Today, world human rights day, is a good time to reflect on those fundamental to the practice of lawful liberal democracy — inter alia, freedom of speech and association, as well as citizens’ right to know what the state is up to and to have their privacy protected. All are under attack, not just in authoritarian regimes. So we rely on courageous journalists, documentarians and increasingly high-profile whistleblowers and cyber-activist movements like WikiLeaks, to get at truths concealed by governments and to expose official lying and coverups.
Just hours after returning from several weeks in Jordan and Egypt — the latter one of the hardest countries for working journalists — I attended a benefit event sponsored by the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom (www.ccwpf-cclpm.ca) in support of imprisoned Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, Cairo bureau chief for the Al Jazeera English TV network, given a seven-year sentence for “terrorism” in an outrageous miscarriage of justice. An indication of how dangerous reporting has become is that 108 journalists and media workers were killed in 2013.
State officials hiding or not telling the truth is nothing new, nor is the state secretly spying on its citizens. But what is new, at least in our supposedly superior western democracies, is the massive expansion, notably since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, of covert surveillance activities using advanced electronic means to snoop on citizens’ lives. And still governments, as currently in Canada, claim to need expanded powers to counter future terrorist threats. Should we trust those exploiting our fears? Must we accept loss of personal privacy and constitutional rights as the price of promised protection?
American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras has spent the years since 9/11 examining its repercussions. She began a trilogy of features with the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country (2006), which followed a candidate for elected office amid the chaotic failed “democratization” of post-invasion Iraq. A second film, The Oath (2010), laid bare further contradictions of the so-called “war on terror.” The third, Citizenfour (https://citizenfourfilm.com/), released last month, cuts closest to home as it takes on the Orwellian modern Leviathan of the national security surveillance state. Masterfully made, it’s the most important and impactful documentary of the year.
Poitras’ work has come at considerable personal cost as explored in a cover story and interview in the fall edition of Filmmaker magazine. After becoming a “person of interest” to U.S. Homeland Security, from 2006 on she was regularly stopped and rudely interrogated at airports. Entering the U.S., her laptop, phone and camera would be confiscated. Fellow investigative journalist, the Guardian’s Rio-based Glenn Greenwald, wrote about her troubles in a 2012 article. Poitras was already immersed in the third film, focusing on high-level National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblowers (notably the veteran intelligence analyst Bill Binney who was targeted after resigning in protest in late 2001), activists on surveillance awareness like Jacob Appelbaum (shown instructing Occupy protesters), and the role of WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange she interviewed extensively. The difficulties of taking sensitive material across U.S. borders prompted her to move to Berlin where a support team was put in place, including technical experts and editor Mathilde Bonnefoy.
That’s where in early 2013 Poitras was contacted through encrypted email by the pseudonymous “citizenfour” who, warning that her every move will be watched, writes: “This is a story few but you can tell.” The source, unable to establish a secure connection with Greenwald, had sought her out, knowing she was on a watch list; indeed as she relates, that fact “is what made me qualified to make this film.” It also necessitated employing extraordinary means to protect the confidentiality of the filmmaking process.
Citizenfour begins eerily en route to a clandestine encounter in a Hong Kong hotel room as Poitras’ soft-spoken voiceover reads from this encrypted electronic correspondence. It will lead to the biggest leak of classified national security activities in history. Poitras, accompanied by Greenwald, and later joined by veteran Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill, was about to encounter 29-year-old Hawaii-based ex-NSA contract employee Edward Snowden whose revelations about NSA programs for wholesale spying on the private communications of citizens in the U.S. and abroad ignited a firestorm.
