The Right Livelihood Awards celebrated their 40th anniversary Wednesday at the historic Cirkus Arena in Stockholm, Sweden, where more than a thousand people gathered to celebrate this year’s four laureates: Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg; Chinese women’s rights lawyer Guo Jianmei, Brazilian indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa and the organization he co-founded, the Yanomami Hutukara Association; and Sahrawi human rights leader Aminatou Haidar, who has challenged the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara for decades. The Right Livelihood Award is known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” Over the past four decades, it’s been given to grassroots leaders and activists around the globe — among them the world-famous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. At Wednesday’s gala, Amy Goodman interviewed Snowden in front of the award ceremony’s live audience via video link from Moscow, where he has lived in exile since leaking a trove of secret documents revealing the U.S. government’s had built an unprecedented mass surveillance system to spy on Americans and people around the world. After sharing the documents with reporters in 2013, Snowden was charged in the U.S. for violating the Espionage Act and other laws. As he attempted to flee from Hong Kong to Latin America, Snowden was stranded in Russia after the U.S. revoked his passport, and he has lived there ever since. Edward Snowden won the Right Livelihood Award in 2014, and accepted the award from Moscow.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, broadcasting from Stockholm, Sweden. The Right Livelihood Awards celebrated their 40th anniversary last night at the historic Cirkus Arena in Stockholm, Sweden, where more than a thousand people gathered to celebrate this year’s four Laureates, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, Chinese women’s rights lawyer Guo Jianmei, Brazilian indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa and the Yanomami Hutukara Association he helped form, and the Sahrawi human rights leader Aminatou Haidar who has challenged the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara for decades.
The Right Livelihood Award is known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. Over the past four decades, it has been given to grassroots leaders and activists around the globe, among them the world-famous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who won the award five years ago. In 2013, Ed Snowden shared a trove of secret documents about how the United States revealed the government was pursuing the means to collect every single phone call, text message and email in an unprecedented system of global mass surveillance.
After sharing the documents with reporters, Snowden was charged in the U.S. for violating the Espionage Act and other laws. As he fled Hong Kong, attempting to get political exile in Latin America, Snowden became stranded in transit in a Moscow, Russia, airport after the U.S. revoked his passport. He has lived in political exile in Moscow, Russia, ever since. Last night I interviewed Ed Snowden during the Right Livelihood Awards ceremony here in Stockholm in front of a live audience of a thousand. He spoke via video from Moscow where he has lived in exile since 2013.
AMY GOODMAN: Ed, it was something like six years ago that this young 29-year-old computer geek, NSA contractor, decided to change his life. That young man was you. You were in Hawaii, an NSA subcontractor. Explain why you made the decision you did to turn what seemed like an idyllic life upside down and leave our country, the United States.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: It was not an easy decision. It’s one I think anyone would rather avoid. But there is a question that we all face when we come into contact with things that call into question our deepest beliefs. I was always very much an agent of government long before I worked for them because I believed everything that I heard and everything that I read from official sources, because to me it seemed that they had no reason to lie to us. But through my time in government, as I moved to more and more senior positions and worked more closely with each of the systems, I began to see more evidence that the private truths of what government was actually doing, these things were very different than the publicly presented versions of it.
And nowhere was this more clear than in what I witnessed in the creation of the system of global mass surveillance. This is a system that—I wrote, eventually, in that year, to a journalist by the name of Laura Poitras—was totally indiscriminate and far beyond even the very loose restrictions of American law and I think international standards that we have come to accept regarding surveillance. This was a new system that saw everything that you did and did not care or bear any regard whatsoever to the difference between those suspected of crimes and those who had done nothing wrong.
This is a system, the first system in history, that bore witness to everything. Every border you crossed, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friends you keep, article you write, site you visit and subject line you type was now in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards were not. And I felt, despite what the law said, that this was something that the public ought to know.
AMY GOODMAN: As you can hear here in the auditorium in Stockholm, and if we could hear that applause around the world, it would be thunderous. People are deeply concerned about what you revealed to the world. Two of the journalists won Pulitzer Prizes for working on that with you, receiving the information and putting it out to the world, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.
