Thursday, September 20th 2018

Wikileaks: Journalists Protected by Free Speech or Criminals Compromising National Security?

It could be said that Wikileaks is an equal opportunity whistleblower. It has leaked documents not only against the United States government, but also the Somali government, Kenyan leaders, Swiss bank Julius Baer, the Church of Scientology, Sarah Palin, Iran, Peru, the British Ministry of Defense and climate scientists, to name a few. Its foundations are murky at best, and the source of its funding is equally mysterious. Australian Julian Assange has emerged as the spokesperson, apparent “editor-in-chief” and maybe-founder of Wikileaks.

As anyone following the news knows, Wikileaks has gained a massive amount of attention for leaking hundreds of thousands of documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this year and U.S. State Department diplomatic cables last month. Disclosure of the cables, which were private correspondence, poses a problem for the Obama Administration. While the leaks are certainly embarrassing, some argue that they put national security at risk. For example, the Afghan War Diary named many Afghan informants; revealing their identities obviously put them at risk of being killed, but Wikileaks refused to redact the names.

This issue hearkens back to 1971 when the Pentagon Papers were leaked and published in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Johnson Administration got a temporary injunction to stop publication, claiming the documents were a threat to national security. In a matter of weeks, the Supreme Court disagreed and allowed the Pentagon Papers to continue to be published. Although the Wikileaks documents do not put the war in a favorable light, it can hardly be said they had the same impact on the war or the opinion of the people as the Pentagon Papers did regarding Vietnam.

Assange recently said that if the U.S. attempted to bring legal action against him, he’d release thousands more cables. It’s unclear if there is even a case against him. While whoever gave him the documents could be prosecuted, Assange and Wikileaks did not do anything illegal to obtain them. Journalists are generally protected in this kind of situation. If the journalist’s hands are clean, the courts will say to look at the type of information. It is truly private, then its publication would most likely violate privacy laws. If the information is of public concern, however, journalists are typically able to publish it because the courts don’t want journalists to have to ask “twenty questions” about how the information was obtained; instead, they should focus on the nature of the information and whether it should be made public. But then again, what are the requirements that determine who is a journalist? A degree? Their employer? Freelancers? Bloggers? Can Assange be considered a journalist?

Some critics, like Senator Joe Lieberman, are saying even the New York Times should be prosecuted for republishing the Wikileaks cables. Columbia University students were told that discussing Wikileaks on social media like Facebook or Twitter could jeopardize their chances of getting State Department jobs. PayPal stopped processing donations to Wikileaks, and pulled the use of their servers.

Is Wikileaks an essential watchdog organization? Did they have the right to publish those documents? Many, like’s Dan Gillmor say traditional journalists should defend Wikileaks, because an attack on the site is an attack on free speech. However, though many leaks have exposed corruption, they also have shown a complete disregard for the safety of those involved: besides revealing Afghan informants names, they published a full list of the names of the far-right British National Party complete with home addresses. When a hacker got into Sarah Palin’s email, instead of publishing the relevant, work-related content, Wikileaks also published the email addresses of Palin’s friends and family. Is that information of public concern? Probably not.

Most recently, Assange was arrested in London on sexual assault charges and faces extradition to Sweden. His lawyer says the U.S. is also seeking to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act. Assange was granted bail this morning (reportedly paid for by several people including controversial filmmaker Michael Moore) but will remain in jail for now as Sweden is appealing the bail decision.

What do you think?

Posted by Nancy on December 17, 2010 at 2:06pm.

2 Responses to “Wikileaks: Journalists Protected by Free Speech or Criminals Compromising National Security?”

  1. avatar Judith Clark says:

    A great blog about wikileaks. As to the question of who is funding all of this, it has been rumored that it may be the billionaire, George Soros. This is possible. Soros is mainly interested in having a global world order. He is definitely a socialist. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out and if anyone at all is finally charged with anything.

  2. avatar Krystyna Bednarczyk says:

    Nice post, Nancy.

    I will certainly be paying attention to the Wikileaks developments in the coming months and years. While I fully support the protections offered to journalists, I just am not sure at this point that Assange is correct in claiming that his actions are protected.

    Interestingly enough, the NYT recently did a story describing its and its colleagues at The Guardian and Der Spiegel in sifting through the information provided by Assange. The journalists’ frustration was palpable. In the Media Decoder blog, David Carr quoted:

    Jack Shafer said the Vanity Fair article demonstrated that “the WikiLeaks founder has even been driving the news organizations he feeds absolutely nuts.”

    “Assange bedevils the journalists who work with him because he refuses to conform to any of the roles they expect him to play. He acts like a leaking source when it suits him. He masquerades as publisher or newspaper syndicate when that’s advantageous. Like a P.R. agent, he manipulates news organizations to maximize publicity for his ‘clients,’ or when moved to, he threatens to throw info-bombs like an agent provocateur. He’s a wily shape-shifter who won’t sit still, an unpredictable negotiator who is forever changing the terms of the deal.”

    As an attorney, I am interested in seeing whether Wikileaks will bring about a bright-line definition of what specific actions are necessary to protect an individual as a reporter. Do bloggers quality? Quite probably. But what about an individual who mass released information without any analytical filtering of the information? Is he protected if his releases are used by journalists? I don’t know the answers right now, but I look forward to finding out more.

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