WikiLeaks’ challenge to media status quo

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WikiLeaks released a new slew of secret US military documents on April 24 relating to the US off-shore detention facility Guantanamo Bay. The Guantanamo Files were released by WikiLeaks and its media partners as 779 documents that dealt specifically with detainees.

The documents included classified assessments, interviews and internal memos written by the Pentagon’s Joint Task Force at Guantanamo marked “secret” and “noform” — no information to be shared with representatives of other countries.

The documents reveal that US interrogators considered Australian former Guantanamo inmate David Hicks to be a “highly trained, experienced and combat-hardened” terrorist with the capacity to play a leadership role in terrorist groups.

A second memo about Australian Mamdouh Habib reveals he made several confessions of planned terror attacks to Egyptian interrogators “while under extreme duress”. Habib retracted all of his confessions when he was held at Guantanamo, said the April 26 Sydney Morning Herald.

The latest WikiLeaks release is another step forward in the battle to bring more transparency and accountability to the US and Australian governments. Hopefully these documents will help towards making a case for reparations for all the detainees that were tortured or held and never charged at Guantanamo.

In 2006, from a dark corner in cyberspace, one of the most important and powerful journalistic tools ever was conceived — the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks is a non-profit organisation that publishes classified media (or leaks) from anonymous sources. WikiLeaks is described on its website as “an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis”.

The figurehead and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks is Julian Assange — an Australian internet activist and journalist.

But the man behind WikiLeaks is not your likely hero-figure. On August 20, 2010 Swedish police started investigating several sexual assault claims involving Assange. In December, Swedish authorities issued a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) to extradite him to Sweden for questioning.

In February, Assange’s first extradition hearing took place. The judge ruled that he be extradited to Sweden.

In an article published in The Guardian on February 24, Assange commented on the decision: “It comes as no surprise but is nevertheless wrong. It comes as the result of a European arrest warrant system run amok.”

On March 2, Assange’s lawyers submitted papers at the London High Court to challenge the extradition. The appeal hearing is set for July 12 at the London High Court.

In April 2010, WikiLeaks published video footage that showed several Iraqi civilians and journalists gunned down in cold blood by a US Apache helicopter on July 12, 2007.

Three months later, WikiLeaks released the Afghan War Diary — a collection of more than 76,900 leaked documents concerning the war in Afghanistan.

Then in October, WikiLeaks released The Iraq War Logs — a package of more than 400,000 leaked Iraq War documents.

In November, WikiLeaks started releasing 251,000 US state department diplomatic cables. The day after the release of the first tranche of cables, the Australian Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, told the press that Australia would inquire into the activities of Assange and his organisation.

McClelland said: “From Australia’s point of view, we think there are potentially a number of criminal laws that could have been breached by … the release of this information. The Australian Federal Police are looking at that.”

Assange has been labelled as cyber-terrorist by many in the US administration and a hero by his supporters; no matter how you choose to brand him, there is no denying that Assange is a cause celebre.

A group of almost 200 high-profile names who signed a December 7 open letter to the Gillard government asking for Assange’s protection. Among that list were Julian Burnside QC, an Australian barrister and human rights advocate, and Antony Loewenstein, a Jewish-Australian author and journalist.

The Monash University newspaper Lot’s Wife spoke with the two former Monash students to get their thoughts on WikiLeaks.

Julian Burnside said: “I think WikiLeaks is important because it provides a convenient, accessible and anonymous platform for whistleblowers to release material on to.



“I am broadly in support of the idea of whistleblowers, provided that what they do is responsible ... Whistleblowers need better protection and they need some way in which they can blow the whistle effectively.
“WikiLeaks is quite a clever way of doing that, and a way that allows whistleblowers to conceal their identity ... I think they [the United States] know that they can’t do anything about Assange but they want to,” he said.

