Maria Xynou: “I enjoy examining power structures in the digital world”

New technological tools mean new ways to implement censorship in society. However, new tools also mean new ways to reveal censorship, and denounce it. For example, when the Internet was born, Internet censorship was born as well. But then came OONI.

OONI is a software project. It was created almost six years ago with the aim of empowering de-centralised efforts around the world to monitor internet censorship. Thanks to OONI, everyone around the world, even non-technical users, have the possibility to test the network and collect data to inspect which websites and applications work and which don’t work.

The software automatically collects, analyses and publishes network measurement data that is specific to examining internet censorship. OONI Probe includes a variety of software tests designed to measure the blocking of websites, instant messaging apps, circumvention tools, and others designed to find middleboxes. OONI recently integrated tests which measure the speed and performance of networks, as well as video streaming performance.

I wanted to know more about potentials and risks of what sounded to me like a promising project and talked to Maria Xynou, Research and Partnership Coordinator at OONI. Our chat revolved around issues about minority groups, the Catalan Referendum, and arose interesting reflections on the nuanced nature of censorship.

How do you even define internet censorship?

That is a great question because there is a lot of variation about what constitutes censorship. Generally, at OONI, we consider internet censorship the intentional means of preventing access to internet resources. And the keyword here is that this is intentional. If an Internet Service Provider (ISP) is intentionally preventing you from accessing a specific website or app, we consider that censorship.

Why do you think we need a software like OONI in our society?

The reason why we think it’s important to publish data is because we aim to increase transparency of internet censorship around the world. By publishing the data, we are providing researchers the opportunity to examine our methodology and to verify our findings. We also hope that journalists can benefit from the published data and use it as part of their reporting, particularly since evidence is necessary when challenging those in power. We envision a type of world where everyone has the opportunity to examine information controls.

Is OONI completely safe for its users?

OONI has been a community-driven project since the beginning and our software has been designed with users’ privacy in mind. That said, OONI Probe is not a privacy tool, but rather a tool for investigations. And like any tool that can be used for investigations, it may pose some potential risks. We only collect data that is necessary for examining cases of internet censorship. Unfortunately, it’s not really possible to accurately measure a network while being anonymous. Practically speaking, your local government or ISP would be able to see that you are running OONI probe, and this might pose some risk to some users (particularly in high-risk environments).

So you don’t know of any cases of anyone running OONI probe who had issues with governments?

To our knowledge, none of our users have ever gotten into trouble as a result of running OONI Probe.

Can you bring any remarkable examples of findings that you made thanks to OONI?

We have come across multiple cases where the sites of minority groups were blocked around the world. It’s easy to notice censorship when major platforms that we commonly use are blocked. It’s easy to notice when Whatsapp, for example, is blocked, but it may not necessarily be obvious when the sites of minority groups are blocked. Who is monitoring if a certain LGBT site is accessible every day? Or the website of a religious group or of an ethnic minority? Those sites, because of their sensitive nature, are more likely to be blocked. And their blocking is also the least likely for us to notice. I think this is very interesting, because in order for us to claim that we have some form of democracy, we need to make sure that the voices of minorities are also heard.

Did you find some countries where censorship is much heavier than in others?

I think it’s very hard to compare different countries because the amount of data that we are collecting is not equal across all countries around the world. In some countries OONI-Probe is only from in a few vantage points, while in other countries, we may be collecting far more data from many more vantage points. This varies from country to country, and it depends on our community members and where and when they choose to run OONI Probe. So there’s a lot of variance. And this variance limits our ability to accurately compare censorship across countries. Another aspect is that censorship can be legally justified based on the countries laws and regulations, political motivations, or social and cultural norms. And all these things vary from country to country. So we cannot really compare censorship from one country to another.

True, the very definition of censorship changes from country to country! Also, we tend to think that the situation of censorship in our Western democracies is not too bad. But is it?

Recently we saw cases of politically motivated censorship in Europe, particularly in regards to the blocking of sites related to the Catalan referendum. The blocking of these sites was ordered by the Spanish Constitutional Court. I think this is one of the most noticeable cases of censorship in Europe. The court declared the referendum illegal, providing some form of legal justification to the blocking of sites related to the referendum. By reporting on this case, our aim was not to take a position on this very sensitive political issue. We acknowledge that there is legal backing and that even Catalans are divided on the question of independence. Rather, by publishing our report, we aimed to support public debate by providing data that can serve as evidence of what and how was blocked. Questions around the legality and ethics of this kind of censorship are important, but they quite are out of scope for OONI.

