Wikileaks and Journalism
“Has WikiLeaks changed mainstream journalism and how the flow of information is perceived in society?”
(An Essay by Kim Paul Nguyen, 2013)
In 2006 a small group of activists, lead by Julian Assange, set up the website WikiLeaks.org, to publish information supplied by whistle-blowers. What began as a few people and an internet connection became the biggest news story of 2010 and it continues to fill headlines today. Wikileaks is often said to have transformed society, or at least the news media.
In this essay I examine the evidence behind the statement, “The advent of WikiLeaks and other whistleblower websites has changed professional journalism forever and how we perceive the flow of information in society” to determine the reality behind the hyperbole. I will show that although significant changes are taking place, the fundamental role of professional journalism remains intact.
I will examine three areas where WikiLeaks has had significant impacts. Firstly it has encouraged a re-examining of purpose, particularly considering the influence of commercial and government interests on the media. Secondly it has re-affirmed the importance of whistle-blowing and confronting power. Thirdly WikiLeaks demonstrates the transformative potential of the internet.
I argue the fundamental principles behind professional journalism have not changed; WikiLeaks is fulfilling a function that all journalists should aspire to, informing the public what they need to know. I conclude with discussion of WikiLeaks’ impacts on both perceptions of the flow of information and the reality of information control.
WikiLeaks went online in 2006, created by Julian Assange and a small group of volunteers. Based on earlier whistle-blowing websites such as cryptome.org, it was significantly more secure and anonymous.
According to Assange, he and his colleagues wanted to expose authoritarian secrets to help create a ‘just’ state, a utopia of transparency. WikiLeaks began receiving high amounts of confidential information, which they posted online raw and unedited for anyone to access. “We felt it was for history to judge what was in the public interest and what wasn’t,” said Assange.
However, despite the importance of the material (e.g. documents revealing high level corruption in the Kenyan government), the impact was minimal. There was limited coverage in the mainstream media, and little change in the political status quo.
In early 2010 WikiLeaks received information of enormous significance, what have come to be know as the Collateral Murder video, the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, and the Diplomatic Cables. At this point Assange decided a new publishing model was necessary, to ensure the material achieved its maximum impact.
Firstly WikiLeaks released an edited version of the Collateral Murder video with much fanfare. Then Assange began organising partnerships with key publishers from the mainstream media, including the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Speigel.
The War Logs and the Diplomatic Cables were released throughout the second half of 2010 in unison with these papers. The fall-out was unprecedented.
There was outcry in the US, whose government and military were most exposed by the releases. The information included evidence of US war crimes and unsavoury political machinations.
US officials accused WikiLeaks of having “blood on their hands”, the organisation heavily criticised for not redacting details of soldiers and informants, potentially placing them at risk. Paypal, Visa, Mastercard and Amazon withdrew their services, financially debilitating the group and temporarily taking them offline, economic censorship unthinkable to a mainstream newspaper.
Simultaneously Assange was accused of sex crimes in Sweden. He was placed under house arrest in the UK while his extradition case was heard, before dramatically seeking asylum in Ecuador’s UK embassy in June 2012.
In August that year Ecuador granted Assange’s asylum plea but he has remained holed up in the London embassy since. Police officers continue to wait outside 24 hours a day, ready to put him on a plane to Sweden as soon as he emerges. Despite these considerable obstacles WikiLeaks has continued to publish new leaks regularly.
WikiLeaks’ fundamental operating process remains the same as when it began, maintaining online drop-boxes where material can be uploaded anonymously. This is apparently untraceable, encrypted in such a way that even Assange claims he cannot identify the source.
Next WikiLeaks staff take on traditional journalism tasks to determine the veracity of the material. In the case of Collateral Murder Assange says WikiLeaks sent journalists to Bagdad to track down witnesses before publishing.
They analyse the material’s significance, its worth publishing, potentially edit, add redactions, and write commentaries. Once published they post the source material in its entirety so “readers can check the accuracy of the stories against the raw material”.
As noted above, in 2010 Assange established partnerships with a number of mainstream media organisations. He says it was necessary to use their resources and expertise to analyse the leaks, which included over one million documents. It also resulted in greater coverage and impact. This model appears to have been settled upon, although the partners have changed, now including publications as diverse as Rolling Stone Magazine and Melbourne’s The Age.
A lot has been written about the impact of WikiLeaks on journalism. However the evidence below shows that although WikiLeaks has had a significant impact, the fundamental principles of journalism remain unchanged. According to the Society of Professional Journalists (US), “Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth.” WikiLeaks “scrutinises power”, doing what the news media is suppose to do when adhering to its own Code of Ethics (Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, 2012).
