Sarah Harrison: "It's not the journalist's role to decide what the public can see"

An exclusive interview with former Wikileaks editor Sarah Harrison

GAME CHANGER is the annual conference of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom on 28 -29 May 2018 in Leipzig. Its theme is the controversial role of new technology in the future of media freedom. To inform debate, ECPMF is publishing several articles. In an interview with former WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison, who helped whistleblower Edward Snowden to escape to Russia, ECPMF discusses the issues raised in her new book “Women, whistleblowing and WikiLeaks“, published by OR Books.

'It's not the journalist's role to decide what the public will see' Sarah Harrison (photo: Oliver Abraham/ OR Books)

You described WikiLeaks as a ’baby hatch’ – like the special cupboard or drawer that they have at convents where unwanted babies can be left safely and anonymously. That’s a striking image, but what does it mean?

Sarah Harrison: What was unique about WikiLeaks, was the anonymous dropbox. Because Julian (Assange) came from a technical background and he was able to build – at a time when nobody else could -  this technology where a whistleblower could simply submit to the website in an anonymous fashion. Obviously, journalists have been working with sources for many years. But the technology hadn’t been brought to that problem. That was the crux of what made the WikiLeaks organisation different was the technology.

I was comparing it to that in a vivid image that people can picture of, being able to bring the baby (the documents) to the website which could then ensure that it got to the world and the press and it could survive. It’s one of the achievements of WikiLeaks that that is now a normal thing for many newsrooms to have a dropbox like this, which I think is an excellent development in journalism.

As a journalist, you take quite an extreme view about redacting information. Why?

I’m pretty much against redaction. The big problem is that it becomes a slippery slope in what people redact and why. I saw a lot in my time at WikiLeaks, for example with the cables. As each cable was published and the story was written about it, the journalists submitted redaction. And the redactions started to be made for political reasons, or they were worried about libel or things like this rather than for actually any of the stated reasons that we were allowing redactions for. That was that only when somebody might come to physical harm from it should you make a redaction. So there’s a large problem if you allow redactions to ensure that they’re only happening for the correct reasons. And there’ve been a lot of cases - for example in the Snowden documents - where people have made redactions based on what the US government has said, rather than what actually would protect people. So this is the US government becoming the barrier to information that Snowden felt should be in the public domain.

Surely if you’re not going to do any redaction or contextualisation, your role as a journalist is redundant. It becomes not a story, but a data dump.

Well I did contextualisation for each of the releases that I worked on, so I would agree with you that obviously journalists do need to work on the story, to put context around and maybe explain some of the words, so there is some journalism in there. It’s not just randomly publishing large sets of data. That’s the role of the journalist. But I don’t see the role of the journalist is to decide which bits of the document are OK for the public to see. That’s where I would disagree with the journalist’s role.

In the book the three of you are women, and that is given as the motivation for writing the book – to publicise the role of women in these high-profile whistleblowing cases. You have been very closely involved with a lot of this difficult, dangerous business of exposing secrets in the public interest but you haven’t ended up in exile or locked in an embassy. How did you manage to stay free?

I am a subject of investigations to do with Snowden in the UK and the US. I am a Person of Interest for them for the WikiLeaks Grand Jury. Whether I’m specifically a target for those things i.e. they want an indictment form, or they just want to use me to bolster their case against Julian Assange, that’s unclear. It’s because they want the main person – Julian. Or in the Snowden case – Ed. I think that the two of them being the lightning rods has been a protection for me.

In the book, someone asks that question and all agree that it’s because “women are more cunning“. Do you think that’s the reason?

Obviously the format of the book is a conversation and the three of us know each other, so there are a couple of moments like that… it was not really an intellectual comment! That just made us giggle...

Julian Assange is the lightning rod

Edward Snowden and Julian Assange  seem to command a sort of cult status as heroes in the internet freedom community. Why do you think that is?

It’s part of human nature – not a particularly nice one, but that is part of it. I don’t mind about celebrity stuff at all. I prefer to just get on with the work. So I’m quite happy for other people to be the celebrities and not me. Also it offers a sense of protection for me. The person that’s the lightning rod gets more of the legal issues.  So there’s obviously a certain protection in having some publicity. I’ve got a nice balance. If I disappeared tomorrowthen there’s enough knowledge of me that the word would get out.

Wikileaks seems to have played a crucial role in the US elections last year. Talk me through that role.

There was a lot of false reporting, things like journalists saying “It’s illegal for the public to read the emails, they could only get it by watching the news at night,“ - weird things like that. It did inform some people. I think that the main thing that happened in the election is that the US has such a strange voting system that even the person with most of the popular vote didn’t actually get to be president. 

But why did you decide to release those emails at that particular time? It seems like a direct political action against Hillary Clinton.

We released them as soon as they came in and we prepped them for publication, gave the media access to them and published them. There was no specific decision to publish them at a certain time. We publish as soon as it’s ready.

And do you accept that that’s what put Donald Trump in the White House? 

