Edward Snowden: Pics Or It Didn’t Happen

Last Saturday, Delo daily ran a front-page story by its Moscow correspondent Polona Frelih about NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden‘s meet-up with Russian human rights organisations. The catch: she took part in the meet, snapping some pictures in the process. Almost immediately, all hell broke loose here in Slovenia, mostly on account of her taking pics of the USA‘s most wanted fugitive despite his explicit request not to do so, but also on account of going into the meet under false pretext (she was assumed to be a member of a human rights NGO and did not disclose she was a journo) as well as some shameless self-promotion over her getting the scoop. To be blunt, she was accused of making the story about her and not about Snowden. While understandable, in pengovsky’s opinion most of these arguments are flawed, so let us work our way out of this conundrum.

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Edward Snowden days ago at Moscow Šeremetjevo (photo by Polona Frelih/Delo)

Me, myself and I.

This is probably the point where Frelih made quite a few blunders. Pengovsky never met her, let alone knows her personally, but her responses (mostly via Twitter) after being second-guessed by many, came across curt and sometimes arrogant. Also, the fact that Delo went from a story about the meet to a background story within a day or so shows, that there was either fairly little additional content available and they were milking it for what it was worth and beyond, or everybody was pleased with themselves as punch and saw little need to do any follow-up and spin-off stories.

My guess is that we’re talking about combination of both. Frelih has turned up some good pieces over the past few years, presenting the side of Russia we don’t usually read about. Including youth boot camps, neo-nazi raids against migrant workers and homophobia. On the other hand, a correspondent is more or less on his/her own while on assignment and has few resources at disposal. And when three thousand journalists hang around Moscow Šeremetjevo airport, hoping to catch a glimpse of Edward Snowden was last seen three weeks ago in Hong Kong and you’re the only one who gets to see him, I think a little pride is justifiable, no? But then again: there’s pride and then there’s gloating.

Apparently, she said that she wanted to help him one way or another and that too was seen as pretentious. Maybe, but here’s the thing: Snowden was meeting Russian human rights NGOs, which in turn were about to become his only mouthpiece save for Wikileaks. Newsmedia would be forced to take whatever they say for granted without any possibility to corroborate. Therefore, in some curious way it was both in Snowden’s as well as in public’s best interest for a journo to be present, because she was the check-and-balance to whatever the NGOs were about to say.

Because that’s what journos (supposedly) do. Act in the public interest. To many, Snowden is a hero. The whistleblower who told the world what most of us suspected all along. This cuts him some serious slack with a lot of people who are keen to take whatever he says (or is said in his name) without even a pinch of salt. But it is one thing to hear and see him say things in person, quite another to read a Wikileaks press release. He or the people around him cannot be the only ones who decide the agenda on this issue. This is what Julian Assange learned the hard way. When individual Wikileaks Cables were being investigated and corroborated by The Guardian, NYT and the rest of the newspapers, Assange lost patience and just uploaded it all. But the public interest is not served best with raw data. These need to be checked for relevance, contextualised and presented in a digestible manner. In this day and age, this includes pictures.

Pics or it didn’t happen!

Frelih said she needed to show the world that Snowden was indeed alive and well and at the airport, which is why she took the pics, despite being told not to. But what she really needed was to prove to the world she was really there. This is where she took most flak: why take pictures when there was a no-photo edict out? Well, if they really wanted to prevent photos to be taken, the organisers of the meet would confiscate smartphones upon entry. Then there was the “facial recognition” argument, postulated by Snowden himself saying that “the more he is photographed, the less secure he is”. Call me silly, but that’s kinda weird coming from a NSA contractor. I’d imagine they’ve every possible detail of Edward Snowden recorded and stored somewhere, including a DNA sample. If they don’t then the US intelligence community really are a bunch of fuckwits.

