Telling truth to power can be a lonely, even dangerous activity. Isolation and shunning are common, making it seem like solitary confinement with invisible bars. So, it’s important that the Fertel Foundation & the Nation Institute honor truthtellers each year with the Ridenhour Prize before a supportive crowd at the National Press Club.
The annual Ridenhour Prizes recognize acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. These prizes memorialize the spirit of fearless truth-telling that whistleblower and investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour reflected throughout his extraordinary life and career. Each prize carries a $10,000 stipend. (ridenhour.org)
For 2014, the following prizes were awarded:
- Courage Prize: Frederick A.O. “Fritz” Schwarz, Jr., former Chief Counsel of the Church Committee
- Book Prize: Sheri Fink, author of Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
- Film Prize: “Gideon’s Army,” directed and produced by Dawn Porter
- Truth-telling Prize: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and Laura Poitras, the journalist who told his story
After an introduction by James Bamford, “The N.S.A.’s Chief Chronicler,” Snowden and Poitras appeared via videoconference to express their appreciation for the award. Snowden also spoke about the intimidation that discouraged others who shared his concerns from coming forward.
“When I began this, I never expected to receive the level of support that I did from the public. Having seen what had happened to the people that came before, specifically Thomas Drake, it was an intimidating thing. And I realized that the highest likelihood, the most likely outcome, of returning this information to public hands would be that I would spend the rest of my life in prison. I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. Now, what’s important about this is, that, I’m not the only one that felt this way. There were people throughout the NSA that I worked with, that I had private conversations with, that I’ve had conversations with since at other federal agencies, who had the same concerns that I did but they were afraid to take action because they knew what would happen.
Poitras, who has reported from war zones, said that she has never before experienced the kind of fear and intimidation said that she has had in reporting on “this,” mass surveillance. “I don’t feel that I can do reporting right now in the US after some of my experiences with the US government,” said Poitras.
What can be done about these problems? Schwartz called for a new Church Committee but acknowledged that the situation today is different: technology, the amount of classified information, and Congress itself. Poitras said she doesn’t have a lot of faith that Congress will make needed reforms.
If Congress fails to do its duty, what then? Snowden says “technology can enforce our rights when governments fail to do so.” Cooperation, public dialogue and getting government out from behind closed doors will be key to reform. Also, working with Congress in advance to reform laws to make better protections available for the next whistleblower. Meanwhile, Snowden says, those who blow the whistle should do it from an IP address that is not their own.
William Binney and Jesselyn Radack accepted the prize on behalf of Laura Poitras. Edward Snowden’s prize was presented to his father, Lon Snowden. It was a poignant moment. For awhile, the elder Snowden had feared that he would never see his son again. Day after day, for months, the former Coast Guard officer heard his son demonized as a traitor. But, this day, in the nation’s capital, the father saw his son receive a standing ovation.