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Free Press Advocates Decry Cybercrime Charges Against Glenn Greenwald

The Brazilian government is charging journalist Glenn Greenwald with committing cybercrimes, according to a criminal complaint released Monday. The accusations are connected to leaked text messages that Greenwald reported on last year for The Intercept Brasil, which the outspoken journalist launched in 2016 as a spinoff of the US-based news site he founded two years before. Digital rights advocates decried the move, pointing to a troubling, longtime tendency of governments worldwide to spin up hacking charges against security researchers and journalists.

The leak in question revealed unethical behavior and conflicts of interest among some law enforcement officials in Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's administration. The criminal complaint, first reported by The New York Times, claims that the leak and Greenwald's reporting undermined the credibility of a government anticorruption organization. More importantly, it accuses Greenwald of actively participating in the illegal interception of the leaked messages rather than simply reporting on data he was given.

Greenwald issued a stern response in a statement to the Daily Beast on Tuesday. "I did nothing more than do my job as a journalist—ethically and within the law," Greenwald wrote. "We will not be intimidated by these tyrannical attempts to silence journalists."

The government asserts that the "criminal organization" it links Greenwald to separately perpetrated multiple types of cybercrimes. The complaint accuses six core members of the group and extensively maps their alleged relationships and interactions. It asserts that the group was involved in bank fraud, credit card cloning, money laundering, and other digital scams like phishing and use of keyloggers. The group also allegedly hacked target devices and conducted real-time communication monitoring and interception. The complaint attempts to link Greenwald to a portion of this latter activity only. Neither Greenwald nor any of the other six suspects appear to have been arrested in coordination with the government's announcement.

The complaint notes that when a journalist receives secret information from a source and relays it to the public "without directly participating in the breach of the confidentiality of that information," there is no criminal wrongdoing under Brazilian law. But it goes on to say that "the situation is different when the 'journalist' receives illicit material while the criminal situation is occurring and, aware that the criminal conduct is ongoing, maintains contact with the offending agents and even ensures that the criminals will be protected, by making investigation more difficult and reducing the possibility of criminal liability."

The complaint goes to some lengths to emphasize that Greenwald was not initially a subject of the investigation into this alleged hacking group, but that an audio recording uncovered during a lawful search pointed to "direct participation of the journalist in criminal conduct." The recording is of an alleged conversation between Greenwald and suspect Luiz Henrique Molição. But the transcript included in the indictment appears to establish only that the two were in touch, and that Greenwald knew the communication data had come from Telegram cloud accounts. The call does not seem to confirm that Greenwald participated in or facilitated hacking.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation "is dismayed to learn of the decision by Brazilian prosecutors to charge journalist Glenn Greenwald under the country’s computer crime law," a statement by the digital rights organization said. "Computer crime laws should never be used to criminalize legitimate journalistic practice. Prosecutors should be cautious to apply them without considering the chilling effects on the free press, and the risk of politicized prosecutions."

Similar accusations against Greenwald first surfaced months ago, but in August a member of Brazil's Supreme Court found that federal officials could not proceed with an investigation, because it would "constitute an unambiguous act of censorship." The government apparently continued to pursue the matter.

Press rights advocates jumped to Greenwald's defense on Tuesday, warning that the accusations against Greenwald could be seen as a silencing effort and a slippery slope toward criminalizing important journalistic practices. Greenwald has been a controversial figure at times, but is widely known for working with whistle-blower Edward Snowden to conduct landmark reporting on the US's National Security Administration bulk surveillance programs.

"If you judge by the rhetoric of the Bolsonaro government over the last six to nine months, they’re trying to frame Greenwald as being a participant in the hacks of these texts, which there is zero evidence of," Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press foundation, told WIRED. "They’re looking for an excuse to go after him. Bolsonaro has insinuated many times Greenwald should be in jail, though no one has shown any evidence that he’s done anything but report on these text messages."

Given the Bolsonaro administration's hostile track record on free speech issues, the concern is amply justified.

Additional reporting by Andy Greenberg.

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