Some people may argue that sometimes providing data can also have negative consequences. I am thinking about the company Cambridge Analytica, which claimed that they let Donald Trump win by providing data to the candidates shaping the public discourse explicitly. I don’t know what you think about that. Is it possible that in some cases providing data can harm?

Hiding information can also potentially cause harm. Your question is interesting, and it’s one that we are thinking about on an ongoing base. I don’t think that our work is comparable to the Cambridge Analytica case, particularly since we collect very different types of data, work with different types of groups, and serve very different goals. I think that the idea that publishing data can shape outcomes is debatable. We hope that data can inform public debate, but it’s not clear whether and to what extent it actually shapes outcomes. It all depends, and I guess these things need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. With OONI Probe, all network measurement data is published automatically anyways: whenever someone runs OONI probe around the world, all the data that is collected is also automatically published (unless he/she opts-out). But I guess the difference is when we write a post pointing to specific types of data. One of the reasons why we write these posts is because we want to enable people to interpret the data. Our data can be quite hard to explore and analyse if you are not a data scientist. We wish we had the resources to be able to constantly write posts for every single country based on all data — but practically, that’s not really feasible. And so we prioritise on writing posts for countries where we notice new censorship events, and/or where we have ongoing collaboration with local groups.

Why did you decide to get involved?

I’ve always been interested in examining information controls, and I started thinking about these issues when I was in high school – when the use of the intenet started to become more ubiquitous. I have a background in Political Science and I enjoy examining power structures and how they translate to the digital world. I want to live in a world where our human rights are preserved, a world which is not ruled by a few corporations. I first heard of OONI right when it started in 2011 and I was mind blown by the concept.  The idea that some people were creating software that would empower you to collect evidence of information controls seemed like a very powerful thing. And so I was eager to get involved!


Have you ever received any pressures from governments or corporations?

No, I haven’t received any pressure.

Silvia Lazzaris

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Chelsea Manning

Courage is key. Bravery is the buzz-word. Fortitude is fundamental.  

Do these seem like platitudinous slogans? Judgements are open, but the reality is that they are the kind of things you might see on the social media page of one of the most indomitable people ever who irreversibly changed geopolitics in their fight against censorship.  

We are talking about Chelsea Manning: a person who challenged every orthodoxy available to her by both exposing her institutions and herself to the world. Twitter warrior, emoji innovator, eternal optimist, the second transgender woman ever to pose for Vanity Fair, and a whistle-blower who in her fight against suppression of information was tortured, abused and vilified.  

During the time she worked as a military intelligence analyst, she – like many others – had access to footage of a US army helicopter firing in error upon Reuters journalists and a van containing two children. She had the evidence of the horrific human consequences that western presence in the middle east had on the innocent, and the powers which would go to any length to prevent them becoming public knowledge.  

But unlike many others who worked there, it was Manning who dared to do something about it. Unlike Edward Snowden, who agonised over what information to publish and how – eventually entrusting a select group of journalists to help him, Manning was rejected by the media. The publication of the secret and, according to many, dangerous documents was done through Wikileaks, rather than through channels which would have enabled thorough consideration of each piece of data. Although Wikileaks did not then enjoy the same disrepute that it now does, this more desperate act is not one that Manning undertook by choice. She first approached the bastions of the free press, the defenders of truth and transparency: the New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico. These emblems of freedom and exposing wrongdoing apparently told her to ‘fuck off’. They lacked any interest in being involved with their own principles, instead opting to stay within the realm of acceptability. Others in Manning’s position at the time, seemingly without any support from their own institutions – even those whose duty it was, may have chosen to give up. But she did not, and revealed some of the worst abuses of military power in modern history, including the execution of civilians and ensuing cover-up, which many credit with catalysing the Arab Spring.  

The consequences of that cannot be underestimated, for the world and for herself. She did not have the luxury of protection after she leaked what she felt the world had to know. Prior to sentencing, she suffered ritual humiliation which led to the resignation of a State Department Spokesperson, and a judgement from UN Special Rapporteur describing her treatment as cruel and inhumane’.  

