Challenge Power Symposium in Berlin

Snowden and Assange in Berlin – for Investigative Journalism and against Surveillance

This weekend, the Logan CIJ (Center of investigative Journalism) Symposium took place in Berlin, and attracted many high profile whistleblowers, journalists and hacktivists. Under the slogan “Challenge Power” they discussed topics like democracy, investigative journalism and freedom – amongst the speakers were Edward Snowden and Julian Assange via video call, or Jacob Appelbaum and Seymour Hersh.

Privacy and encryption

They concluded that privacy and security do not exclude each other, there can and must be both. Snowden even stated that there cannot be any real security without privacy, while referring to the Apple vs. FBI case and Obama’s recent statement about it. This sounds trivial and like something you know already. But, surveillance is taking over society more and more, and people do not really do anything about it, not even in private. This shows that the statement obviously still needs repeating and is still relevant. Julian Assange stated that encryption would be our only hope. A German news site even adopted this as the headline about the symposium. If data is encrypted, huge global players, such as Google, don’t stand a chance to use your data for their own benefits. To encrypt your data locally, before sending or uploading them, would be our only hope. This is our mantra, too, so we definitely agree with Assange.

Investigative journalism and its meaning for our society

Another interesting guest was the journalistic legend Seymour Hersh, who was an important figure in covering the war in Vietnam. He uncovered the massacre of My Lai, where the US Army killed between 300 and 500 unarmed civilians, which influenced the soon ending of the war. Years later, during the war in Iraq, he made public horrible cases of torture and crime against humanities committed by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib. This Saturday he spoke about his experiences in investigative journalism in the panel “Challenge Power II”. Other panels covered surveillance to “protect” society, or new journalistic platforms that commit to working independently.

The topic of investigative journalism is an explosive and contemporary issue. This year’s winner of Best Film at the Oscars is “Spotlight”, a film based on true events that tells the story of the decade-long cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the US. “Spotlight” shows in an impressive way how important investigative journalism is. It does not shy down from powerful institutions – in this case Catholic Church – to tell the truth and protect minorities and victims.

Jacob Appelbaum, the person who uncovered the surveillance of German Chancellor Merkel’s phone by the NSA, also spoke at the Logan CIJ. Appelbaum, a supporter of WikiLeaks, learned about American surveillance the hard way. In 2010, he was questioned by an American authority for visiting a hacker conference, his laptop and phones were confiscated. Since all the data was encrypted, it was of no use for them. But, his example makes clear how unsecure our data is at large American companies, because of the Patriot Act. In 2011, Twitter was forced by court to release information about Appelbaum. As a consequence, Appelbaum moved to Berlin, because data privacy is better in Germany.

Whistleblowers and journalists speak up for a free world, because they talk about the threat of surveillance and challenge large institutions, companies and governments by uncovering their dark secrets. They risk a lot. Many are on the run, because they are considered traitors to the nation. Others, like Seymour Hersh, claim that they face obstacles in their careers. The spotlight team at the Boston Globe uncovered the cover-up of sexual abuse in Catholic Church and won the Pulitzer Prize for their achievements. But according to Martin Baron (the editor of the Boston Globe at that time) they also had to put up with comparisons to Osama Bin Laden, by a professor at Harvard. ““All I can say,” she declared before a conference of Catholics, “is that if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.””

Protect yourself

Journalists and Whistleblowers take on difficult topics and risk a lot; be it exile, ridicule, or disadvantages in their career. But their work is essential for our society. Gatherings such as the Logan CIJ Symposium are a good platform where they can be heard. Assange’s conclusion that encryption is our only hope shows how everybody can protect themselves from the violation of privacy through big companies or institutions. To encrypt your data on your on PC, ideally with a “zero knowledge” solution, is a start for you to gain back your privacy and personal rights. Meanwhile, whistleblowers and investigative journalists fight the big fight for us.

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