Edward Snowden, the whistleblower responsible for leaks which revealed questionable surveillance activities by the NSA and FBI, was the recipient of the 2013 Whistleblower Award. The award is on behalf of Transparency International, the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, and the Association of German Scientists, and recognizes Snowden’s strong dedication to transparency and the exposition of corrupt practices. Perhaps tellingly, this is the first year in which Transparency International has lent its support to the Whistleblower Award.
On September 11th, it was also announced that Snowden is nominated for a Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. This award, on behalf of Members of European Parliament, “is intended to honour exceptional individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression”, according to the Parliament website, and past winners include Nelson Mandela, exiled Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, and the Arab Spring activists. The recipient of the prize receives €50,000, and will be announced in October.
Snowden is also nominated for the 2013 Nobel Prize, although most consider him a long shot. His nomination, however, coupled with the Whistleblower award and nomination for the Sakharov Prize, suggest some global support of his activities.
The Nobel nomination came from Bahnhof, the Swedish ISP provider that once hosted Wikileaks and his selection for the Sakharov Prize is due mostly to the European United Left and the Nordic Green Left Faction. While this does not necessarily suggest widespread support, the fact that these highly publicized awards have accepted Snowden as a nominee is telling (the Sakharov Prize, for instance, only shortlists three finalists per year). Clearly, there is a degree of institutional support for Snowden within the EU, and perhaps this is a reflection of a differing cultural framework from the US, one that recognizes the important role that whistleblowers play in keeping democratic processes in check. Admittedly, the security of these countries was not impacted by Snowden’s leaks in the same way as the United States, but the recognition that exposition of questionable government actions is critical to a clear and transparent democratic process is important.
What does this support for Snowden mean for the United States’ international reputation, and should it influence their actions regarding Snowden? The American government has been clear in its indictment of his actions, but these awards suggest that certain members of the international community may be questioning the NSA’s surveillance tactics and viewing Snowden’s leaks as a platform for a wider discussion of individual liberties. The American stance has undoubtedly harmed its reputation as a beacon of democracy, and complicates already fragile geopolitical relationships. It is interesting to note that it was Russia, who’s relationship with the US is already challenging to say the least, who granted Snowden asylum, and that none of the countries who appear to be celebrating him through these awards appeared willing to have him, likely due to fear of reprisal from the Americans. The supreme irony is that the manhunt for Snowden is taking resources away from the search for terrorist activity, which was the primary reason for the NSA’s excessive surveillance.
Snowden’s awards and nominations clearly signal a shift in the United States‘ international reputation. It is clear that an increasing number of global parties see whistleblowing as a keystone in the maintenance of a free democratic society, and as such, the American government should begin to see the leaks as an opportunity to reevaluate the Patriot Act and make movements towards increased transparency in their domestic and international policies. Demonizing Snowden paints the U.S. as a country which does not see the valuable role whistleblowers play in holding their governments accountable, and as more European nations show support, there is bound to be further questioning of America’s commitment to clear democratic principles.