Alan Rusbridger awarded with European Press Prize

European Press Prize (Photo by Dora Panariti)

European Press Prize (Photo by Dora Panariti)

Guardian editor receives “Europe’s Pulitzer” for NSA revelations alongside award winners from across the continent.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, and Wolfgang Buchner of Der Spiegel have been honoured with “The Special Award” of the European Press Prize (EPP) for their teams’ articles about NSA and GCHQ mass surveillance programmes.

During the award ceremony in London, Justin Webb, presenter of the BBC’s Today programme, said: “One European paper, The Guardian, has played a leading role in the story. Its editor Alan Rusbridger has endured many months of difficulties at the hands of the government and its different agencies. He has fought to bring the facts to public attention and to do so in a way that is safe and decent, but also reveals the truth.”

In his acceptance speech for “Europe’s equivalent for the Pulitzers”, Rusbridger said The Guardian had to publish its articles from the US because of the UK government’s determination to suppress the story.

Apart from Rusbridger and Buchner, five other winners were selected from nearly 400 entries for the four main categories and the “Special Award”, each worth 10,000 euros.

Sir Harold Evans, the former editor of The Times and Sunday Times and chairman of the EPP panel of judges, said the prizes would help to refine the notions of good journalism:

“The conviction that for all the dizzingly different cultures, all the different forms of media today, all the varied patterns of ownership, there is a common instinctive appreciation in 40 countries across the continent of what’s bad journalism and what’s good journalism, what’s good practice and what’s bad practice.”

The Investigative Reporting Award

Three Reuters journalists, Steve Stecklow, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Yeganeh Torbati, were honoured for their investigation “Assets of the Ayatollah”, at the news agency’s headquarters in Canary Wharf.

The Reuters team unveiled how Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used a little-known organisation called Setad to confiscate properties belonging to ordinary Iranians.

In his acceptance speech, Stecklow said the idea for the investigation was based on rumours on the Internet about Khamenei’s wealth.

“The biggest challenge was that Reuters was kicked out of Iran two years ago, which made on-the-ground reporting impossible,” he added.

However, an analysis of statements by Setad officials and data from the Tehran Stock exchange and company websites allowed the journalists to estimate the corporation’s assets at about $95 billion.

The Distinguished Writing Award

Sergey Khazov was given “The Distinguished Writing Award” for his article series about minorities in Russia with a focus on Muslims and the LGBT-community.

In the opening speech of the ceremony, Sir Harold Evans pointed out that good journalism had a reverence for human rights and for the rights of minorities against powerful interests:

“The press does a great service when it confronts stereotypes with the stories of real people, and perpetrates evil when it stokes fear,” he said.

Asked about the future of free press in Russia, Khazov said many journalists were becoming PR experts, but he and The New Times magazine were not the only ones to report the reality.

The Commentator Award

The European Press Prize judges honoured “Vukovar: a Life-Size Monument to the Dead City” by the Croatian journalist Boris Dežulović with “The Commentator Award”.

Vukovar has been called Croatia’s Stalingrad due to heavy damage and its many casualties during the Yugoslav Wars. As the city has preserved some of its destroyed buildings as a testimony, Dežulović said the city was an example that “history in Croatia is always contemporary”.

On the day before the ceremony, Peter Preston, the former editor of the Guardian, wrote that if he had to salute one region beyond any other it would be the Balkans:

“We’re used to hearing dreadful wails from big-money newspaper groups in the west, particularly the US. They say that mounting investigations is too expensive these days. They should come over to Sarajevo or Bucharest and see what dedication plus gritty resilience – journalism’s gift to democracy – can achieve,” he wrote in The Observer.

The Innovation Award

The Norwegian journalists Espen Sandli and Linn Kongsli Hillestad received “The Innovation Award” for their data journalism project “Null CTRL”.

Sandli said their project, published by Dagbladet, was aimed at understanding how exposed Norwegians were online and what people without specialised computer skills could find out:

“We ourselves didn’t start as data experts. Our idea was: What can anyone find on the Internet?”

The Special Awards

In addition to Alan Rusbridger, the judges gave a “Special Award” to Yavuz Baydar, whose column in the Turkish daily newspaper Sabah was censored before he was fired from his job as independent ombudsman for the paper.

In his acceptance speech, Baydar voiced concern about the situation of the press in Turkey, saying more than 200 journalists had been sacked since June last year when the protests in Gezi Park started.

European Parliament and hacking – a long history


The European Parliament is in a continuous struggle to protect MEPs' data (CC Dan Barpus via Flickr)

The European Parliament is in a continuous struggle to protect MEPs’ data (CC Dan Barpus via Flickr)

The hacking of at least 40.000 European Parliament (EP) emails does not appear to be a singular event, but the latest in a series of worrying IT security breaches.

On Thursday, the French website Mediapart reported that an anonymous hacker had accessed confidential emails of MEPs and other staff of the European Parliament (EP).

The attacker described the hacking as “child’s play” saying he only used “ridiculous” computer equipment.

The Austrian MEP Martin Ehrenhauser received a list with metadata of 40.000 emails from different institutions, including the European Parliament and the German Bundestag. According to Ehrenhauser, a connection between the list and the cyber attack is very likely.

The hacking sparked a discussion about how vulnerable the European Parliament is to cyber attacks.

