LISBON (Reuters) - Democracy and political legitimacy are increasingly under threat from attacks by politicians like U.S. President Donald Trump on "fake news" and free speech, former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden told a conference on Tuesday.
"The costs of autocracy is illegitimacy, and though none of us have wished for this, it is increasingly near," Snowden told the Estoril Conferences, a meeting held this week in Portugal on human rights and migration.
Snowden was speaking through video link from Moscow, where he has been in asylum since 2013 after he revealed secret details of surveillance programs by U.S. intelligence agencies. Many civil rights activists see him as a hero, but at home in the United States he is wanted to stand trial for espionage.
He said the world stood at the "crossroads of history", warning that the direction it is heading now is "paved with fear, therein lies the world of walls, literal and figurative."
He said surveillance programs by governments of their citizens, "the denunciation of inconvenient journalism as fake news and the prosecution of those who are speaking facts," represents a world of fear and political illegitimacy.
"A government willing to trade public awareness for political comfort may rule, but they do not lead," he said.
Snowden criticized the idea that militants represent the biggest threat to western countries, saying the loss of rights was a bigger concern.
"Elevating criminals like this is the laziest kind of rhetoric, terrorists for all their evil, are incapable of destroying our rights, or diminishing our societies. They lack the strength (to destroy rights), only we can do that, through unthinking, reflexive fear," he said.
"Rights are lost by cowardly laws that are passed in moments of panic, rights are lost to the cringing complicity of leaders who fear the loss of their office more than the loss of our liberty."
Reporting by Axel Bugge; Editing by Andrew Hay