But now you cannot go back to your own country, though you are hailed as a hero by so many. Five years ago, the Right Livelihood Foundation worked hard for you to come to Sweden. Until this day, not a single European government has come forward to offer you protection against extradition to the United States. Can you explain what you face in the United States, what you have been charged with and what that means to you?
EDWARD SNOWDEN: There is certainly no question by any legal expert or [laugh] even political opinion maker that what I face in the United States is an extraordinary process of what I believe internationally is well-recognized as persecution rather than prosecution. The potential sentence and the likely sentence for telling the truth, which the government does not contest is what happened here, is that I would die in prison. And yet despite that and despite the threats that those in Europe who have offered me support and government have faced when they have tried to cross that line and officially protect me, which I think is something that we all regret and. we would like to see change in the future, when we look at that dynamic, when we look at this current status quo, the fear that consumes even the allies of the people and government of the United States when it comes to standing for protecting people who tell the truth, I think everyone who looks at this realizes this is an extraordinary moment in our history.
One of the core pillars of the modern system of the world, the institutional standards and structures that the United States itself designed, it is now actively working to oppose so long as those institutions insulate their critics. And I think that’s a very dangerous thing. And this is the thing. It’s not about me. It doesn’t matter what happens to me. I’ve done my part. I’ve said my piece. I could be the best person on earth, I could be the worst person in history and it’s not going to make a difference to your tomorrow. But what will is if people can tell the truth to the public about the most material facts and programs and policies that affect our lives every day.
AMY GOODMAN: Ed, you currently have Julian Assange at a maximum security prison in England facing 175 years for espionage in the United States. You have Chelsea Manning back in jail in the United States. You, concerned that you won’t face a fair trial in the United States. Can you respond in all of these cases? You are all among the most famous whistleblowers in the world.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: Yeah. when you look at my case and the Manning case before me, and when you look at the Ellsberg case going all the way back to the 1970s, they are all derived from the same law under which Julian Assange—who, it should be clear, owes no allegiance to the United States; he is not a U.S. citizen, he is simply a publisher working in news—they have been charged under this Espionage Act. This is a special law that absolutely rules out any kind of fair trial going back to the 1970s.
When Ellsberg tried to tell the jury why he did what he did, his lawyer asked him,, “Mr. Ellsberg, why did you copy the Pentagon Papers?”—which was the secret history of the U.S.’s true involvement in the Vietnam War—the prosecutor for the government said, “Objection! This is not something the jury is allowed to hear.” And the judge agreed with it. He silenced Ellsberg. And he silenced our ability to hear why these things were done, and for the jury to consider not only was this legal, but was it moral.
And this I think is the sad history of the United States government’s relationship to the press in the last decade. They have been more and more concerned with what is legal than what is moral. And what began with Ellsberg as an extraordinary case against a lone individual which challenged the government’s involvement in the war, was challenged by a new generation of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning who revealed torture and war crimes, indefinite detention on the part of the United States government in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, my own involvement in the revelation of global mass surveillance. And in every case, we were charged under this same law that forbids the jury to consider if this was something that did more good for the public to know than it did harm to the government in terms of inconvenience or theoretical risks of investigative journalism in a free society.
And this is where we get to this crucial part of the story. We move from an individual and exceptional case that was not repeated for decades and decades in the Ellsberg instance, to something that under the Obama administration, he charged more sources of journalism using this special law than all other presidents in the history of the United States history combined.
And now under the Trump administration, we have taken one more step. We have gone from the United States government’s war on whistleblowers to now a war on journalism with the indictment of Julian Assange for what even the government itself admits was work related to journalism. And this I think is a dangerous, dangerous thing, not just for us, not just for Julian Assange, but for the world and the future. If we allow developed democracies to imprison their political critics and dissidents, the people who call into question the legality, the propriety, the morality of their policies and the prosecution of their wars, we will embolden the most authoritarian regimes on earth. And we will be the ones who our children question when they ask how the world that they were inheriting came to be.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s 2014 Right Livelihood laureate and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden speaking from Moscow at last night’s Right Livelihood Awards here in Stockholm, Sweden. He couldn’t join us because he is in political exile there as he faces espionage charges in the United States.