By Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Anthropologist and board member of the Bjørnson Academy
A few months ago, it was as if everybody wanted to be Charlie (Hebdo). This gesture was laudable enough (if not always credible), but who wants to be Edward Snowden? After two years, the world’s most important whistleblower is still in Moscow. His chances of returning to a normal life remain slim, in spite of the recent ruling, in the US court of appeals, that the NSA’s storage of telephone metadata is indeed illegal.
Western politicians confronted with the Snowden affair typically respond in a vague and equivocal way. If pressed, they might say that their country does not condone mass surveillance, perhaps adding that it is not in their mandate to engage directly with Snowden’s situation. However, they are wrong on both counts. Just as they criticise rights violations in other countries, they can and should support Snowden, especially now that even a high legal authority in the US has indirectly confirmed that he was right to blow the whistle. Moreover, objectionable forms of surveillance do take place, if not on the same scale as in the US, in European countries as well.
The arguments in favour of mass surveillance are surprisingly weak. As Jesselyn Radack, one of Snowden’s lawyers, recently pointed out, both the Boston bombing and the Charlie Hebdo massacre provide excellent arguments against surveillance. The authorities were unable to prevent either of these events, although they had repeatedly been warned about the perpetrators – not because of advanced surveillance methods, but through human intelligence. ‘When you keep all and sundry under surveillance, you become lazy,’ she says. ‘You stop doing the detective work and trust the algorithms to do the job.’
Recently, a Norwegian cultural academy decided to award its annual prize to Edward Snowden. The Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Academy is named after a significant Norwegian writer, playwright and public intellectual. Bjørnson (1832–1910) was not only in favour of Norwegian independence (achieved in 1905) and democratic values, but he also emphasised the importance of the freedom of thought and speech, the value of disagreement and the need for civil society to be independent of state powers. He was, among many other things, a strong supporter of Alfred Dreyfus.
The Bjørnson Academy, of which I am a board member, awards its annual prize to a person whom we see as a strong representative of the values for which Bjørnson became famous and controversial in his time. This year, the board was unanimous in deciding that surveillance should be the topic of its annual seminar, and that Edward Snowden should be offered the prize.
In the press release sent to the Norwegian media, we explained that Snowden’s interventions did not just concern personal integrity and illegitimate state power, but were also directly relevant for the freedom of expression. If everything that is written or spoken can potentially be traced and stored by the political authorities, the free exchange of ideas will suffer owing to possible sanctions from the state. Threats to the freedom of expression may have been more visible in Bjørnson’s day, but they were less insidious and ubiquitous than today.
There is only one minor problem with the Bjørnson prize. Snowden was happy to receive it, and we duly invited him to come to Molde, Norway on 5 September for the award ceremony. However, since he is still considered a criminal by the US, his security would have to be guaranteed by the Norwegian government. We therefore wrote a letter to Prime Minister Erna Solberg (Conservative Party) and Minister of Justice Anders Anundsen (Progress Party) asking them to ensure free passage for Snowden to Norway. Several lawyers have considered the case and concluded that it would be legally possible for Norway to allow Snowden to enter the country without being extradited to the USA.
Both government parties have for years (not least in recent debates concerning Muslims and Islam) been staunch defenders of the freedom of expression. The populist Progress Party has also always been critical of the state’s tendency to interfere unduly with the lives of citizens. Unfortunately, only politicians from the Socialist Left (SV) have so far supported our demand. The government has not yet responded to our letter, but it was sent only on 1 June. We are optimistic for now, hoping that the Norwegian government will confirm loud and clear that it is uncompromising in its support of the freedom of expression and citizens’ personal integrity, and that it will not let its relationship with other countries stand in the way of the fundamental principles of democracy.
Published 8 June 2015 Open Democracy.