Stefania Maurizi: “We cannot condone subtle acts of silencing”

Stefania Maurizi and I meet on a sunny Sunday morning in Perugia, on the last day of the International Journalism Festival. Not only is she an open and approachable character, diffusing warmth and friendliness, but also a resilient investigative journalists and a regular contributor to the Italian leading newspaper La Repubblica. Her remarkable cooperation with Julian Assange and his organisation, Wikileaks, has put her under the spotlight of an international audience. As if this was not enough to underline her authority, her website shows that she has worked with international media teams on the release of secret documents, such as the Afghan War Logs, the Cablegate, the Guantanamo files and the Snowden files. Our chat begins in front of two cups of coffee at the historical Bar Morlacchi.

If you were given the chance, would you still choose to be an investigative journalist?

Absolutely. It is a job that empowers people, a job of social value and public interest. After my degree in maths, no one would have expected me to become an investigative journalist. But I love my job and I would choose investigative journalism again, because I am committed to make complex information more accessible to people.

Would you say that transparency is a Human Right?

Of course it is. Darkness is good for power. It allows powerful people to keep doing their things, although not always for the public good. Wikileaks has been an important change in terms of transparency.

Would you call Julian Assange a journalist?

Yes of course. Before, he was a hacker. Now, he is a journalist, or I would even say an investigative journalist. He receives leaks and hacks and he makes information available. The public needs a narrative, needs stories to make sense of these very complex documents, so he connects with other journalists for that. He is an investigative journalist because he makes documents available that are extremely difficult to get, verify, and interpret.

Let’s talk about your job again- which are the most frustrating things about it?

When big corporations or the government deny me access to information or documents, which is a kind of censorship that I always encounter. The establishment makes your life impossible (she laughs). Again, it is Wikileaks, which has marked a change in this. Through this affair, the government and big corporations have been made accountable to the citizens. Then there are the legal problems. You are always worried that you may be sued because you are violating government and corporate secrecies. Sometimes it is your own editor who tells you “this is too risky from a legal point of view”. I am repeating myself here, but it is again Wikileaks, which is trying to defeat this kind of censorship, disclosing some documents. This happened for example with the TiSA documents in 2014 (Trade in Services Agreement, ed), which were made public because they were going to impact on the lives and jobs of billions of people.

Does that mean that in other cases, exposing some truths could do more harm than good?

Yes. I would say sometimes secrecy is legitimate. There are some truths, which would have a negative impact on the public. For example, I would say that it is right not to disclose how to produce nuclear weapons. But on the other hand, what is the reason to keep war crimes secret? Perhaps because in this way you can cover human rights violations and keep doing what you are doing? Let’s take Guantanamo as an example: Why were they keeping secrets? In order to be able to go on with horrible acts and not having to justify irrational choices! These are not legitimate secrets since they are not secrets for the public good.

At this point my pen breaks into pieces. Handing me hers, she laughs and she goes on.

Then there is the case of Chelsea Manning (an U.S.- soldier who was convicted within the Espionage Act for being a whistle-blower in the Wikileaks affair, ed.). Though the US government tried to set the narrative that her leak and disclosures of secret information had put lives in danger, the trial of Chelsea Manning allowed to establish that her leak to WikiLeaks did not result in any death (resulting in her release today, ed.).

Who makes the decisions about such disclosures?

Normally, choosing what to publish is up to the outlets. The New York Times for example reported just a few of those documents. And even under the supervision of the US government! That makes you smile, doesn’t it? We know this because Bill Keller wrote a book called “Open Secrets” on this, saying that he and his colleagues had checked with the government on what was good to report. I understand this up to a point., since you have to be concerned about what the impact could be. But at the same time, this is not how media are supposed to work. It is good to be cautious, but then media should be independent enough to make their own choices. They aren’t supposed to be checking with the same government that was so interested in keeping those documents secret!

In these days I heard some journalists claiming that “fake news” is just a new term for something that has always been there. Do you agree with this?

I agree, fake news have always been there. The new thing, though, is the possibility of this information to spread rapidly through social media and digital platforms in general. In the past, dissemination of information was slow. Therefore, these ‘fake news’, have a different impact on public opinion.

And you have experienced this first hand, when The Guardian misreported your interview with Julian Assange in December, right?

Yes, exactly (she laughs). Oh my god, it was Christmas’ eve and I was with my family. All of a sudden, I find out that The Guardian has published a complete misinterpretation of my interview. But it was difficult on that day to reply through official channels. I was replying, furious, on Twitter and was still ignored.

Did that feel like being silenced?

Well, fortunately I received a lot of feedback from the public. They came to me saying “Hey, look at this, this isn’t what you wrote!”. I felt relieved that my followers had some understanding. What was frustrating was that the media outlets were the ones who completely ignored me. It’s incredible that it took Glenn Greenwald  (U.S.-American journalist, ed.) to explain this. He was the   only one who said “hang on, there is something wrong”.

Going back to the ways you have experienced censorship. Which role do threats and risks play in your job?

Firstly, I must say that I do not feel threatened from a physical point of view. I’m not afraid that someone could torture or kill me or kidnap me and make me disappear in the middle of the night. This is because I am confident about Western democracies. But that does not mean that different methods of threat aren’t used within Western democracies. The attacks I experience are more subtle.

What kind of methods?

Marginalisation, discreditation, attacks on my reputation. For example, they try to discard my work by saying that I am not a real journalist, that I just copy leaks. This is misrepresenting the work of a journalist in general, which consists of storytelling and finding a narrative within the leaks. What I am always worried about is the possibility of receiving fake documents, which could destroy my professional credibility. That is why I always check thoroughly before publishing and trust me, it’s really hard to verify documents which are secret! On other occasions, they target me as an activist, as someone who interprets information. But I’m not an activist. I investigate facts – I don’t campaign.

Do you ever find yourself on the line between objectivity and activism?

Yes, I mean we are all humans. But facts are facts. Verifying information is our duty as journalists. There is no journalism if facts are not verified. Yet, targeting any flaws is the easiest way to destroy reputation. And those attempting to silence you try to do this by affecting public opinion on your work.

Is this similar to authoritarian countries, in which journalists are depicted as enemies of the state?

Indeed. And this is not more legitimate than torturing and killing. If things are more subtle, they are not right in any case. Some people say that it’s not a big deal and we should just let them say what they want to say. But I think it is very serious and we have to be publicly outraged! It is vital for a democracy to have real freedom of the press. We cannot condone these subtle acts of silencing. Some people tell me to think about places such as Russia or places where people really get kidnapped and killed. I am aware of this and I try to cover as much as I can of what happens in  those places. But I cannot say that what happens in Western  countries does not upset me, or that  this is ‘more justified than kidnapping people. I care about the democracy I live in and I want to preserve it.

Silvia Lazzaris and Katharina Kropshofer

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