But let’s assume they’re not. Let’s assume they were taken by surprise and are now committing every resource to make this guy stop what he’s doing. The only thing that protects Snowden right now is continuous media exposure. The moment the media lose interest, he becomes damaged goods and finds himself on the first plane either to the US or to Hong Kong, back from where he came. You see, Russia ain’t exactly a democratic place. Not by Central European standards, anyhow. And the very fact that Snowden was allowed to remain in Šeremetjevo transit zone shows that Russkies are playing a game of their own. They are, in fact, using him. Transit zone is still Russian territory and authorities there need exactly five minutes to drum-up a charge and have him deported (travelling without documents, health hazard, loitering, take your pick). That they don’t means they’ve got more to gain from him being there than gone. Yes, democracy needs Edward Snowden. But Edward Snowden needs the media. And media are pictures, too.

False flag

Then there’s a case of her working under cover. A risky move, to be sure. If pengovsky’s understanding is correct, she didn’t exactly fake her identity, but was rather mistaken for a proper NGO member and she did nothing to change the perception. In fact, there’s a journalistic code of ethics in Slovenia which prohibits exactly these kinds of tricks. But in my opinion, this case falls outside normal scope of journalistic work. This was not faking an identity to find out the state of the royal pregnancy. This is arguably the single most important leak of the decade and usual rules do not apply. This was demonstrated by the US when they force-landed-by-proxy the presidential plane of Bolivian leader Evo Morales thinking Snowden was on board. This was also demonstrated by Russia, intently looking the other way while a person without a valid passport is walking around one of its airports. And it was demonstrated by Snowden himself, when he threw everything he had to the wind and did what he felt was right.

While not nearly as dramatic or pivotal, Frelih did something along those lines. She did what she believed was right and risked burning her contacts to achieve that. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if as a result she finds out Russian NGOs unwilling to talk to her. Since she also gained both notoriety and fame, she will have a hard(er) time passing as a lowly reporter just doing her job. But that is what Polona Frelih was doing. Her job. There are limits to what a correspondent can do. Frelih probably has neither the resources nor in-depth knowledge to write-up a piece on e-surveillance. Delo’s IT desk should be doing that, despite the fact that the US probably thinks Slovenian secret service is a joke ever since Janez Janša blew the cover off a joint SOVA/BND operation and that the Americans get more info on Slovenia directly from their sources then they get by wire-tapping. The fact Delo didn’t write-up anything remotely similar speaks volumes.

But what Frelih can do, is to report about what Edward Snowden is doing in Moscow. Which is exactly what she did. Which is why pengovsky still believes congratulations are in order (yes, there was a typo in there). Just don’t let it get into your head 😉

 

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Slovenian Elections: The Great (TV) Debate

Touchy subject. Tomorrow will see the first two debates since the election campaign officially began last Friday. In fact, a small ratings war is about to ensue between RTVSLO (state television) and privately-owned POP TV. The former is to broadcast its flagship high-octane conflict-prone programme Pogledi Slovenije at 2000hrs (until 2130 approx.) while POP TV is to start the first debate at 2055hrs and lasting well into the night. But there’s a catch…


Pogledi Slovenije: No seats at this table for Zares, LDS, NSi and SNS (source)

Although the law on RTVSLO specifies that it has to treat all parliamentary parties equally (and – to accommodate the Christian Democratic NSi – the definition of “parliamentary” has been stretched to include parties in the European Parliament), authors of Pogledi Slovenije decided not to invite leaders of Zares, LDS, NSi and SNS, Gregor Golobič, Katarina Kresal, Ljudmila Novak and Zmago Jelinčič. Obviously, the choice of guests in the studio is ultimately editorial one. Journalists hate to be told what to do. However, this is state/public television we’re talking about. The taxpayers are paying 12 euro per month per household in order to finance it and at least during election campaign they should be entitled to a larger and less editorialised scope of relevant information.

Producers of the show claim that tomorrow’s programme is not an election campaign debate and that they’ve selected guests according to their poll ratings, where the four parties that were left out indeed score only a couple of percent each. Now, technically, Campaign Rules of RTVSLO state that campaign-related programming will start on 14 November. The programme is on tomorrow, on the 10th, so everything should be OK. Really? No. The law on RTVSLO states that all parliamentary parties should be represented during the election campaign – and that started Friday last. So, on one hand we have RTVSLO’s campaign rules, on the other the law under which it operates. Guess which takes precedence. What’s more, even though producers and the info desk (under whose jurisdiction falls the Pogledi Slovenije programme) claim this is not an election debate, it is being marketed as such.

