Sunday, November 7, 2010

WikiLeaks: Transparency or Treason?

Investigative journalists spend a lot of time thinking about whistleblowers.

They encourage them to come forward, persuade them to talk, promise them anonymity, and sometimes they even risk going to jail to prevent their identities from being known. Whistleblowers have been key to many important exposes over the years, and they are a crucial component to investigative journalism.

That’s why the current debate over WikiLeaks is both perplexing and troubling. The website, founded in 2006, is devoted to soliciting and publicizing important information from whistleblowers. So why are so many journalists, including some investigative reporters, raising questions about what WikiLeaks is doing?

WikiLeaks has broken many stories in its brief history, posting everything from secret detention documents at Guantanamo Bay to a video showing American Apache helicopters firing at civilians in Baghdad. The stories have not endeared the site to U.S. authorities.

But whistleblowers rarely lead a placid life after they make their information known, and media that transmit the information also often find themselves targeted for retribution. Just ask Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times, both of whom faced threats, injunctions and prosecutions for their role in publishing the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers.

This year, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange raised the stakes by publishing more than 77,000 classified Pentagon documents on the war in Afghanistan. He followed that up recently with a further release of about 400,000 documents on the war in Iraq.

The Pentagon was predictably not happy. It said the Afghan documents endangered lives of people whose names had not been redacted, though no concrete evidence has yet surfaced of reprisals against anyone. Its reaction to the Iraq documents has been twofold: on the one hand, it says they reveal little new, while it also feels their release may be grounds to charge the people who leaked and publicized the documents with treason.

It is generally accepted that the release showed evidence of about 15,000 previously unreported and undocumented civilian deaths in Iraq, a remarkable fact given the difficulty of concealing such a large number of casualties in today’s plugged-in world. It also called into question previous U.S. and British claims that there were no official counts of casualties in Iraq. The documents instead showed meticulous records and an exact toll of 66,081 non-combatant deaths over a five-year period.

Assange also maintains the records show the U.S. failed to investigate hundreds of reports of rapes, assaults, and even murders by Iraqi police and armed soldiers over the years, a charge the Americans deny.

What has been the response of the journalism community to WikiLeaks? Surprisingly, there have been many reporters sniping from the sidelines. Reporters Without Borders criticized the site for publishing names of Afghans acting as informers for the U.S., while other journalists have supported the Pentagon’s analysis that the site is playing into the hands of terrorists.

Marc Thiessen, former White House staffer and a weekly columnist for the Washington Post, was blunt: “Let's be clear: WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a criminal enterprise. Its reason for existence is to obtain classified national security information and disseminate it as widely as possible -- including to the United States' enemies.”

Assange himself now finds himself living like a virtual fugitive. Originally from Australia, he is looking for a safe haven were he won’t be subject to a possible prosecution under the 1917 U.S. Espionage Act, the same legislation that was used to prosecute Ellsberg.

This seems odd, since a Pentagon spokesman has called the latest release “mundane”, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that it contained nothing new. Some have argued that authorities simply want to ensure future leaks are plugged before they can cause any further embarrassment.

Nevertheless, the level of international intrigue surrounding Assange seems to grow daily. He applied for Swedish residency, but shortly afterwards was accused of molestation and rape by two women there. Assange maintains it was a set-up, but whatever the case, it torpedoed his attempt to settle there. He is now looking at Switzerland as a possible new home. A former professional hacker, he protects the security of the site by routing his servers through a maze of complex connections in safe locations.

In response to the backlash, especially from some sectors of the reporting community, a group of international investigative journalists is now coming to the defence of Assange and WikiLeaks. A statement of support, signed by members and associates of a global investigative journalism association, seeks to defend the principle and practice of the site.

“We believe that Mr Assange has made an outstanding contribution to transparency and accountability on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, subjects where transparency and accountability has been severely restricted by government secrecy and media control,” the statement says. “He is being attacked for releasing information that should never have been withheld from the public.”

The statement, which has already been signed by journalists from more than 40 countries, defends WikiLeaks’ right to post confidential military documents. “If it is espionage to publish documents provided by whistle blowers, then every journalist will eventually be guilty of that crime. Mr Assange deserves our support and encouragement in the face of the attacks.”

Investigative journalism seeks to hold powerful people and interests to account, and that inevitably means challenging the status quo. The history of such reporting shows that those same powerful interests often strike back, launching counter-offensives. How this current battle will end is unknown, but it is fascinating to see how members of the journalism community are aligning themselves in the process.

The full statement in support of WikiLeaks is available at the Global Investigative Journalism Network website.

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