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WikiLeaks Battles for the Future of Journalism

December 22, 2010

The organization WikiLeaks continues to be attacked by the very pillars of free society it is seeking to reform, much to the detriment of good governance and free press. WikiLeaks, with its staggered release of 250,000 US diplomatic cables working in tandem with the world’s most respected newspapers, has brought to light the power abuses by the world’s governments and corporations. WikiLeaks seeks to build a more transparent and honest system of government and media by shaking the corrupt foundations of political and journalistic structure to its core.

The leaked US embassy cables continue to draw attention around the world, revealing everything from systematic torture in India, to oil giant Shell’s infiltration of the Nigerian government, to United States’ efforts to force Spain to drop  a murder investigation in the case of a Spanish cameraman killed by US soldiers. The cables have turned the world inside out, enabling us all to see the gruesome innards of government and diplomacy as usual.

Because of this, Julian Assange and his large WikiLeaks organization have come under repeated attack. First have been the attacks by the US government itself, whose acts of arm twisting and political bullying, as revealed in the leaked diplomatic cables, have brought it under the judging eyes of the world. In an effort to regain credibility, politicians in Washington are currently looking into prosecuting WikiLeaks under laws they are frantically working to revise or propose, such as the SHIELD Law. This raises suspicions about the ethics of US lawmakers, as ex post facto laws are expressly prohibited by the Constitution. However, Assange can only be tried if extradited by the United States, which is proving difficult as lawmakers are unable to pin a specific charge on him. If Assange were to be tried under current law, it might follow that the New York Times, which has published the classified documents, would also be affected by the outcome of that decision. A report by the Congressional Research Service doesn’t paint this as a very likely possibility:

“Leaks of classified information to the press have only rarely been punished as crimes, and we are aware of no case in which a publisher of information obtained through unauthorized disclosure by a government employee has been prosecuted for publishing it. There may be First Amendment implications that would make such a prosecution difficult, not to mention political ramifications based on concerns about government censorship.”

Currently, the United States government is seeking to prove Army Private Bradley Manning, who is suspected of leaking the cables, and Julian Assange worked together to gather the secret documents. If they can prove that Assange collaborated with Manning to release the information, the US may have a case against Assange as a co-conspirator. This theory has journalists and law professors in an uproar, as the relationship between reporter and confidential source lies at the heart of investigative journalism. Former Bush Justice Department official and now Harvard Law Professor Jeff Goldsmith wrote:

“But it [the prosecution theory] would not distinguish the Times and scores of other media outlets in the many cases in which reporters successfully solicit and arrange to receive classified information and documents directly from government officials.  Prosecution of Assange on this theory would therefore raise awkward questions about why DOJ [Department of Justice] does not bring charges against the American media for soliciting classified information on a regular basis.  It would be a fateful step for traditional press freedoms in the United States.”

Recent revelations about the conditions Manning is being held under show the seriousness of US efforts to indict Assange. Bradley Manning, a 23 year old Army Private, has never been convicted of a crime. Yet he has been held in solitary confinement in a US Marine prison in Virginia for the past 5 months, where his life is severely restricted and regimented. Here are just a few examples: Manning is unable to exercise in his cell; if he tries, he is forced to stop. Every 5 minutes during waking hours a guard asks Manning if he is ok; Manning must answer or the guards will come in and check on him. Manning is only allowed a few visitors and has been unable to speak to his family face to face. Those restrictions pale in comparison to the psychological toll that prolonged solitary confinement has been shown to have on prisoners. (This has led some countries to classify solitary confinement as a form of torture.) The journalist who exposed Manning’s prison conditions, Constitutional attorney and blogger Glenn Greenwald, provides an excellent analysis of solitary confinement. Some people believe the government hopes to so wear Manning down, that he will incriminate Assange as part of a plea bargain.

 

Meanwhile unlawful government censorship is continuing, despite the fact that WikiLeaks, like Manning, has not been officially charged with a crime. When WikiLeaks began its drawn out release of the diplomatic cables, their site, WikiLeaks.org, was shut down by its US based DNS provider. At the time of this writing, it is still not functioning. To keep the information accessible, WikiLeaks was picked up by other hosts around the world, but it needs to bounce around to avoid being shut down. (The most reliable mirror site so far has been http://wikileaks.ch/ .)

After the website itself was attacked, several large companies, such as Amazon, Visa, PayPal, and, most recently, Bank of America withdrew their services to WikiLeaks, saying that WikiLeaks had violated their “Terms of Service” by publishing illegally obtained documents. Though with warning comments from Senator Joseph Liebermann about aiding WikiLeaks, the motive behind the companies suddenly dropping their services seems curious at best. This blatant attack on free speech and internet freedom has prompted several cyberattacks by WikiLeaks supporters Anonymous. These attacks have not been condoned by Mr. Assange.