No. I think there’s a lot of reasons that put Donald Trump in the White House.

Don’t you feel that WikiLeaks was responsible for Hillary Clinton losing the election,?

Well, she won the popular vote. The thing is -  that doesn’t get you the presidency.

Your former WikiLeaks colleague Julian Assange has again been refused permission to leave the Ecuadorean embassy in London. The arrest warrant still stands against him. What do you think will be the next move there?

My personal non-legal perspective is that to be honest I find it absolutely amazing. I don’t know what the legal team can do from here, when you have the United Nations actually saying something should happen and then the UK government is just ignoring the UN. For example the UK government had to admit that it’s destroyed a lot of emails to do with the case. I think there’s some very shocking things coming out to do with this case and our legal system and how it operates. It’s clearly been politicised and when even the UN is being ignored, who can you go to?

Looking at the murder cases of Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak, how do you think an organisation like WikiLeaks could help to protect the safety of journalists and of whistleblowers?

Definitely, the technology that was developed by WikiLeaks could help in these sorts of situations. Clearly these were good journalists digging into stories where people did not want them to be digging. The technical solutions like the dropbox could certainly be brought into use in some of those cases. For me, there are technical solutions in terms of anti-surveillance technology but unfortunately there are some places where you are just going to get shot. This is - very scarily - happening in Europe now. That puts it into perspective for me. So I think the biggest thing we need to do in Europe is to try to ensure protections for journalists and press freedom.

Technology can also protect people who have things to hide. And at the end of May, there’ll be a General Data Protection Directive for the EU. What will that mean for whistleblowers and for WikiLeaks when everyone’s personal data is much more closely protected and scrutinised?

Courage, the organisation that I’m working for now, has actually consulted quite a bit on these sorts of things. There is a large issue with data privacy and the Trade Secrets Act. It would be an issue for whistleblowers. These laws definitely add another legal dimension particularly for the whistleblowers and what sort of charges could be used if they were found out afterwards. There’s an interesting phenomenon that we found at Courage. When a whistleblower is seen to have dumped something in the public interest, the respective governments still very much want to punish them for it. So it’s often these other laws that are used to get them. And I fear these data privacy and trade secret laws will be used against whistleblowers. 

Whistleblowers' lives get ruined

After whistleblowers go public, as we’ve seen with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, then their life is over, it seems. What alternative could there be if there were better whistleblower protection?

Basically lives get ruined. Edward Snowden obviously has a job now, he works. But he can’t go home and has to stay in Russia. He’s the president of the Freedom of Press Foundation in the US. What I would like to see is more and more companies actually hiring whistleblowers and wanting to hire whistleblowers because they are people of conscience. Even if a company supports Edward Snowden or whistleblowing in general, if you’re hiring somebody like that, there’s always a worry: “Oh, what if it happens to us?“ So people are very hesitant to hire somebody like this. Chelsea Manning is one of the more positive examples. Yes, she went to prison for a number of years but now - thank God – she is out. One can see from her tweets she is leading a very fulfilling life and getting into politics. I do feel that we are getting some slightly more positive examples than we had in the past. The previous NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake for example - his life was ruined. He couldn’t get another job. But I think we are slowly getting steps in the right direction.

How is Julian Assange doing? He seems to have very odd visitors.

He’s had doctors go and see him and their explanation of his situation is not particularly positive either. There was a doctor who had done lots of assessments in Guantanamo that said his situation was akin to some of those more severe situations. He just seems to keep going and keep working. To be honest I don’t know how he does it in that small space.

I didn’t think about this physical side until Ed and I had been in the airport (Editor’s note: they were held in detention in Moscow awaiting asylum for Snowden). We were in this one small room, 95 percent of our time. I noticed when we got out that my headaches were bad and my eyes hurt because I hadn’t seen the horizon for so long. And that was just one month. Julian’s been in there for years. So I think there will be ongoing physical repercussions too if he ever gets out. 

Another frequent visitor is Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson..

 I met her because she did the moderation for the book event that we had in the UK. I have only met her that one time, and she seems very nice. But I don’t really live in the UK, I’m travelling so much that I don’t sit there and see the visitors. But at our book event, she was lovely.

You yourself sound very positive and optimistic. How do you keep it up? 

Much as the situation is dire, there are these positive steps. So I try to focus on those and that keeps up the motivation. I love my work at the moment. At the Courage Foundation, we’ve got Reality Winner facing trial. Chelsea Manning’s doing great but she’s spent time in prison. Jeremy Hammond is still in prison. It’s very difficult to get too down in the dumps when you’re travelling around Europe and having a great life. 


Sarah Harrison is now employed at the Courage Foundation which campaigns on behalf of whistleblowers.

The book 'Women, Whistleblowing and Wikileaks' by Sarah Harrison, Renata Avila and Angela Richter is available from OR Books 

To register for the ECPMF GAMECHANGER conference please visit the conference website. It’s free to attend.