Being an unashamed outsider meant that she was, and is, deplored and distrusted by people across the entire political spectrum. Even though she has many on her side, a societal blind eye was still turned to her treatment for the longest time. Some revelled in it, shouting into the digital and literal void that “he” deserved everything “he” got.  

Perhaps her most-lasting legacy will be what she showed us about the way in which society treats those who challenge the power structures and the orthodoxy that we prefer not to consider. Chelsea Manning’s socially unacceptable concern for the murder of the weak by the strong was ignored at every level of our culture, forcing her to act outside of the acceptable and bear the horrific consequences of doing so. 

Her case pushes us to examine the censorship that we all practice; that of ourselves and that which our silence on key issues imposes on others. Personal censorship is omnipresent; we hold back on expressing our opinions and ourselves for fear of judgement. This is hardly a revelation, but to see how widespread and ingrained it is in our way of life, one only has to look at recent political events regarding the gap between what people tell pollsters and how they vote. Life within a society and culture censors us by determining the boundaries of acceptability. 

And this means that, although whistle-blowers are some of the most courageous people who actively play in society, they seem to exist in a collective blind spot for our ethical concern. If we are to fight against censorship, we have to examine the internal and external pressures that stop each of us from passionately defending the rights of those who reveal secrets, or we give license for people to be treated as she was.  

Editorial staff

Who are we?

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Silvia Lazzaris and Katie Kropshofer

Silvia has been at crossroads between Philosophy and Science until she realised that, more than a crossroads, it’s a junction. She has a BSc and MRes in Philosophy and an MSc in Science Communication. She reads and writes about anything, from serious to piffle – all is connected! She is split (or rather doubled) between London and Milan, as well as between fiction and non-fiction. You can see some of her work in I, Science Magazine, Corriere della Sera or BBC Worldservice. You can follow her on Twitter or visit her blog.  Believing firmly in the power of words, any kind of censorship gets her inflamed.

Katie is a (science) journalist, constantly found between London, Vienna and less urban spots. She has an MSc in Science Communication and has a backgroud in both Biology and Cultural Anthropology. She likes words (in books, wavelengths or music), spending money on groceries or expensive concert tickets, hates when men want to carry “heavy things” for her (she’s strong, man!), and is the one who “saves” friends from “gross” things like spiders, snails or bugs. Since she rarely keeps her mouth shut, she sees being able to speak out openly as a priority of our times. You can read some of her stuff in I, Science Magazine, the Guardian, or if you know German, in mokant.at. You can also listen to some on BBC Inside Science., and follow her on Twitter.

Alexandra Elbakyan

Kazakhstan, the early nineties. Alexandra Elbakyan, a little girl, bright and quick moving eyes, full cheeks, could have never imagined what she would grow up to do, starting on September 5th, 2011. Surely she could not know that, starting that day, she would become famous worldwide for being “the Robin Hood of science.” Back then, the word “hacker” would just be noise to her ears. She could not imagine what computers, those slow, gigantic boxes, would soon become.

Alexandra cannot predict her future even many years later, when, after university, computers and the Internet have developed incredibly fast and she knows many things about them. She has worked in computer security in Moscow, and not only does she now know what a “hacker” is, but she became one herself – one of the best ones. Even now, Alexandra cannot tell yet that since 2011, September 5th, she will be shaking up the world of scientific publishing. The plan, for now, is to become a scientist. Computers and the human mind appeal to her and she is interested in their interaction. She wants to see if it is possible to command machines not just through our hands, but directly through our thoughts.

She embarks on her ambitious research project. To start, Alexandra needs to find previous literature on the topic. She types the relevant keywords on search engines. Result: 70 papers. All different pieces of research on the human-computer interface. She needs to read those 70 articles. But when she tries to download them, something happens: they are not directly available to her because of a paywall mechanism. What is not paid by her university, she has to pay herself. Specifically: 32 dollars per article: a quick calculus reveals that the literature review alone, would cost her around 2000 dollars.