WikiLeaks is also being discredited by some in the media. Consider, for example, the falsehood in some media outlets that says WikiLeaks dumped all of the 250,000 cables online without any concern for journalistic ethics. This story has been repeated on NPR and TIME, among others. Again, WikiLeaks has only published cables that have first been published by the newspapers and only after they have been redacted and vetted by those journalists and by Assange’s team (Assange even sought US government assistance in this). Glenn Greenwald strongly opposes such careless reporting:

“That’s why this cannot-be-killed lie about WikiLeaks’ ‘indiscriminate’ dumping of cables has so consumed me.  It’s not because it would change much if they had done or end up doing that — it wouldn’t — but because it just so powerfully proves how mindlessly subservient the American establishment media is: willing to repeat over and over completely false claims as long as it pleases the right people — the same people to whom they claim they are ‘adversarial watchdogs.’  It’s when they engage in such clear-cut, deliberate propagandizing that their true function — their real identity — is thrown into such stark relief.”

The attacks continue with calls from prominent politicians and media personalities for Mr. Assange to be taken down or even assassinated.

For instance, Democratic Party consultant and Fox Business commentator Bob Beckel:

“We’ve got special ops forces. I mean, a dead man can’t leak stuff. This guy’s a traitor, a treasonous, and he has broken every law of the United States. The guy ought to be—and I’m not for the death penalty, so if I’m not for the death penalty, there’s only one way to do it: illegally shoot the son of a [bleep].”

The logical gymnastics Beckel had to go through to come to that conclusion are astounding. Or read this gem of twisted logic from ex-governor Sarah Palin:

“He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands. His past posting of classified documents revealed the identity of more than 100 Afghan sources to the Taliban. Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?”

But the biggest attack of all is on the First Amendment’s rights of free speech and free press. The hypocrisy that the US, the world’s supposed leader in matters of democracy and rights, is displaying in relation to WikiLeaks is extremely unnerving. This also has many Europeans confused by the US government’s reaction, as reported in the New York Times:

“For many Europeans, Washington’s fierce reaction to the flood of secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks displays imperial arrogance and hypocrisy, indicating a post-9/11 obsession with secrecy that contradicts American principles.”

Some criticize WikiLeaks due to the supposed security threat. But the fear that leaked documents automatically put American lives at risk may be unfounded, as a Pentagon study found no lives were put in danger with the publishing of the Afghanistan war logs. Also, the vetting process the diplomatic cables undergo, including the redaction of sensitive information, before being published by the newspapers and WikiLeaks will continue to keep this fact applicable.

What about other lives that have been negatively affected due to American foreign policy? The media and political attacks have mainly been centered on the supposed damage caused by WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange, but scant attention has been given in the mainstream media to the lives lost, environments destroyed, and the economic disasters caused by reckless and power-hungry American interests shown in the leaked embassy cables. The United States’ worries about lives in jeopardy are looking towards the wrong lives, says human rights activist and reporter Jemima Khan: ”The best justification governments can find to shut down information is that lives are at risk. In fact, lives have been at risk as a result of the silences and lies revealed in these leaks.” The embassy cable coverage itself also differs greatly, as the New York Times reportage is more optimistic as compared to the more critical London Guardian or Germany’s Der Spiegel. The public’s eyes are being diverted by the mainstream media, in particular by the politicians and military officers they continually use as their talking heads. A recent Guardian editorial addresses just that:

“In times when big business and governments attempt to monitor and control everything, there is a need as never before for an internet that remains a free and universal form of communication. WikiLeaks’ chief crime has been to speak truth to power. What is at stake is nothing less than the freedom of the internet. All the rest is a sideshow distracting attention from the real battle that is being fought. We should all keep focus on the true target.”

And what exactly is the true target? What is the point of WikiLeaks exposing governments and corporations? What drives this organization, even at great risk to itself?

The best place to start would be to look at the manifesto published by Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange and WikiLeaks back in 2006. Using computer programmer analogies, Assange points to the conspiratorial relationships (here meaning acts done in secret without public knowledge) between major world players that seek to hold onto their power at any cost. Assange’s way of disrupting this abusive power is “to address the aggregative process itself, by impeding the principle of its reproduction: rather than trying to expose and cut particular links between particular conspirators (which does little to prevent new links from forming and may not disturb the actual functioning of the system as a whole), he [Assange] wants to attack the ‘total conspiratorial power’ of the entire system by figuring out how to reduce its total ability to share and exchange information among itself, in effect, to slow down its processing power.” (More of this deep analysis of the WikiLeaks’ manifesto can be found here.) However, it is important to note from a recent TIME interview that  Mr. Assange does believe that secrecy is important, yet “it shouldn’t be used to cover up abuses.”

