Snowden & Journalism: Citizen Four

Pic: Wikimedia via Creative Commons Search

Pic: Wikimedia via Creative Commons Search

It starts with pitch black. Coated by shivering score (Trent Reznor), pulses of white lights slowly beating, and you start to lose patience, not knowing what is going to happen. You realise that you’re in a tunnel, accelerating with high-speed and possibly no brakes, but seems endless and worrying. Right before apathy strikes, coupled with text, a female voice dubbing a conversation appears. You still don’t know what is happening. The only option available is to listen and pay attention even more.

Citizen Four opens in a way a suspense hollywood movie does a killer intro: it strikes right into your head. You thought you knew every bit of the story, but the first 10 minutes feel so foreign and somehow, challenging. Looking at the essence of the issue, it is incredibly hard to substantiate that Citizen Four is a documentary, not a sequel of Bourne series, nor Chris Nolan’s film. The delivery is concise, but remains mysterious and surprising. Citizen Four ends with a chunk of questions and ongoing controversy, sending a clear message that the problem is not as simple as what the 114 minutes documentary has told.

I can’t be bothered elaborating the rest of the documentary but here are some key points that I want to raise about Snowden and journalism. If you’re not well-informed about the Snowden case, please do update yourself with various sources on the net, and read the rest of this post.

1. The texts displayed in the first scenes quoted from early communications between Laura Poitras – award-winning filmmaker behind Citizen Four – and Edward Snowden, the epicenter figure who in the conversation calls himself as Citizen Four. The message buried under layers of encryption code, making hollywood espionage gimmicks become bizarrely relevant and make sense. By the press, the conversation recalled as Snowden’s first interaction with the media.

Journalism still serves the public. Ed Snowden is clearly the Deep Throat of the digital age, but why bother contacting Woodward & Bernstein (In this case Poitras and Greenwald) if today you could be Mark Felt AND The Washington Post? He could just post a blog or a page or even tweet a link about that bundle of information. When Snowden agreed to be interviewed by Poitras and Greenwald in the Hong Kong hotel, he stated that the reason why he decided to get in touch with Poitras is because he realised the weight of the information that he brought to the table is unarguably massive. The truth about the NSA files belongs to the public, and he didn’t want to act heroic towards the public interest. Being afraid to mistreat the public interest, Snowden has chosen journalism as the ideal way to break the story.

Pic: Wikimedia via Creative Commons Search

Pic: Wikimedia via Creative Commons Search

2. For journalist, the Snowden case has more urgency than just a good story material. It argues with one of the key ingredients of balance reporting: independence. Government’s ability to watch, listen and analyse every single bit of communication through telecommunication devices and online interaction is a significant threat for journalism. If every move taken by a reporter is scrutinised by the big brother, how can he or she feeling safe or at least free to cover something against the country? In the documentary, Snowden suggests Greenwald to communicate through encrypted emails. The awareness of government surveillance towards independent news gathering is rising, and media outlets around the world should start to exercise encrypted communication and research, especially for investigation activity. In the future, in order to protect journalists AND their sources, encrypted communication in newsgathering MUST become the norm.

3. Instead of carefully selecting individuals that match the needs of surveillance, the government is taking a shortcut, listening to everyone’s conversation. The Snowden case discussion centers in the modern definition of public interest, but touches the basic idea of human rights. Using the obsolete fear of terrorism adopted from 9/11, American Government misused public’s trust to intercept communication through devices and Online activity. Not only in the States, apparently this is a common practice by governments in various country. According to Snowden, UK with its program TEMPORA is one of the fiercest, because it applies no boundaries of intercepting communication.


Unmistakably, Snowden case has marked a new era of reporting.

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