The aim and funding model of WikiLeaks is different to most mainstream media organisations. It is a not-for-profit, supposedly politically neutral. WikiLeaks is funded entirely by donations, with no advertising or commercial revenue. There are only five paid staff, the organisation otherwise relying completely on volunteers.
The traditional mass media is a business, operating on an advertising model, with news content designed to increase revenue. Herman and Chomsky (2002) say this means the mainstream media often act as propagandists for big business and government, ‘state stenographers’ according to John Pilger. Certainly the mainstream press was severely criticised for failing to question the US government during the build up to the 2003 Iraq invasion.
WikiLeaks is highly political. Assange describes it as “the first intelligence agency of the people”, staff referring to themselves as activists. It does not however take up a traditional position on the left or right, rather it is ‘anti-secrecy’. “Our enemies are the enemies of truth,” says Assange.
Publishing is an act of civil disobedience, part of a global war against corporate and government misdeeds. According to Assange the goal is a ‘just’ society based on transparency, accountability and the free flow of information. This is the politics of information, where secrecy is evil and transparency righteous.
Assange says authoritarian states maintain power through “flows of hidden data”. But these states are “brittle, at risk of collapse once people are shown the true nature of things”. WikiLeaks says it degrades authoritarian government’s ability to conspire, believing information will lead to “outrage and political action”. This has positioned WikiLeaks in opposition to governments seen to be authoritarian, including that of the United States. It is a significant step away from the traditional journalism ethic of political impartiality although mainstream media can of course be unashamedly partisan. In any case WikiLeaks publications relate not only to state power; businesses, such as the Julius Baer and Kaupthing banks, have also been exposed.
WikiLeaks focus all their attention on leaks. Their service provides “a secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information” (WikiLeaks.org, 2012). They are unambiguously a receiver and distributor of leaked information. WikiLeaks stand out because their encryption system apparently makes it impossible for sources to be identified. Of course that also makes it much harder to verify the credibility of the information.
Journalists have traditionally had a reputation for keeping sources confidential, even when faced with imprisonment. However WikiLeaks can supply a guarantee of anonymity. It is a paradox that the so-called ‘War on Secrecy’ is predicated on secret sources. Assange “initiated a conspiracy to take down an even greater conspiracy”.
Coming under legal scrutiny WikiLeaks have distanced themselves from the suggestion they actively encourage people to give them confidential information, they simply “accept the material, not solicit it” (WikiLeaks.org, 2012).
By providing source material in full WikiLeaks have also differentiated themselves. Traditional media usually handpick aspects of a leak, report or incident to enable their own interpretation. WikiLeaks tries to provide information in its entirety so the public can form their own conclusions.
In 2010 this approach changed somewhat, when WikiLeaks deemed some material too complex, requiring editing and selective presentation. However all material, excluding sections believed to endanger lives, was eventually put online.
The internet allows WikiLeaks to operate without a specific geographic location, to transcend national borders and jurisdictions. WikiLeaks staff and volunteers are spread out on laptops in a variety of countries, the leaks provided by and relating to people all over the globe. Information can’t be isolated and controlled as it previously was.
When attempts were made in late 2010 to shut WikiLeaks down ‘mirror sites’ rapidly appeared to continue disseminating the leaks. “We are like the hydra – cut off one head and another pops up,” says Assange.
WikiLeaks demonstrates the power of citizen journalism, that a few committed individuals can become publishers of equal importance to established media institutions. According to some observers citizen journalism is creating a more robust, responsive and interactive media, encouraging greater civic participation and engagement.
Staffed predominantly by non-professional volunteers WikiLeaks is completely dependent on user-generated content. “We made promises that if sources gave us good material we would publish,” said Assange.
However, being so open poses practical problems as WikiLeaks receives approximately ten thousand documents a day, a quantity they’ve been unable to deal with.
Significant impacts have been felt by the established media. The information revealed in the 2010 leaks were major news stories, reminding the news media of their duty to investigate. “The history of journalism is the history of leaks,” says Assange. “Maybe WikiLeaks will push journalists to do their job better.”
By prioritising the exposure of state secrets WikiLeaks was able to bring industry competitors into a cooperative relationship, working together to analyse and present information in the public’s interest. WikiLeaks has now established partnerships with some 50 newspapers worldwide, a recalibration of competitor and source relationships.
