Brazilian prosecutors allege that the writer Glenn Greenwald was a member of a “criminal organization” who got his hands on compromising conversations between government officials and then disseminated the material to the general public. I allege that Brazilian prosecutors are merely offering the best definition of good journalism.
There are very few issues on which I agree with Greenwald — some of his views I find detestable, actually — but by any reasonable characterization, he’s a journalist. A pretty good one, in fact. Whether you agree with his conclusions, objectives, or worldview, Greenwald’s scoops about the surveillance state changed the way Americans talk about their government.
In the past few years, Greenwald, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, has published leaked text messages that raise questions about the impartiality of former judge (now justice minister) Sérgio Moro, and other prosecutors who served on an anti-corruption task force that indicted a number of high-profile left-wing politicians, including former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This rampant corruption helped right-wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro win power.
Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert on Brazilian politics, even if I find hyperbolic some of the reaction to Bolsonaro, who seems no more autocratic than the average left-wing leader in South America. But three things seem undeniable: (1) The text messages and transcripts released by Greenwald’s publication, The Intercept Brasil, have genuine news value; (2) Greenwald acquired those conversations using established and sound journalistic practices; and (3) Bolsonaro is attempting to intimidate journalists by seeking retribution against a reporter who has done a particularly effective job of damaging him.
Yes, Greenwald is an ideologically driven writer. So are most American reporters (though the problem with journalism in the United States isn’t as much ideology as it is unprincipled partisanship, which flows like a torrent in one direction). And yes, Greenwald’s husband, David Miranda, is an elected official with the opposition left-wing Socialism and Liberty party. All of that matters, but none of it undermines the veracity of the conversations that Greenwald uncovered. Nor, more important, does it mean that the process by which he obtained the information should be considered criminal in a free nation.
The Brazilian government’s case relies in part on the allegation that Greenwald assisted in “facilitating the commission of a crime” by encouraging his anonymous sources to delete copies of stolen messages in an effort to evade detection by authorities. Well, using this malleable justification, most investigative journalists could be charged with a crime in Brazil, since most conspire to evade authorities on some level.
Ask any American reporter, and they’ll happily tell you they would go prison to protect the name of sources who illegally pass on information to them.
Greenwald would like draw comparisons between his case and that of Julian Assange, charged by U.S. authorities with conspiring to hack government computers. But there’s an important distinction: Assange allegedly participated in the initial criminality by offering assistance in breaching passwords, while Greenwald advised a source on how to protect his or her identity after already handing over information.
Last year, a justice on Brazil’s supreme court barred federal police from investigating Greenwald’s role in disseminating hacked messages. The ruling prohibited Bolsonaro from using “coercive measures” to stop Greenwald. It’s unclear if the Bolsonaro administration will fight the judge’s decision or simply ignore it and move ahead with a prosecution of Greenwald.
Either way, it’s authoritarian to use police powers to silence journalists who embarrass you. Because often — maybe most of the time — the most consequential journalism entails working with informants or whistleblowers who engage in illegality to uncover unflattering or corrupt interactions that powerful people would love to bury. Without such muckraking, much meaningful journalism would illegal.