Alexandra, though, is practical. With her good-humoured attitude, she doesn’t get too upset. She simply has to aim her bright eyes on a solution, and she will find one. She figures out that many researchers, especially in developing countries, are in the same situation and many of them have already created some online forums to solve the problem. Online, researchers post requests for the papers they need and those who have access to them, download them and send them to the group. Forums are communities where scientists help each other to dodge a publishing system that seems to only help itself. Indeed, the general opinion in the research community is that papers should be distributed for free: publishers are not the creators of the contents and the actual authors, unlike writers, musicians or movie directors, do not receive more money from each copy sold. It really seems that there is a system where publishers are restricting access to scientific literature to get more profit. Alexandra realises she wants to bring a valuable contribution to these communities. She is not too irritated or idealistic about it, just practical. The system does not work, it does not operate in favour of researchers, so the world needs to find an efficient way around it.

Yet, not only is she a researcher, but she also is a good hacker. She finds ways to pirate the papers and starts to solve many requests. People are grateful, the activity becomes somehow addictive, like a game or a social network. After a while, with her usual practical and serene approach, Alexandra has an idea: why not develop a system which hacks documents automatically? The forum is enthusiastic. On September 5th, 2011, Sci-Hub is launched. Since then, 69% of published articles are provided for free, making researchers’ lives much easier.

However, Alexandra’s life changes too, but dramatically. All her efforts to help the academic community are rewarded with Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher, moving a 15 million injunction against her, and the court blocking Sci-Hub’s domain. She’s at crossroads: giving up, still being able to travel around the world, ensuring herself a more secure future? Or not giving up, risking bankruptcy and prison? Alexandra’s choice comes clear and loud: a few days after the website blockage, Sci-Hub is back online at a new domain accessible worldwide. The young hacker has no doubts: even behind a fence, she would be on the right side of the fence. In fact, she is convinced that science can be an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask. Alexandra, like a modern Antigone, brings to light the clash between what is just and what is legal. Elsevier fights against her, but researchers fight against Elsevier. Tiny detail: Elsevier, without researchers, is nothing. Alexandra is another proof that, when you do something genuinely good and generous for others, even if it’s stealing something from those in power, the entire world will be on your side.

Silvia Lazzaris

The old and the new news: qui bono?

David Walker takes a closer look into structural censorship, which he thinks, is hiding behind our morning papers

When we think of censorship our first associations are with concealment through coercion, threats and direct violence. We picture shadowy cabals of powerful figures, conspiring to hide inconvenient truths from a deserving public; the tool of the autocrat and the spy. These are not the only forms of censorship, just the most direct ones, the most visible in the world and in pop-culture. While their importance is not to be downplayed, the structural censorship that pervades our society is a beast of a different nature; and most importantly it is one which we might slay simply by our awareness of it.

When I discuss structural censorship, I refer to the information that does not reach members of a society simply because the way a society is structured. Not because of any individual actively concealing something, but because our culture deems them uninteresting and, crucially, un-newsworthy. Many important facts are so; one only has to spend a day sifting through parliamentary records, C-SPAN, scientific literature, philosophical tracts or personal blogs to find information of great importance, but that goes unreported in the media and un-discussed in the pub.

Describing things as ‘structural censorship’ such may seem like obscurantism (a pleasantly ironic term), especially for those unfamiliar with similar ways of analysing violence. So allow me to provide you with an example I am currently concerned with; what news the media chooses to report upon. Specifically, its obsession with the present and neglect of past events.

It may feel counter-intuitive to describe news as constructed rather than reported on, but this is so. Within our collective consciousness news is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The term ‘fake news’ is particularly revealing: it is defined by being untrue, thus making its binary opposition – news – necessarily true. That is not to say that we trust everything we read, but an article or even a whole publication that we disagree with or distrust is, in our heads, is not categorised as news. Not long has to be spent on Twitter before you find people dismissing the journalism of The Sun or Huffington Post as not real news, unlike the things that I agree with.

On further consideration, however, it becomes obvious that news cannot be the truth, the whole truth or nothing but the truth. The most obvious problem is with the second criterion: too many things occur for all of them to be reported. The importance of them defines whether they are communicated or not. Few people would be interested to read an urgent news bulletin which raced to inform you that an elderly woman in Leeds just changed the channel after she got herself a cuppa. But two things follow from this: who decides what is and is not important, and how?

