UN counter-terrorism rapporteur announces investigation into NSA and GCHQ surveillance

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was called before a House of Commons home affairs select committee to be grilled over the publication of the Snowden leaks. Grandstanding Tory parliamentarians have criticized the Guardian for publishing evidence of widespread, reckless criminality in the British spy agency GCHQ and its American counterpart, the NSA. Predictably, they say that disclosing the spooks' lawlessness "helps terrorists." They've called for criminal prosecution against the Guardian.

As Rusbridger prepares to take the stand, Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, writes in the Guardian that Rusbridger was right to publish. Further, he announces that he is "launching an investigation [on out-of-control spying] that will culminate in a series of recommendations to the UN general assembly next autumn.

The astonishing suggestion that this sort of journalism can be equated with aiding and abetting terrorism needs to be scotched decisively. Attacking the Guardian is an attempt to do the bidding of the services themselves, by distracting attention from the real issues. It is the role of a free press to hold governments to account, and yet there have even been outrageous suggestions from some Conservative MPs that the Guardian should face a criminal investigation.

It is disheartening to see some tabloids give prominence to this nonsense. When the Mail on Sunday took the decision to publish the revelations of the former MI5 officer David Shayler, no one suggested that the paper should face prosecution. Indeed, when the police later tried to seize the Guardian's notes of its own interviews with Shayler, Lord Judge, the former lord chief justice, refused to allow it to happen – saying, rightly, that it would interfere with the vital role played by the media to expose public wrongdoing.

When it comes to damaging national security, comparisons between the two cases are telling. The Guardian has revealed that there is an extensive programme of mass surveillance that potentially affects every one of us, while being assiduous in avoiding the revelation of any name or detail that could put sources at risk. Rusbridger himself has made most of these decisions, as befits their importance. The Mail on Sunday, on the other hand, published material that was of less obvious public interest.

An even closer example is Katharine Gunn, the GCHQ whistleblower who revealed in 2003 that the US and UK were spying on the missions of Mexico and five other countries at the UN, in order to manipulate a vote in the security council in favour of military intervention in Iraq. Like Snowden, her defence was that she was acting to prevent a greater wrong – the attempt to twist the security council to the bellicose will of the US and UK. She was charged under the Official Secrets Act, but the case was dropped because the director of public prosecutions and attorney general rightly concluded that no jury would convict Gunn.

It's outrageous to accuse the Guardian of aiding terrorism by publishing Snowden's revelations