On Monday, the Ridenhour Foundation announced that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and journalist Laura Poitras will be awarded the Truth-Telling Prize for their collaborative efforts to expose the U.S. government’s massive online surveillance operations.
“There was no question the Snowden revelations would be the subject of the awards,” says Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, who helped select this years winner. But, according to her, the committee spent months deciding, “Who else do we honor?”
Snowden has been given multiple free speech awards and a Nobel Prize nomination since disclosing how the NSA collects phone records, emails and social media data from American citizens and monitors Internet traffic and cell phone movements of people around the world. Aside from Snowden, the most obvious candidates for the award were the journalists with whom he had most closely worked: Poitras and former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald.
In choosing Poitras as Snowden’s co-recipient for the award, the foundation said “her contribution has not been adequately recognized by the American media.”
Indeed, since the first stories based on Snowden’s files were published back in June of 2013, much of the media’s attention has been focused on Greenwald, who has been a far more vocal opponent of U.S. and British Intelligence agencies.
Brian points to a Rolling Stone article from December 2013 titled, “Snowden and Greenwald: The Men Who Leaked the Secrets.” “It’s not as though they are not important,” she says, but reading the article it is clear that without Poitras “none of this would have happened.”
When Snowden contacted Poitras, she was editing her untitled documentary about U.S. surveillance. He explained his decision to approach her with the NSA files in part as a result of her response to years of harassment from the U.S. government for her work. She was “targeted by the very programs” he wanted to expose, Snowden told the New York Times. After Snowden got in touch with Poitras, she was the one who urged Greenwald to investigate his claims.
“She was doing this as an independent person,” Brian says. Like Snowden, she lacked the legal and financial support of a major institution like the Guardian or the Washington Post. The risk she took, Brian says, was “in the spirit of Ron Ridenhour,” the namesake of the Truth-Telling award who first disclosed the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Brian says neither will be able to accept the award in person. Facing espionage charges in the U.S., Snowden has been living under temporary asylum in Russia since late 2013. Poitras, meanwhile, lives in Berlin in an effort to keep her NSA investigations out of reach of the U.S. intelligence community. How they will receive the prize—and the $10,000 that comes with it—is still being resolved. “I don’t think we have any illusions we can erase all of their struggles,” says Brian. But the award, she hopes, will “let them know they’re not alone.”
Hearing she and Snowden had won the Truth-Telling prize, Poitras told the Ridenhour Foundation, “Reporting on this story alongside Glenn Greenwald has been the most rewarding and mind-blowing. I share this award with Glenn.”