MEPs criticised that the EP was using out-of-date software and did not allow its staff to encrypt their communication.

Security concerns not taken seriously

It is not the first time the EU’s IT services face claims of not doing enough to protect confidential data and communication.

In April 2011, the Austrian MEP Hans-Peter Martin reported to Klaus Welle, the EP General Secretary, that his private emails were accessed from another office within the European parliament.

The European Parliament has not reacted to his report down to the present day, Martin says.

In another case, Heiko Frenzel, author of Sicherheit-Online (security online), wrote in October 2011 that he had contacted the European Commission (EC) to inform them about 40 security loopholes on EU servers.

“The first ten hints, which were sent over a period of time, were simply ignored, some of them deleted unread,” Frenzel said.

According to Frenzel, it took the European institution almost one year, until September 2012, to deal with the breaches.

European Parliament should improve its IT services

EU leaders are pushing forward new legislation to protect citizens’ data amid continuous revelations about the NSA’s spying activities in Europe.

If the EP wants to be taken as a serious negotiating party in cyber security issues, it should, first of all, aim at improving its own IT services and making it impossible for hackers to access confidential data with elementary computer equipment.

EU leaders push for new data protection legislation amid NSA surveillance revelations

The NSA allegedly hacked Angela Merkel's phone (CC Arne List via Flickr)

The NSA allegedly hacked Angela Merkel’s phone (CC Arne List via Flickr)

European Union officials have demanded a speedy decision on a new data protection legislation at the European Council last week.

Data protection was originally not among the summit’s topics, but new revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) put it on the agenda. According to a report by The Guardian, the phones of 35 world leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, were monitored by the US secret service.

The new data protection EU leaders talk about does not address phone hacking, but one of the NSA’s other disputed activities: the US secret service’s massive spying on EU citizens’ online communication.

The bill passed the Libe committee (civil liberties, justice and home affairs) of the European Parliament on 21 October 2013. In order for it to become law, the EU Council of Ministers and the EU Commission have to approve the regulation.

The proposed legislation would restrict Internet companies’ rights to use EU citizens’ private data without their consent. The firms would therefore have to ask for the users’ explicit consent.

The legislation would also raise the fines for Internet companies if they break any of the laws. The companies could be forced to pay up to five per cent of their annual worldwide turnover.

However, the regulation passed by the European Parliament last week contains several changes made to the original version. Most importantly it replaced the so-called “right to be forgotten” with the “right to erasure”.

This right could significantly strengthen EU citizens’ data protection. The original draft would force Internet companies to guarantee that disputed data could not be found anywhere on the Internet.

The new bill restricts citizens to the right to enquire about their saved data and ask for erasure from companies’ servers (see German magazine Spiegel).

Internet giants opposed the “right to be forgotten”. Peter Fleischer, head of Google’s Global Privacy Counsel, wrote in a blog post: “A hosting platform can and should delete copies of material that they store on behalf of a user upon his or her request, but it cannot be expected to maintain control over other copies of the material published elsewhere online, as these are outside of the control of the hosting platform.”

The current EU regulation on data protection was passed 18 years ago and does not reflect changes in the digital landscape. This has led to differences in the data protection legislation of each EU member state.

International Internet companies, such as Google or Facebook, use the different laws to their advantage by placing their European headquarters in Ireland, the country with the weakest data legislation. The new regulation is aimed at creating EU-wide standards.

The EU citizens’ use of the Internet illustrates the scope the new legislation would have. According to the European Union, around 380.000 of the 500.000 European citizens use the Internet. Almost three quarters of European households have Internet connection. Roughly half of the European Internet users are members of social networks.

Why the European Union should suspend SWIFT data exchange with the US

NSA headquarters (CC Greg Goebel via Flickr)

NSA headquarters (CC Greg Goebel via Flickr)

The NSA uses the SWIFT data exchange to monitor international payments, the German Spiegel reported about one month ago. According to information from whistleblower Edward Snowden, a NSA division called “Follow The Money” collects EU information from EU citizens using SWIFT and transfers it to the NSA’s own database.

SWIFT stands for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. The Belgian company provides banks with a standardised method for international transactions.

The EU and US agreed in 2010 that the NSA could use SWIFT’s transaction database under strict conditions in order to track terrorists. The documents provided by Snowden, however, suggest that the intelligence service made use of this on a way bigger scale than agreed.

Today, the European Parliament (EP) passed a resolution that calls for a suspension of the EU’s SWIFT data exchange with the US. The EP vote was rather close with 280 to 254 votes and 30 abstentions.

The resolution passed is non-binding, but “the Commission will have to act if Parliament withdraws its support for a particular agreement”, says the EP in the text.

However, the European Commission does not see any reason to act so far. It argues that the allegations have not been proven.

Why the European Commission should act

Following the NSA scandal, the European Commission’s position in this debate seems rather naive: NSA revelations have shown that the US intelligence service has used several ways to obtain private data from EU citizens. The SWIFT data exchange seems to be part of this strategy – a fact the NSA does not even vehemently deny.

Suspending the SWIFT data exchange as part of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program would not necessarily weaken efforts to combat international terrorism, like some conservative politicians say. Instead, it would send a clear signal that the fight against terrorism cannot be used as an excuse to spy on EU citizens.