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Over 150 groups urge President Obama to protect whistleblowers and journalists

A protester carries portraits of Edward Snowden during a demonstration against secret monitoring programmes and showing solidarity with whistleblowers Edward Snowden and others in Berlin on 27 July 2013
A protester carries portraits of Edward Snowden during a demonstration against secret monitoring programmes and showing solidarity with whistleblowers Edward Snowden and others in Berlin on 27 July 2013

REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

In a joint letter, over 150 IFEX members and partners of ARTICLE 19 appealed to US President Obama to drop charges against whistleblower Edward Snowden, update the Whistleblower Protection Act and pass a media shield law. The letter, initiated by ARTICLE 19, follows:

President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, DC, United States

CC: Attorney General Eric Holder
Secretary of State John Kerry

5 August 2013

Dear President Obama,

We are writing to you as free speech and media freedom organisations from around the world to express our strong concern over the response of the US government to the actions of whistleblower Edward Snowden. We urge you to take immediate action to protect whistleblowers and journalists.

Edward Snowden's recent disclosures have triggered a necessary and long-delayed public debate about the acceptable boundaries of surveillance in a democratic country, a debate that on 5 June you welcomed having. The revelations brought into question the legitimacy of the secretive process of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and closed Congressional intelligence committees as appropriate forums to determine the fundamental human rights of Americans and persons worldwide. The disclosures have clearly served the public interest, including by prompting similar debates in countries around the world.

We are, therefore, dismayed that criminal charges have been filed against Snowden, including those under the vague and overbroad Espionage Act of 1917. Statements by the State Department that Snowden is not a whistleblower simply because of the nature of the charges against him flatly contradict international standards on freedom of expression and information. Attempts to obstruct Snowden's freedom of movement, his right to seek asylum, including the revocation of his passport, and other forms of retaliation also violate US obligations under international law.

Moreover, we are concerned that the charges against Snowden are not an isolated incident, and that there have been an unprecedented number of prosecutions against whistleblowers during your administration, as well as intrusive investigations to identify the sources of journalists reporting on matters that are in the public interest. This tendency of the US government towards obsessively controlling information flows and an aversion to public discourse is both undemocratic and unsustainable in the digital era.

Taken together, we find that these actions have set a dangerous precedent for the protection of whistleblowers and journalists worldwide. As you are aware, whistleblowers often face criminal charges when they reveal information that causes acute embarrassment to governments, to distract from the wrongdoing revealed. Similarly, journalists are also attacked for publishing the disclosed information. We are seriously concerned that governments will rely on the US example to justify attacks on whistleblowers and journalists who put themselves at significant risk to expose or report government wrongdoing, corruption, or other dangers to society.

The US has a long history of recognising the important role whistleblowers play in democracy, going back to Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Law, the False Claims Act. While the Whistleblower Protection Act in 2009 built upon these protections, they specifically exclude protections for public interest disclosures of national security or intelligence information. While the recent Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-19 on “Protecting Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information” and Attorney General Eric Holder's guidance on protecting reporters' privilege are both positive, as policy they are not binding law and provide no legal protection or remedy for whistleblowers or journalists seeking to defend information disclosures. Greater legal protections in this area are therefore needed.

We call on your administration to take the following actions:
  • Drop the charges with prejudice against Edward Snowden
  • Immediately reinstate Edward Snowden’s passport and cease attempts to obstruct his right to seek asylum in any country of his choice
  • Initiate an executive public consultation on the activities of the National Security Agency
  • Instruct the Justice Department to declassify and make public all orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
  • Commit to seeking the adoption through Congress of an extension of the Whistleblower Protection Act and the reform of the Espionage Act to ensure there are appropriate and legally binding protections for whistleblowers disclosing national security and intelligence information
  • Continue to support the adoption by Congress of a strong and robust "media shield law" with narrow exemptions for national security information.
Yours sincerely,

ARTICLE 19
ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency
Afghanistan Journalists Center
Africa Freedom of Information Centre
Albanian Media Institute
Aliansi Jurnalis Independen/Alliance of Independent Journalists
Association for Civil Rights
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Cambodian Center for Human Rights
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Center for Independent Journalism - Romania
Centre for Independent Journalism - Malaysia
Centro de Archivos y Acceso a la Información Pública
Centro de Reportes Informativos sobre Guatemala - CERIGUA
Centro Nacional de Comunicación Social
Derechos Digitales
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Foro de Periodismo Argentino
Foundation for Press Freedom - FLIP
Globe International Center
Hong Kong Journalists Association
Human Rights Network for Journalists - Uganda
Independent Journalism Center - Moldova
Index on Censorship
Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey
Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety
Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information
Institute of Mass Information
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Media Rights Agenda
National Union of Somali Journalists
Norwegian PEN
Pakistan Press Foundation
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
PEN Canada
PEN International
Privacy International
Public Association "Journalists"
Reporters Without Borders
South East European Network for Professionalization of Media
West African Journalists Association
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - AMARC