“I suspect one of the reasons that they are treating Bradley Manning so badly is that they want to break him so that he will say, in substance, that Julian Assange encouraged or procured his leak of material. If they did that, it would implement Assange in a crime for which the Americans could deal with him.

“Whoever took the material, is very likely guilty of an offence under American law. If that’s Bradley Manning then he has a problem and the way they are treating him now — which I think it truly scandalous — must have some purpose.

“I suspect the purpose is so they can use him to build a fabricated case against Assange.”

One of the main criticisms coming out of the US administration and those looking to prosecute Assange is that he is facilitating terrorism and compromising national security.

In response to this argument Burnside said: “If what Assange is doing is undermining the national security of the US, then the New York Times, the London Times, The Age, in Australia, and other newspapers around the world, they’ve done exactly what Assange has done — which is to republish material that has been leaked by someone else.

“I think these people should be called for what they are. If they say crazy inflammatory stuff — like calling for the assassination of Assange — that is grossly irresponsible.

“If journalists were serious about balanced reporting they would give equal time to Osama Bin Laden as they give to the American secretary of state. They don’t do that, because they regard him as not worth listening to. I think some of the things they [US officials] are saying now are not worth listening to. They deserve to be ridiculed.

Burnside continued: “It is important to remember that the Swedish prosecutor thought there might be charges laid, then decided against it, he [Assange] was in Sweden, he asked the prosecutor if he could leave the country and they said yes; it was only when the Americans got a bit excited about WikiLeaks that the prosecutor then decided to try and extradite him for questioning.

“There is a terrific article by [US author and political consultant] Naomi Wolf in which she makes the point that in 20 years of researching sexual crimes of various sorts, she has never ever seen a person who is not yet charged, but is thought to have been involved in a very ambiguous sexual encounter, whose extradition is sought.

“If this reflects a real sea change in the way sexual misdemeanours and crimes are dealt with — that’s very good.

“But, if they really have changed their view, she can point to thousands of people in Britain, America and Sweden and so on, who are plainly guilty of far worse sex crimes than [Assange’s] even alleged to be involved in. Why aren’t those people under the gun?

“The answer is to do with blackening his name and getting him out of [Britain] so that he will be an easier target to get to the US.”

In response to the Gillard government’s treatment of Assange, Burnside said: “Every country owes every citizen of that country the duty to protect them if they get into difficulty in another country.

“Without even considering if he had done anything dodgy, and certainly without considering Australia’s obligation towards him — she basically cut him adrift.

“And McClelland, astonishingly, said that they would look at cancelling his passport; which would prevent him from seeking the safety of home. It was equivalent to our treatment of David Hicks.”

Former Lot’s Wife editor Antony Loewenstein said that the WikiLeaks editorial team have done a lot better in terms of publishing leaked information than much of the corporate press has for many years.

Loewenstein said: “The whole idea of WikiLeaks really is to say ‘here is a news story, but what is the cable? Let’s have a look at the cable’. Fairfax didn’t generally [make its cables available] ... I think there is a real question about why Fairfax didn’t do that here, and my understanding was that they didn’t want to put a lot of their cables online because they are worried that their competitor, namely the Murdoch press, would steal the stories that they have not got from those cables — so it was a commercial decision.

“This is really against what WikiLeaks is about, which is transparency and Assange talks about ‘scientific journalism’ ... what he means by that is that you are transparent as a writer and a journalist where your sources are.

“What the web clearly can do, and so many news organisations still do not do but should, is actually provide primary sources and primary information as much as possible.

“There is a very unhealthy intimacy between many journalists and the political elite, clearly if one writes for example about domestic politics. Far too often there is a sense of protecting a certain status quo: that is to say protecting an arrangement about not challenging too much corporate or political power.”

WikiLeaks is a way in which we can move the mainstream media back towards the right direction; that is its role as the Fourth Estate — the duty of the press in a representative Western liberal democracy to act as a watchdog on the spending and actions of government.

[Timothy Lawson is a freelance journalist and the editor of Lot’s Wife.]