But it is the internet driving transformation in the media industry, and WikiLeaks is an example rather than a catalyst. The internet has made possible entirely new kinds of specialist news organisations, threatening the very existence of traditional news media. News is being shared rather than created as the popularity of news aggregators swells. Many newspapers have already shut down.
But if all journalism is left to citizens, with no-one paid and supported to investigate stories, there is a risk we'll run out of news. Financing for investigative journalism has been disappearing, but someone has to do the initial hard work. If information control is tightened and punishment for whistle-blowers increased, the leaks could dry up.
This highlights the importance of the traditional media practice of sending journalists out into the world to find stories. One of the jobs of journalism is to make a grubby nuisance of itself by ferreting out the establishments half-truths and embarrassments.
The traditional media also have greater resources and can reach more of the public. Traditional media formats (radio, television, newspapers) are still the most important to those oppressed by authoritarian governments, especially in the developing world, who can’t access new online media technologies.
Rather than changing the foundations of good journalism, WikiLeaks have built on them. They have recently been self-identifying as a more traditional journalistic institution, to build greater trust and credibility with the public and secure legal protections. “I had always argued WikiLeaks should partner the established media, not replace or shun it,” said Assange.
The leaks of 2010 arrived with much hyperbole, “the revelations could change history” proclaimed some observers. The Guardian predicted the disclosures would trigger a global diplomatic crisis, marking the “end of secrecy”.
The US government was incensed, officials claiming the release could put lives in danger and threaten national security, the Taliban reportedly examining the War Logs to identify informants. However according to Assange there has yet to be a US soldier or informant harmed with a direct link to the publications.
There has apparently been greater impact on foreign governments. The War Logs exposed important new facts about civilian casualties and torture of detainees. According to Goodman (2011), “Cablegate was one of the sparks of the Arab Spring… to see the extent of US government support for these dictators helped ignite a firestorm.” One leaked document described the opulence of the former Tunisian President and played a key part in his downfall, although transparency alone did not bring about the Arab Spring.
WikiLeaks aim was to create more openness, but it seems they have encouraged the opposite. Modern information technology had meant access to information had never been easier. Technology hugely increased the ease and quantity of information theft. Chelsea Manning, the private accused of leaking Collateral Murder etc. to WikiLeaks, stated, “The information is stored on a central server, vulnerable as fuck…”
But the US government has responded to the leaks with greater restrictions. The leak has forced a clamp down on intelligence sharing and new measures to control electronically stored secrets. Despite the infamy of Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency leaks in 2013 the Obama administration is pursuing more whistle-blowers than any of its predecessors.
The US military has shown no leniency to Manning. The ease of digital publishing leaves few levers for prevention other than harsh punishment for leakers. In August 2013 Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for multiple violations of the US Espionage Act, although she was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy. Snowden remains on the run.
Even if Manning is a prisoner of conscience nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, it cannot be assumed all leaks are benign, in motivation or result. A regime for national security information must also account for the malicious, disgruntled or misguided insider. One of the jobs of the courts is to police the press by protecting whistle-blowers while also punishing libel and treachery.
The US Department of Justice is apparently under intense pressure to make an example of Assange. Investigators have been looking for evidence of collusion with Manning. If Assange really was just a passive recipient of information it would be almost impossible to make a case against him. There has never been a successful prosecution of a journalist for receiving and publishing such information.
“If they want to push the line that when a newspaper man talks to someone in government about potential abuses, that is conspiracy to commit espionage, that is going to take out all the good governance journalism that takes place in the United States,” says Assange.
There is the possibility that having seen the leaks the public will demand greater transparency. That’s what Manning wanted, “Hopefully it will result in worldwide discussion, debate and reforms.” But it hasn’t happened, at least not in the United States.
A CNN poll in 2010 found 80% of Americans disapproved of the leak. The revelations might not be viewed by some as abuses of power at all. On the contrary they could be regarded as proof the US government is prepared to get its hands dirty to protect its citizens.
WikiLeaks have certainly shaken things up. Their release of the series of leaks throughout 2010 raised serious questions about the status quo in the media industry and the government, in countries throughout the world.
Ties between the media, big business and government had potentially become too close, preventing professional journalists from living up to their code of ethics. WikiLeaks highlighted the importance of holding the powerful to account, and the role of investigative reporting in doing that.
They are one of the key examples of the changes the internet has wrought on communications, a trend that requires traditional media to either re-establish their journalistic credentials or be swept aside. The leaks themselves revealed war crimes and indiscretions, possibly influencing the great social and political change taking place in parts of the Middle East. But they also revealed public indifference, and by highlighting that control of information has never been more important a clamp down will result.
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