Other signatories:

ACCUN - Tunisian Digital Culture
Ain-O-Shalish Kendra, Bangladesh
Albanian Helsinki Committee
Alliance National Timor Leste for International Tribunal (ANTI)
Alternative Informatics Association, Turkey
ANDI - Communication and Rights, Brazil
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Associação Brasileira de Centros de Inclusão Digital (ABCID), Brazil
Associação Nacional para o Software Livre, Portugal
Association "Yakadha" for democracy and Civil State, Tunisia
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
Association of Human Rights Monitors on Law Enforcement, Ukraine
ATL MST/SIDA Tunisia
Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Kosovo
Bolo Bhi, Pakistan
Bulgarian Helsinki Committee
Burma Partnership
Bytes for All, Pakistan
Catalan PEN
Center for Development and Democratization of Institutions, Albania
Center for National and International Studies, Azerbaijan
Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, Russia
Centre for Internet and Society, India
Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada
Centre for Participatory Research and Development, Bangladesh
Centro de Cultura Luiz Freire, Brazil
Centro de Estudos da Mídia Alternativa Barão de Itararé, Brazil
Centro Internacional de Estudios Superiores de Comunicación para América Latina (CIESPAL), Ecuador
ChangeMaker, Bangladesh
Christian Media Network, South Korea
Civil Coalition for the Defence of Freedom of Expression, Tunisia
COAST, Bangladesh
Computer professionals for peace and social responsibility (FIfF), Germnay
Digitalcourage e.V., Germany
Electronic Frontier Finland
English PEN
Equity BD, Bangladesh
Finnish PEN
Föreningen för Digitala Fri- och Rättigheter, Sweden
Foundation for Regional Initiatives, Ukraine
Freedom of information and expression - Marroco, Morocco
Freedom of the Press Foundation, USA
German PEN Centre
Government Accountability Project (GAP), USA
GPOPAI - Grupo de Pesquisa em Políticas Públicas para o Acesso à Informação da Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil
Grupo Medios y Sociedad (GMS), Uruguay
Helsinki Citizens' Assembly - Vanadzor, Armenia
Helsinki committee of Armenia
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Poland
Human Rights Center, Uganda
Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan
Human Rights Club, Azerbaijan
Human Rights Monitoring Institute, Lithuania
Imparsial- The Indonesian Human Rights Monitor, Indonesia
Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI)
INSEC- Informal Sector Service Center, Nepal
Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies, Slovenia
Instituto Bem-Estar Brasil
Intervozes (Brazil)
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
International Youth Human Rights Movement, Russia
Iraqi Journalists Rights Defense Association, Iraq
IT-Politisk Forening, Denmark
Judicial System Monitoring Program (JSMP), Timor Leste
Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law
KontraS (Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence), Indonesia
KRF Public Alternative, Ukraine
La Quadrature du Net, France
Law and Society Trust (LST), Sri Lanka
Law, Internet and Society Nucleous - University of São Paulo, Brazil
Mass Media Defence Centre, Russia
Media Defence - Southeast Asia (MDSEA)
Moscow Helsinki Group
National Union of Tunisian Journalists SNJT
New Zealand PEN Centre
Notabene, Tajikistan
Odhikar, Bangladesh
Open Rights Group, UK
Panoptykon Foundation, Poland
Panos Eastern Africa
Paradigm Initiative Nigeria
PEN Center West USA
PEN International's Swiss Romand Center
PEN Melbourne, Australia
PEN Palestine
PEN Turkey Centre
People in Need, Czech Republic
People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (Center for Whistleblowers Support), South Korea
People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), India
Plataforma Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo (PIDHDD), Ecuador
Portuguese PEN Centre
Press Union and Audiovisual of Djibouti (SPAD)
Pro Media, Macedonia
Russian PEN
Samoa Observer
Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC)
San Miguel PEN Center, Mexico
Scottish PEN
SonTusDatos, Mexico
South African PEN Centre
SUARAM (Suara Rakyat Malaysia)
Swiss German PEN Center, Switzerland
Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR)
Tanzania Human Rights Defenders’ Coalition
Think Centre, Singapore
Tunis Centre for Freedom of the Press
Tunisian Association of Women Lawyer
Tunisian Engineers Council
Tunisian Union of Free Radios STRL
Uganda Journalists Union
Union of Independent Newspapers, Tunisia
Vrijschrift, the Netherlands


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