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.
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.
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 😉