05 December 2010

Leaking is the new terrorism

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks
According to a former Alaskan governor and North Korean ally, Julian Assange is a terrorist. He has “blood on his hands”, because being the editor of an internet outfit that makes secret stuff not so secret is just the same thing as exploding bombs in crowded places, gunning down hotel guests and flying planes into buildings. With the sort of manhunter posturing and persecutive bombast coming from his critics, you’d think Assange was Osama bin Laden’s chief operations coordinator.

Since I’m neither a Columbia University student nor a potential US public servant, I’ll go right ahead and mention the ‘W’ word. As the face of WikiLeaks, the world’s premier purveyor of leaked state secrets, Assange is the object of both scathing condemnation and ebullient praise. He has become a catalyst for public debate on political, ethical and social questions, specifically those that oppose journalistic responsibility to freedom of speech. Which side of the fence you stand on largely depends on whether you are sympathetic to the first (journalists shouldn’t be reckless) or the second (journalists shouldn’t be silenced).

If pressed, I’ll say that I’m on the ‘journos-shouldn’t-be-silenced’ side (though I'm standing quite close to the fence). The Huffington Post writer Larry Womack bats for the other team. In his article criticising Assange’s and WikiLeaks’s modus operandi, Womack writes:

[…] Assange's site has […] repeatedly shown a wildly irresponsible disregard for the rights and safety of human beings around the world. And for all the hype surrounding it, what I find most disturbing about the latest WikiLeaks document dump is the resulting exposure of a broad divide between the ethics of responsible journalists and crusading poseurs like Assange.

Womack makes some good points. For one, the indiscriminate leaks put the onus entirely on news and media organizations to redact people's names and otherwise edit sensitive material. WikiLeaks does appear to be shirking responsibility for the (possibly) harmful consequences of their publications. And to those who cite the lack of evidence of harm to any person as a result of the leaks, Womack offers this counterpunch:

[O]ne does not throw a baby into oncoming traffic and then claim innocence because it wasn't hit by a car. That there have been no announced resulting deaths does not make dangerously irresponsible action suddenly morally acceptable.

Meanwhile at The Atlantic, David Samuels is decidedly in Assange’s corner. Samuels argues that independent, even recalcitrant, organisations like WikiLeaks are necessary in an environment of increasingly self-censoring journalism. He writes:

It is a fact of the current media landscape that the chilling effect of threatened legal action routinely stops reporters and editors from pursuing stories that might serve the public interest – and anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying. Every honest reporter and editor in America knows that the fact that most news organizations are broke, combined with the increasing threat of aggressive legal action by deep-pocketed entities, private and public, has made it much harder for good reporters to do their jobs, and ripped a hole in the delicate fabric that holds our democracy together.

WikiLeaks is in a position to speak truth to power, something that ‘proper’ media channels are often unable to do for legal, financial and political reasons. Julian Assange knows this, and appears only too keen to exploit this advantage. That he and the people behind WikiLeaks are mavericks who have upended the prevalent journalistic paradigm is indisputable. But are Assange and his team benefactors of humanity, or tunnel-visioned radicals who are prepared to risk lives for their convictions? Are they both?

One thing that reasonable people can surely agree on is that WikiLeaks isn’t exactly Al-Qaeda Online.


Photograph by Carmen Valino for the Guardian

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