Wikileaks: Media Challenging Authority

14 December 2010

Wikileaks is a threat to powerful institutions because it adheres to the principles of an independent media, challenging authority and power.

Commenting on his profession, Robert Fisk, the UK Independent’s veteran correspondent in the Middle East, has argued that journalists must “challenge authority - all authority - especially so when governments and politicians take us to war.” Amira Hass, of the Israeli daily Haaretz, states the role of the journalist should be “to monitor power and the centres of power." Wikileaks is an example of independent media adhering to such principles, and hence constitutes a significant threat to those committed to ensuring they can act in their own interests with impunity.

It should be recognised that Julian Assange is an editor and a publisher. He did not leak the recent US diplomatic cables, he published documents he received and in turn passed them on to media partners. Political commentators in the US calling for his prosecution, and occasionally his assassination, are sending a warning to others who seek to similarly challenge and monitor the powerful. A Wall Street Journal editorial called Assange an “enemy of the US”, the release of the classified documents “a hostile act against a democracy”. The editors implore, “Surely, the U.S. government can do more to stop him than send a stiff letter.” (1) Such threats will be nothing new to journalists in countries where attempts to confront powerful institutions carry far more significant risks.

In a desperate attempt to try and demonise the Wikileaks release, the “blood on his hands” argument has again emerged, parroted by the media, despite it hollowness being admitted by US officials themselves. (2) In Wikileaks’ 4 year history there has never been any evidence that a person has come to physical harm as a result of its activities. Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers to media outlets in 1971, noted, "The best justification they can find for secrecy is that lives are at stake. Actually, lives are at stake as a result of the silences and lies which a lot of these leaks reveal.” (3)

The Wikileaks founder, for his part, did offer to cooperate with the US government in order to cross-check whether individuals would be placed at risk. He was flatly rejected. (4) In contrast, the New York Times approached the government to determine what it did and did not want published by that paper. (5) This difference in approach offers an indication why Wikileaks might be considered such a problem, and why it alone is now the target of so many attacks, despite the worlds major publications agreeing, by the act of publishing, that the leaks are in the public interest.

The blood on hands argument has far greater applicability when turned the other way. Around the same time the US Chief of Staff was launching the accusations at Assange, the Washington Post was reporting the “ramping up” of the air war in Afghanistan following a “loosening of the reins” under the command of General Petraeus. (6) Channel 4 in the UK reported a “huge rise in wounded civilians” as a result of the surge and intensified fighting. (7) Regardless, Assange has been the subject of far greater outrage amongst articulate opinion than the killing and maiming of innocent Afghans in the most deadly year yet for civilians; a fact that offers an insight into the moral climate of intellectuals and the media.

Likewise, as one example, the cables themselves reveal the cover-up of a slaughter of 21 children in Yemen by a US air strike. (8) The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has correctly noted that the focus on Wikileaks and Assange serves primarily to divert attention away from investigations into what the cables themselves reveal, including “documents that show that literally thousands of people were first imprisoned by American forces and then transferred to the control of forces in Iraq and perhaps even in Afghanistan, where they knew that these people were going to be tortured.” (9)

The US government’s real fear, shared by leaders around the world, is not only the exposure of their hypocrisy and duplicity when dealing with foreign emissaries but, much more crucially, with their own domestic population. The Economist recognised, "The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America's unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.” (10)

Why do governments feel the need to hide their intentions from the public? Why are media corporations not fulfilling the role of Wikileaks and attempting to old governments accountable to their populations? What are the implications for Democracy in such a system? This trail of questioning may lead to conclusions that are uncomfortable, but should stimulate courses of action that are by now imperative for those concerned with democracy, human rights and justice.






5. The self censorship has gone further. James Ball writes, “What is newer — and disturbing — is attempts by governments to prevent millions of their citizens from reading this material. America’s 19m federal government employees have been told not to read the cables material — or any publication containing them. Agencies have added virtually every mainstream news outlet to web filters and blocks, a move reminiscent of China’s Great Firewall. Students at Columbia University have been advised not to comment on the cables if they might want a government job. And a US data visualisation company, Tableau, has even retracted derivative works based on the Wikileaks stories, without receiving a single specific request to do so.”