public interest, but Kennedy's description of her life at that time reveals the fear and danger she felt as she exercised her supposed right to free speech in Charles Haughey's Ireland.

"I was a single woman," she wrote on Friday. "I lived in the Stable House inside the high walls of the Shackleton estate in the Strawberry Beds near Lucan, facing the river Liffey. There were big entry gates. The telephone was of the old, thumping black heavy type that we all had in rural Ireland as the numbers went from village to district to region. I will never forget the number: 280006."

Years ago, in an interview on RTE, Kennedy revealed that she had been warned her phone may have been tapped and thought it "very strange and sinister". That is putting it most gently. The threatening violation of Kennedy's life and privacy was unprecedented. (This was in the days before we all, as Snowden noted, voluntarily carried smartphones with sensors that track our every move.) For any journalist it would be scary -- for a young woman, living alone beside the lonely Liffey, it must have been terrifying. Defiant, Kennedy continued to do her job.

Last week another young, crusading journalist was violated while exercising her right to free speech. This abuse was physical. Why? Last year Tetyana Chornovil reported at length on the opulent lavishness of the Ukrainian presidential compound of President Viktor F Yanukovich. She scaled the walls of his retreat to reveal helipads and pens for his ostrich pets.

On Christmas Eve, just hours after she had blogged about a "country manor" being built for the Ukraine's minister of the interior, Tetyana was dragged from her car, beaten savagely and then thrown into a ditch. Even with a bruised and battered face, she defiantly posted a video from her hospital bed detailing what had happened to her: "The jeep hit me," she said. "It tried to kill me. They broke my window. I jumped out. Tried to run. I was caught and they began beating me."

Repeatedly, over the past few years we've seen how increasingly dangerous it can be for whistle-blowers and journalists to exercise the right to free speech. Speak truth to power and you risk exile, like Snowden, imprisonment, like the Pussy Riot girls, or worse ... much worse

Last year, on a visit to Cairo, myself and another woman journalist were advised not to enter Tahrir Square because of the continual attacks on female journalists. In 2011 CBS reporter Lara Logan was sexually assaulted there; in 2012 UK reporter Natasha Smith, and in July of this year a journalist from the Netherlands was raped by a group of men while reporting from there. Essentially, if we dared enter, we deserved what we got.

Earlier this month, a new survey revealed that almost two-thirds of women journalists have faced intimidation, threats and abuse including sexual harassment in relation to their work. And a new film, directed by Barbara Miller, called Forbidden Voices traces the story of three women bloggers -- from China, Cuba and Iran -- who have repeatedly exercised their right to free speech in the face of torture and intimidation. Miller said: "I think they have in common a longing for freedom, and freedom of speech, where everyone can really say what he thinks and wants and that people don't have to live in fear anymore."

Free speech. The right to privacy. So simple. So terrifyingly dangerous. So viciously punished. I wish all these brave people the best for 2014 and beyond.

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