So, whether one likes it or not, not inviting Kresal, Golobič, Novak and Jelinčič is unfair and possibly not legal. Ljudmila Novak and her NSi (for which RTVSLO usually bent over backwards to find it a programming slot) seem to be aware of that as they threatened legal action to gain equal access to programming. Should they succeed (although it is hard to see how a court would decide on this in only a few days), Zares, LDS and SNS would probably applaud wildly, especially since the latter three parties co-signed a letter demanding the very same thing from RTVSLO. However, no dice.

Slightly off-topic. A funny if somewhat bizarre debate ensued on Twitter when it emerged that LDS and Zares went into cahoots with the nationalists over air time. Some people were appalled that the two progressive and libertarian parties would join forces with a nationalistic party whose leadership is often bigoted, insulting and even retarded and promotes values which are anything but civilised. Some say that any level of cooperation with the nationalists is unacceptable and that LDS and Zares are losing credibility for it.

Pengovsky begs to differ. Politics makes for strange bedfellows and it should not be at all surprising that liberals and nationalists find themselves on the same side. This is one issue, where the parties’ immediate interests are more or less the same, albeit with different motivations. They are not running bag for anyone, nor are they signalling long-term cooperation. Winston Churchill once famously said that if Hitler invaded Hell, he would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons. While nowhere near the same order of magnitude, the mechanics are more or less the same. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of picking your allies. Sometimes you’re just happy there’s someone else fighting on your side.

Interestingly enough, the privately owned POP TV has no problem hosting leaders of all parliamentary parties plus the two heavywight newcomers that very same evening.

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Monday Morning Meat #210 (Victory Edition)

To honour today’s Victory Day, when Ljubljana was liberated in 1945 and when Second World War in Europe finally ended after six years of brutal bloodshed, pengovsky gives you Bert Sotlar and Lojze Rozman, two legendary actors who starred in one of the first post-war action comedies, Ne joči, Peter. 🙂

If you don’t mind the lack of subtitles or understand Slovene, you can see the whole fim here

S.F.S.N.!

 

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Referendum on RTV Slovenia: A Night To Forget

The final tally of Sunday referendum on the law on RTVSLO was disastrous, to say the least. The law was nixed with 72.64 percent votes against and only 27.36 percent in favour, with a criminally low voter turnout. The counter of voters attending the referendum stopped at 250 079 or only 14.56 percent. The good doctor rightly called it a fiasco. While the inevitable battle for interpretation of results ensued immediately, there are things that should not be overlooked.


(source: The Firm™)

Bottom line is that the law was quashed, meaning that the existing law on RTVSLO, crafted by SDS’ very own chief bulldog Branko Grims remains in effect. The coalition lost this round decisively and without reprieve. Well, without immediate reprieve, at least. Legislation stipulates that following a referendum, no change to a particular law can be attempted for a year. With PM Pahor’s government popularity points hitting the low end of the twenties, the defeat only reiterates what the opinion polls say. Furthermore, this is also major policy defeat for the coalition which put revamping of the law and limiting political influence over the institution high on its agenda.

Carte blanche

Rejection of the law threatens to open a Pandora’s box of pressure being brought to bear on RTVSLO once again. The existing law allows for it and the referendum result now gives the ruling coalition almost a carte blanche to shape the institution according to its own image, just as Janša’s government did after the 2007 referendum on the same issue (when the current law was confirmed). An overwhelming majority of members of Programming and Supervisory boards will still be appointed by the parliamentary majority. This means it is up to good will of politicians to decide whether board members will be people who know what TV and radio are, or people who will more or less faithfully follow party directives. And being dependant on good will of politicians is never a good thing. RTVSLO thus remains a state media and is eons away from becoming public.

However. While resounding, the defeat is not catastrophe for the coalition. Immediately after declaring victory, Janez Janša and his SDS called for Minister of Culture Majda Širca to resign. This was later (predictably) expanded to a claim that the entire government led by Borut Pahor should resign, since they are wasting time on trivial matters, such as the new law. Following government resignation, sayeth the SDS, early election should be called.