The obvious and traditional answer is the journalists and the newspaper editors. They follow their nose to find stories, write up the relevant and verifiable facts (often according to a strict formula) and the editors choose whether or not to publish it. But importance is not the only criterion. When thinking about the news we must remain conscious that for all their lofty rhetoric about the role of the fourth estate in society, it is an entertainment business not a public service. Sometimes the purpose is not to do the most good, but to sell the most ads. As such, the importance of a fact to the public is not the only criterion by which stories are judged. This might seem obvious to anybody who has ever browsed Buzzfeed. Even publicly-funded media like the BBC are not immune, as hostile governments and threats, both budgetary and existential, pressure them to compete for attention.

Prevailing academic opinion ascribes ‘news-value’ to many features of a story; reference to elite persons and celebrity, cultural proximity to the audience, and unambiguity among them. These values are the reason that science reporting is so widely derided as sensationalist and misleading; the incremental increase in understanding is never newsworthy and breakthroughs are, contrary to popular representation, not the norm in science.

Timeliness is crucial in reporting; what is referred to as a ‘hook’. A topic may be of both interest an importance, but if there is no reason to be discussing it now instead of last week, or next week, then it will not be reported upon and you will not hear about it. Even in feature writing, the past is only relevant in so far as it explains the subject of the story.

This is censorship by inactivity, indifference and laziness. This is why subjects like the Yemeni civil war, modern slavery, sweatshop labour, the impact of international economic policy, bioprospecting, mass surveillance, or how our addiction to cheap smartphones fuels tantalum wars in the Congo are relegated to a couple of column inches on the back pages, if they are seen at all. All of these things are of great importance to people, they directly impact our lives and would inform our decision making far more than yet another splash about a presidential tweet, a fictional cancer cure or a celebrity wardrobe malfunction.

This is not an elitist rant about the ‘dumbing down’ of the news media. The fact that these subjects seem ‘elite’ is the problem I am driving at; the role of the journalist must be re-affirmed as one who has the skills to communicate complex and multifaceted issues. People obviously can and should read whatever they like, but they should also think critically about what kinds of stories are reported, and which are not, and why that happens.

While the news media is in dire financial straits as it fails to cope with the digital paradigm shift, it may be argued that they must respond to market forces; give the people what they want. To say this is to blithely ignore the role the media plays in shaping what western culture deems entertaining. Others blame the internet and the vastly accelerated news cycle, on the basis that in the age of instant information things that happened yesterday are old news – people want their finger on the pulse not a nostalgic retrospective. This is even more fallacious; all that occurs now is the consequence of countless years of culture, the culmination of centuries old themes, arcs, narratives and problems. If we fail to inform people of the differing historical and philosophical perspectives through which any event can be seen, the fact itself is radically diminished in its use to us.

There is, however, a kernel of truth on both sides of that debate. Structural censorship is not the sole purview of the news media. As consumers, we facilitate it. But this does not need to be the case. As a culture, we have the opportunity to shift to a new paradigm of news, where the most important news values are the relevance of a truth to the public; how they help us make better informed choices in politics, health, ethics, purchase and life in general. We do that by being aware of the way the media works, and demonstrating an appetite for change.

The fact is that you don’t see a feature on the war in Syria until something happens there that makes for an exciting headline. The continuous, tragic human suffering and the countless and complex reasons behind it are not sufficiently newsworthy. We must show that our priorities have changed, but more importantly journalistic culture must reflect on its practices and consider why they allow this structural censorship to exist, and whether the assumptions about the people and the world that caused it to evolve are still, or were ever, true. Take your lead from new kinds of journalists; the satirists. Between the US late night shows there is Seth Myers’ Check-In segments, Samantha Bee’s excursions into day-to-day government dysfunction and John Oliver’s model of exploring arcane and complex topics for twenty minutes a week, there are a whole host of popular and informative features that don’t feel the absolute need to dedicate the second sentence to why they’re saying this now. They find problems with the world and discuss them, rather than waiting for them to erupt into something more catastrophic and therefore newsworthy. This is a model that can and should be adapted into non-satirical and unbiased journalism. This is not a totally new idea, magazines like Private Eye have been doing a great job of this for years. They’re saying it because it is interesting, and important to know.

Not all censorship is suppression of information. Some is just a collective decision to ignore it, a cultural tendency promoted by and originating from the news media. This is not a problem without solutions, but while we identify the roadblocks on the way to fixing this issue there is one question which we must bear in mind; qui bono, or ‘who benefits?’

David Walker

 

China’s Great Firewall: Fight or Flight?