Making the conspiratorial links ineffective is just part of WikiLeaks’ mission. Julian Assange, who rose to fame as an Australian journalist and hacker, helped start WikiLeaks to begin a new type of journalism, a “scientific journalism.” Assange wrote recently in an editorial for The Australian:

“WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism. We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”

This statement reveals Mr. Assange’s mistrust of the media. The media has shown itself to be just as capable of being duped by the government as we are. (See: Iraq War.) Seeking to alter and address the corrupt power structures of media and government, WikiLeaks has consistently been changing the face of modern journalism. Rather than be a party to a system of corruption, of backdoor deals, and suppression of information, WikiLeaks is dismantling the status quo of reportage, leak by leak. Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins wrote:

“Disclosure is messy and tests moral and legal boundaries. It is often irresponsible and usually embarrassing. But it is all that is left when regulation does nothing, politicians are cowed, lawyers fall silent, and audit is polluted. Accountability can only default to disclosure.”

These secret disclosures of government memos are a necessary goad for change. The cozy relationship between the press and the government continues to invite more and more lies to the main discourse of the American public. Why does the press continually rely on official sources who specialize in spin? Perhaps the press should counteract official spokespeople with additional sources from outside the realm of power, in order to give an outsider’s perspective and to provide a view that does not have as its main objective the protection of power and those who profit from it. This more objective view is, in part, what the leaked documents help bring into the debate. These reports cannot and should not be ignored, for they have brought truth to light for the American people to read and understand, without the slant of a biased media and political meddling.

A sure sign the press is doing its job of not playing to those in power is, according to Julian Assange, censorship attempts:

“So, maybe where you see freedom in the press, you are actually seeing the basic power structures of society so sewn up that the press doesn’t matter much. And where you see aggressive attempts to censor things, it’s a positive symbol, because the power structures that control those attempts are revealing their fear of journalists or other people revealing that information.”

The censorship and other attacks faced by WikiLeaks reveal serious double standards that should alarm any American citizen who wants to protect free speech and a free press. Mr. Assange is being attacked for the slim possibility that he broke a yet-to-be-determined American law, whereas the documents released by WikiLeaks show evidence of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as outright lying by our politicians and corporations that could get them ousted by their constituencies or shareholders. Those who lie aren’t being held accountable for their actions, while those who speak truth are being torn apart. When are we going to demand justice?

Journalists and politicians are lashing out, not only because WikiLeaks is exposing their misdeeds, but also their weakness of character and morals in the gruesome face of power and money. The release of these secret documents is not about settling scores, or embarrassing American officials–nor are the leaks as damaging to the American image as WikiLeak detractors would have us believe. Rather the leaking of secret documents is about destroying the system of secrecy and revealing truths to the American people. Many of the more despicable actions of the United States are no secret to the world, yet they have long been kept from us, in whose name these actions are being perpetrated, to keep us from seeking reforming action. Finally, through WikiLeaks, we can see the cold, hard, and often embarrassing truth: This is who we really are in the world. This is how our power is won and twisted. This is why we are hated.

Perhaps America’s most famous whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, said it best:

“They [the American public] have not asked enough. They have not expected enough or demanded enough in the way of boldness, in the way of responsibility from their public servants. Make that known and I think our Constitution will continue to function better than it has in the past.”

WikiLeaks is tearing away the cloak of secrecy and lies that our media and politicians have shrouded US actions in for so long. WikiLeaks is not changing the power structures of media and government, it is destroying it with each and every leak released. In the place of this corrupt system, WikiLeaks hopes to bring about a new breed of journalism and a new fear of exposure instilled in power’s abusers. And for that, we should applaud Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks.

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. ben permalink
    December 23, 2010 11:57 pm

    I think we need to get the message out when this topic is ever discussed, by reminding people of the sickening U.S. air cavalary action revealed by wikileaks. The cowardice idiots screwed up and then refused air evac for the children they shot. I don’t even think I should have used the were screwed up. That implies accidental actions, when from the video and audio it appears intentional. These Colonel Kurtz eff wads should be prosecuted for war crimes.

  2. ben permalink
    December 24, 2010 12:00 am

    There is no evidence that anyone has been physically harmed by the release of the wikileak documents.

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