Same old, same old

Pengovsky will not go again over why it is next to impossible to call early elections in Slovenia. But constant calls for early elections are becoming really old really fast and only prove that SDS in fact has no serious alternative on how to handle the general situation Slovenia is in right now other than the fact that it is them who should be in power.

Which brings to the next issue at hand. Despite clinching a victory, the SDS can be far from happy. Having thrown shitload of mud in the general direction of Pahor’s government and in the specific direction of minister Širca, despite trying hard to galvanise the vote, less than 15 percent of people showed up at the voting booth and of that less than three quarters voted in line with SDS’ position (a no vote). Even if we assume that everyone who voted against is a SDS supporter (which is not the case), this means that the die-hard base of Janša’s party ammounts to less than 12 percent of Slovene voters. While still a number to be reckoned with, this shows a marked decline in both power and reach of SDS, which – this must be said – is leading the opinion polls for some time now.

So, in purely political terms the winner of the referendum battle is the SDS (or the opposition in general), but in the wider perspective both the coalition and the opposition will want to forget the episode as soon as possible.

Dangers ahead

As written above, the immediate result of the referendum is that RTVSLO remains state rather than public media. But bad news don’t stop here. Since it is obvious that – while legal – the referendum was (ab)used for specific political purposes and that the majority of voters (for one reason or another) wanted to have nothing to do with it, calls for revamping of the referendum legislation are becoming increasingly loud, again especially from the left side of the political spectrum. Indeed, a recent poll showed that were the government call a “referendum on a referendum”, a large majority of people would a) vote and b) vote in favour of restricting possibilities to call a referendum.

Appealing as it may sound, such a move would quite probably be a start of a very bad journey.

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Referendum on RTV Slovenia, Part Three: Mad As Hell

Third and last instalment. For parts One and Two click here and here respectively


Mad As Hell scene from The Network

So, the referendum on the new law on RTV Slovenia is on in four… no… three days. The opposition (SDS, SLS and SNS) is opposing the law and is encouraging people to vote “no”. The same goes for Andrej Magajna MP (formerly of ruling Social Democrats, now independent) whose support was instrumental in this referendum becoming a reality. The coalition is, naturally, encouraging people to vote “yes” and this includes – although he was apparently very reluctant about it – Karl Erjavec of DeSUS.

Even though the campaign was lacklustre in the extreme, it did pick up in the past few days, with especially the “yes” camp gaining quite a few professional endorsements, most notably by journalists of RTVSLO itself, as well as journalists of Delo, the largest Slovenian daily. These were not “all-out” endorsements, but statements that the law, should it be confirmed on Sunday, will indeed establish grounds for RTVSLO to perform its public service better, with less political involvement.

This, basically, is the reason pengovsky will support the law as well. As things stands now, RTVSLO is saturated with political interest. both left and right. This is a natural consequence of the perpetual tug-of-war in this particular institution and which the existing law (passed under Janša government) only expanded further and made, well, legal. But since every action provokes equal but opposite reaction, the ball was starting to swing the other way. This is why this law is important. Ridiculous as it may sound, it just may prevent the whole vicious circle to start all over, mostly by limiting political influence over RTVSLO. Given this (and a bit of time) we just may end up with something resembling a public service television.

This country needs public RTVSLO. It needs a standard bearer, an institution where talent is fostered, nurtured and properly employed. Where ratings are not the only game in town, but come as a result of quality news and other programming. Where news is more than just about crime, disasters and talk shows which make Jerry Springer (remember him?) seem appropriate. Yes, the above is part of life and world around us. But it’s not all about that. I don’t have to tell you things are bad…

…Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be…

…That’s not the way it’s suppose to be. People are mad, yes. Mad as hell. But TV (especially public TV) is suppose to inform and not simply instil fear and loathing to pump up ratings. If the law is confirmed, common sense and quality media have a fighting chance. Nothing more, nothing less. If the law is defeated, then… well…


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