Over the last decade, it has become more and more difficult to imagine life without media giants like Google, Facebook, or Youtube. Embedded in our cultures, they provide innovative platforms for comprehension, connection and entertainment. Yet, for those in mainland China, access to such platforms are limited or even forbidden.

Censorship in China has long been a subject of controversy, but the development of China’s own media sources like Baidu, Renren, and Youku seems to have temporarily mitigated censorship concerns. However, this acclimation should not be tolerated, for it endangers the truth and freedom already oppressed by censorship. In the fight for empowerment, we must address the Chinese government’s reign on digital control and understand how we can resist it. But first, we must understand the historical and political context of censorship in China, beginning with the construction of China’s Great Firewall.

The Construction of the Great Firewall
When the communist regime first rose to power in China, censorship was a means to control its populace. As time progressed and technology advanced, the Chinese government had to adapt its censorship tactics with the changing world.

The internet was first introduced to mainland China in 1994 as a necessary tool for economic growth, but the government also perceived it to be a threat to its political stability. By opening their country to the cyber world, the government also felt vulnerable to the internet’s natural niche for diverse thought and ideas—ideas which could very well impact China’s social masses and political ideologies.

To strike down the threat of Western democratic political and social influences, China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) initiated the Golden Shield Project in 2000. This project marked the beginning of an extensive internet and surveillance crusade for information and digital control, the product of which became infamously known as China’s Great Firewall.

A Culture of Self-Censorship
The elaborate and complex technologies of the Great Firewall network maintain censorship through a defensive and offensive process. On the defense, the Great Firewall blocks users from accessing any sites the government deems threatening to its power. On the offense, it monitors China’s domestic websites and e-mail servers, scanning content that may challenge the government’s reign.

If any politically sensitive language or plans for collective action are found, China’s Public Security Bureau (PSB) would investigate and arrest those held responsible. No content is exempt—social media posts have even sent individuals to prison. In June 2015, a Chinese man named Miao used his Weibo social media account to criticize China’s land reform policy from 1950. His post was immediately blocked and deleted, and Miao was imprisoned for one year and six months on the grounds of “dereliction of duty”. This monitoring technique strikes fear into users, creating a culture of self-censorship to ensure one’s own safety.

On the corporate level, the government holds companies responsible for the content published through their portals. In this way, companies also take part in regulation of media, deleting and blocking any content that contains government-restricted subjects.

Such operational processes can slow down site-loading times. Research and university websites are especially effected, often taking up to 30 minutes to fully load. This makes it difficult for researchers and professors to conduct or discuss their findings.

The Resistance
China’s rigid censorship tactics have unintentionally motivated its people to devise new resistance methods. In response, many users circumvented censorship by using proxy servers outside the Great Firewall. Though many VPNs have now been blocked, users simply find other creative ways to evade China’s restrictions.

Companies, like Google, also resist complying with these policies. In 2010, the internet giant decided to leave mainland China because of growing tensions on censorship. While they initially adhered to China’s rules, they closed their operations after several of Chinese human-rights activists had their e-mail accounts infiltrated by the communist regime. To protect its users and stand by its values, Google turned away from the Chinese market and left. While this form of censorship opposition is noble, it did nothing to impede the Chinese government’s oppression of information and populace control. In some ways, this became a case of flight instead of fight.

Lee Rowland, an American Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney, argues “If these companies do whatever they’re capable of doing to publicize that their content is being screened, monitored, and sometimes censored by governments, I think there’s a really good argument that maintaining a social media presence is inherently a liberalizing force.”

A liberalizing force. The internet is a powerful platform that can help change and improve freedom of information and speech. It is a force feared by governments practicing censorship, which is exactly why the Chinese government employs censorship to subdue the internet’s progressive challenges.

In recent years, Google has reconsidered its position and has been discussing its return to the mainland with Chinese representatives. Of course, the two parties must still discuss compliance regulations balanced with Google’s values for a fair and open platform, but it is a step towards the right direction.

Challenging censorship is certainly not an easy task. It sometimes requires living under tyrannical regulations, but ambitions for liberation should not be lost. Censorship must be attacked from a social, commercial, and political front. Individual resistance, as well as Google and other internet giants’ return to the mainland, may just be the key to emancipating fear, expression, and truth.

Jane Liu

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