By cozying next to the world’s petty thugs and dictators when requesting asylum, Edward Snowden has lost the moral high ground he once had.
There is something deeply ironic about Edward Snowden’s current situation.
As we all know, the former NSA contractor turned whistleblower decided to become a whistleblower because of a sense of duty to defend civil liberties. “I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity, or love, or friendship is recorded, and that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under,” he is quoted as saying.
Weeks after that interview was recorded, we find Snowden applying for asylum in Russia with the intention of taking up Venezuela’s offer of asylum. Word is he picked Venezuela over other candidates that included Ecuador and Bolivia.
While none of these countries have a massive cyber-surveillance operation as complex as the NSA’s, they aren’t exactly egalitarian liberal-democratic paradises either. In fact, they would be closer to the Orwellian surveillance state that drove Snowden to become a whistleblower in the first place.
In Venezuela, Snowden’s likely destination, press that were critical of late-president Hugo Chavez were routinely harassed or flat out shut down. In 2009 34 radio stations were shut down because “because they failed to comply with regulations.” RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest television station and a critic of the Chavez regime had its broadcasting license revoked, then, shortly after was driven off cable networks.
Venezuela’s political opposition doesn’t fare much better either. Currently there are nearly two dozen political prisoners in Venezuela, including judges, writers and activists deemed to be rouge.
Domestic surveillance is something that Venezuela tends to specialize in. At Boing Boing, Isabel Lara writes that a phone call she made to her mother Maruja Tarre, an outspoken professor and prominent newspaper columnist, was not only recorded by government intelligence operatives but rebroadcast on a news talk show hosted by a notoriously pro-government pundit. Through selective editing, the on-screen pundits concluded that the mother-daughter conversation had provided “proof that the opposition went to the State Department to plot a coup against the Venezuelan government.” Of course in Venezuela it’s illegal to wiretap telephone conversations without a warrant, but the government does so anyways.
One of Snowden’s asylum candidates, Ecuador, isn’t much better. This past May, its National Assembly, strong armed by President Rafael Correa, passed a new Communications Law that would allow criminal charges to be pressed journalists making allegations against public officials. This would create a chilling effect on journalists making exposes about corruption and other malfeasances on public officials. In effect, the right to criticize the government would come with the possible consequence of criminal charges and jail time. Critics of the president, who might have a well thought out argument and substantive proof, could be tried as a criminal.
Ecuador also has a burgeoning domestic surveillance program. According to a report from BuzzFeed, citing Ecuadorian newspaper El Telegrafo, Ecuador was in the process of purchasing hardware from an Israeli firm to be used in domestic wiretapping and surveillance purposes. Ecuadorian officials deny the reports, stating the equipment will be used to fight crime. Outspoken member of the Ecuadorian legislature Cléver Jiménez has stated that the Ecuadorian government’s fascination with Snowden and harbouring of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in its embassy in London is a “smokescreen to distract the world and the country from the serious corruption of the government.”
In the company of such thugs, Snowden’s case for asylum looks petty and deeply ironic. Should Snowden be accepted into one of these states he’ll be used as a stooge, a bargaining chip to further the country’s aggressive foreign policy against the United States. Snowden’s life is certainly bound to be pleasant for a while. He’ll likely have spectacular accommodation, and be in no shortage of female companionship. But as he is celebrated as a hero who stood up to the surveillance state of the United States, the citizens of the country he will reside in will be subjected to the same, if not more intrusive, surveillance state he once rebelled against.