“Russia…[has] my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, [Russia has] earned the respect of the world.” — Edward Snowden
Earlier this week, the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) announced that it had named NSA whistleblower-defector Edward Snowden, currently hiding out in Russia under Kremlin protection, to its board of directors.
The FPF was founded in December 2012 by leading figures in the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) along with founding board members Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, just months before they were handed exclusive control over the full cache of Snowden NSA secrets. Other founding FPF board members include Gen-X hearthrob John Cusack, BoingBoing tech socialite Xeni Jardin, and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
The announcement that Snowden would be joining the FPF and fighting for freedom of the press and privacy—in America—came on the same day that an American journalist critical of the Kremlin was expelled from Snowden’s adopted home in Russia.
Within hours of Snowden’s announcement that he would be fighting for press freedoms in America, pro-Kremlin Duma members introduced the latest in a series of harsh anti-terrorism censorship measures: a new packet of laws requiring “websites, content providers, and possibly search engines” to inform on online users to law enforcement upon request. The law will also effectively ban online money transfers between Russia and the outside world, and restrict domestic online transfers as well — bad news for leading US and Russian online payment firms like PayPal, Qiwi and Yandex.Money.
The new anti-terrorism bill is co-authored by Andrei Lugovoi, chief suspect in the polonium assassination of Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko; the bill also authorizes the FSB spy agency to conduct domestic searches of persons and their vehicles inside of Russia, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Just a couple of weeks earlier, on December 30, Putin signed another harsh Internet censorship law co-authored by Lugovoi, granting Russian authorities the power to shut down websites without a court order if the website is deemed “extremist.”
Under Putin, the charge of “extremism” has been used as a pretext to gag Putin’s critics and stifle free speech. (In 2008, my satire-and-politics Moscow newspaper “The eXile” was raided and closed down by Kremlin agents under charges of “extremism.”)
The FSB, of course, is the successor spy agency to the KGB; Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, served as a KGB officer in Soviet times, and led the FSB under Boris Yeltsin before taking power in 1999. Since then, Putin has bolstered the FSB’s powers so that it now rivals the KGB’s scope and powers.
Ever since large-scale pro-democracy protests broke out in Russia in late 2011, the Putin regime has reacted with an “unprecedented” crackdown on free expression, privacy, and human rights activities, making it one of the most tightly controlled police states in the world. Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Russia 149th in the world in press freedoms.
Last spring, just weeks before Snowden fled to Hong Kong, Human Rights Watch described the increasingly brutal Kremlin crackdown as “unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history”:
In the year since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012, the Russian government has unleashed a crackdown on civil society unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history.
The authorities have introduced a series of restrictive laws, harassed, intimidated, and in several cases imprisoned political activists, interfered in the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and sought to cast government critics as clandestine enemies, thereby threatening the viability of Russia’s civil society.
A week after Snowden landed in Moscow, Putin signed into law harsh new anti-gay measures. And in July, just a day before Snowden read a statement in Moscow praising Russia “for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful,” a Russian court posthumously convicted whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died four years earlier while in police custody, under conditions described as torture.
In the months that followed, Snowden was given temporary asylum and full Kremlin protection while outside of his cocoon, Russia’s human rights situation worsened considerably. At the end of 2013, Amnesty International wrote, “Vladimir Putin’s current presidency has led an onslaught against civil and political rights and other freedoms in Russia.” The Kremlin crackdown has targeted journalists, pro-democracy protestors, human rights activists, NGOs, even satirical artists.
In the months after Snowden took refuge under Kremlin protection, the Russia’s security state upgraded its own electronic surveillance program SORM, described as “PRISM on steroids.”
We might expect, then, that the newly minted FPF board member would have something profound to say about press freedoms — or any other kind of freedoms — in his adopted Russian homeland. But no. Instead, under the watchful protection of Putin’s FSB agents (according to Amnesty International’s Sergei Nikitin, an eyewitness to the “men in suits” surrounding Snowden, and several others), Snowden courageously denounced America’s human rights record and vowed to help lead us to our privacy promised land.
According to the Foundation’s statement announcing his appointment:
Mr. Snowden said, “It is tremendously humbling to be called to serve the cause of our free press, and it is the honor of a lifetime to do so alongside extraordinary Americans like Daniel Ellsberg on FPF’s Board of Directors. The unconstitutional gathering of the communications records of everyone in America threatens our most basic rights, and the public should have a say in whether or not that continues. Thanks to the work of our free press, today we do, and if the NSA won’t answer to Congress, they’ll have to answer to the newspapers, and ultimately, the people.”
Snowden brings a deep knowledge about how journalists and sources can communicate securely in the age of mass surveillance. Protecting digital communications is turning into the press freedom battle of the 21st Century.
“Journalism isn’t possible unless reporters and their sources can safely communicate,” said Mr. Snowden, “and where laws can’t protect that, technology can. This is a hard problem, but not an unsolvable one, and I look forward to using my experience to help find a solution.”
In comedy, timing is everything. In farce, it’s all about scale and pushing the limits of believability. Here, the scale of Snowden’s hypocrisy is so mind-boggling surreal it veers into unbelievability, and that is what makes it such good farce. Not good farce for us, the marks, the punchlines in this farce—but for an audience with more distance than we have, yeah, this has all the elements of a good farce. It’s just hard for us to appreciate it, unless we convince ourselves that Snowden’s schtick is heroic and real, rather than farcical and surreal.
Luckily for Russians, there’s a rich literary tradition of brilliant, surreal farce going back to Gogol and continuing right up through today.
Perhaps it’s this Russian nose for farce that inspired human rights youth activist Roman Dobrokhotov, who’s been arrested more than 120 times fighting the Kremlin, to pen a bitterly funny and prescient open letter to Snowden last August when he was first granted temporary asylum by the Kremlin. Dobrokhotov predicted last summer almost to a “t” the very farce we’re witnessing today. Titled “Welcome to My World,” Dobrokhotov’s “open letter to Edward Snowden” dripped battery-acid sarcasm:
Yesterday I learned that you have managed to gain temporary asylum in Russia. Congratulations on behalf of progressive people everywhere. At last, you are safe.
Here in Russia no one would dream of harassing you for exposing the security services when they listen to telephone conversations and read others letters without a warrant. Russia, thank God, is a law-abiding State and ever since 2008 our security services have had a quite legal right to listen to whatever people are talking about on the phone and to read their e-mails.
Everyone is aware of this, and there is nothing here in Russia to expose.
This is not the USA, Ed, where exposing the activities of the government carries unpleasant consequences. There is nothing of the kind here. On the contrary, people who expose the American government are given all kinds of rewards and can enjoy a fine career, which I wish for you. I would just remind you not to forget which government you are fighting against. For were you, in the heat of the moment, to get confused about this you would have to return to a little room again (and this time, most likely, it would not be at the airport).
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.]