Poitras’ fly-on-the-wall footage of the sessions with Snowden lasting eight days is riveting. Snowden himself comes across as disarmingly sincere. Reviewing it all convinced editor Bonnefoy that he acted “for purely ethical reasons and with a candour I was not expecting . . . there was just a steady stream of authenticity and truth.” Snowden is certainly aware of putting himself in the crosshairs of U.S. government reprisals and political attacks on him as treasonous. However, he shares with Poitras an aversion to “personality journalism,” insisting that the story is the threat to civil liberties posed by the staggering extent of mass surveillance of citizens about which government officials have repeatedly lied to the public.
It may seem paradoxical that Snowden has found temporary asylum in Putin’s Russia (while trying unsuccessfully to fly to Ecuador) given the latter’s degree of authoritarian control and KGB background. With Snowden’s passport cancelled it became a case of any port in a storm. His great service as detailed in this film is to have unmasked a Big Brother that isn’t a classic novel or reality TV show but a clear and present danger to our own rights-based democracy.
The subtitle of James Spione’s Silenced is “America’s war on whistleblowers” and its tagline asks “How far would you go to tell the truth?” Using interviews, archival footage and re-enactments, the film dramatizes how whistleblowers have been targeted, intimidated, ostracized and threatened with harsh punishments, focusing on three: NSA senior official Thomas Drake who objected to illegal surveillance activities; CIA officer John Kiriakou who exposed the use of torture; and Justice Department lawyer Jesselyn Radack who raised questions about the detention and treatment of terrorism suspects.
Although the Bush presidency ramped up the national security machinery post 9/11, it is the Obama administration that has made “routine” use of an antiquated Espionage Act against such conscientious individuals. Observes the New York Times Ross Douthat, this president has been “more aggressive in his war on leakers, whistleblowers and journalists.” All of which leads director Spione to ask: “Who controls the truth? In America in 2014, it is a legitimate question. . . . In 21st century America, it is no exaggeration to say that individual privacy has all but disappeared, that every citizen is now a potential suspect. Under cover of secrecy and using incredibly powerful yet invisible technology, our intelligence agencies have built the most comprehensive system of monitoring the citizenry that the world has ever known.” (Check the website http://silencedfilm.com/ for further information.)
No one will be surprised by the Iranian theocracy’s Big Brother tactics but their crudeness and ineptitude is striking. That heavy hand proved murderous in the notorious case of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi who was beaten to death in Tehran’s Evin prison in July 2003. In June 2009 during the savagely repressed “green wave” protests over presidential election fraud, journalist/filmmaker Maziar Bahari, was arrested at his mother’s house while on assignment for Newsweek magazine. He was held for 118 days in solitary confinement, subjected to solitary confinement, constant interrogation alleging he was spying for the Americans, torture, and mock execution threats, that continued even after he made a televised false confession. (See his 2011 memoir Then They Came for Me and website: http://maziarbahari.com/.)
Rosewater is a lightly fictionalized account of that ordeal, taking its name from the perfumed water used in Shia shrines and with which Bahari’s chief tormentor sprinkles himself when not doing the regime’s dirty work. It’s a directorial debut for popular Daily Show host Jon Stewart, whose satirical “news” reports are often more trusted than those of the mainstream media. He felt a certain responsibility to tell the story since a Tehran-filmed episode in which Bahari and an American interlocutor pretended to be spies was used by humourless Iranian authorities to tar the opposition democracy movement with “evidence” of foreign collusion. Bahari’s plight eventually provoked an international outcry until he was released after signing a worthless agreement to spy on dissidents for Iran.
The movie, filmed in Jordan, unfortunately relegates Iranian actors to minor roles, although Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal does a creditable job of portraying Bahari. And if Ben Affleck’s Argo slighted Canada in its Hollywood retelling of the Iranian hostage crisis, Rosewater ignores Bahari’s dual Canadian citizenship (unless you count as a clue a defiant prison dance to the imagined strains of Leonard Cohen).
Still, the easy finger-pointing at Iran’s suppression of freedom and democracy makes for a troubling juxtaposition with documentaries like Citizenfour and Silenced that reveal the elaborate deceptions of an American Big Brother. Citizens of all countries, beware.