WikiLeaks Founder's Arrest Stirs Intense Debate on Freedom of Online Media

While Radical 'Hactivists' Launch Cyberattacks Against Companies That Have Cut Ties to the Whistleblowing Web Site Over its Publication of Secret U.S. Diplomatic Documents, Others Call Into Question the Legitimacy of Sex-Assault Charges Against Assange and of the Constitutionality of a U.S. Crackdown

 

(Posted 5:30 a.m. EST Tuesday, 14 December 2010)

NOTE TO READERS: When this column made its debut as a stand-alone site five years ago this week, questions about media freedom were very much in the news. At the time, the debate was centered around radio "shock jock" Howard Stern, who had announced that he was leaving terrestrial radio after 35 years to move to uncensored satellite radio, having signed a five-year contract with Sirius (Stern on Friday announced that he has inked a new five-year deal with the network -- and that he plans to retire in 2015). Now, five years later, a debate over media freedom has flared anew -- this over the freedom of online media, as a result of the WikiLeaks furor. While this column has made clear that it considers WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a rogue for threatening -- then backing off from -- the release of the site's entire uncensored cache of secret U.S. government documents upon his arrest last week in London, the controversy nonetheless raises serious issues of how much freedom the online media have. -- Skeeter Sanders, Editor & Publisher, The 'Skeeter Bites Report

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SPECIAL REPORT
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By WILLIAM FISHER
Inter-Press Service


NEW YORK -- As pro- and anti-WikiLeaks forces draw their battle lines, and WikiLeaks’ impresario Julian Assange marks time in storied, overcrowded and very Victorian Wandsworth Prison in southwest London, a group of his supporters are taking a different tack.

No, they’re not hacking MasterCard or Sarah Palin. Instead they’re speaking out in no uncertain terms. Their message: On balance, the staggered release by WikiLeaks of some 250,000 diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies around the world is providing a valuable public service for which some believe Assange is being persecuted with trumped up sex charges.

These champions of transparency and enemies of government secrecy are the small but vocal community known as the human rights and press freedom constituencies.

'WIKILEAKS SPEAKS TRUTH TO POWER,' DEFENDER SAYS

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told IPS that WikiLeaks "has played a critical role in giving the American people the truth about the lies the U.S. government has told about its wars, especially those in the Middle East and Central Asia."

Regarding Assange’s arrest, he added, "Yes, the charges for which he is being investigated need to be investigated. Yet the irregularities in the proceeding are glaring. Why was the case dropped originally? Why was he allowed to leave Sweden?"

"Why was bail denied when he surrendered and his lawyers had let the police know he would do so when the warrant was served? Finally, is the hand of the U.S. the answer to these questions?" Ratner asked.

ACLU: PROSECUTING WIKILEAKS WOULD VIOLATE FIRST AMENDMENT

On Tuesday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley announced that the U.S. was considering criminally charging Assange for his role in releasing the diplomatic cables that have embarrassed Washington and many of its allies.

Two days later, Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson told ABC News she believed an indictment was "imminent."

However, Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, says she is deeply skeptical that prosecuting WikiLeaks "would be constitutional, or a good idea."

"If newspapers could be held criminally liable for publishing leaked information about government practices, we might never have found out about the CIA’s secret prisons or the government spying on innocent Americans," Shamsi told IPS. "Prosecuting publishers of classified information threatens investigative journalism that is necessary to an informed public debate about government conduct, and that is an unthinkable outcome."

RIGHTS GROUP SAYS CABLES CONFIRM YEMEN LIED ABOUT U.S. MISSILE STRIKE

Amnesty International staked out a similar position, noting that international human rights law permits states to invoke censorship only on narrow grounds such as national security or public order.

And even in cases where these criteria apply, "states do not have a blank check to keep information secret or to punish individuals for publishing it, simply by declaring the information to be ‘classified’ or declaring it necessary to restrict it as a matter of ‘national security’," said the London-based group.

More substantively, it noted that one of the cables corroborates images Amnesty released earlier this year showing that the U.S. military carried out a missile strike in south Yemen in December 2009 that killed dozens of local civilians, including women and children.

"What we know, and what the WikiLeaks cable confirms, is that Yemen clearly lied to its people and to the world, and the United States thereby avoided a response," Tom Parker, Amnesty’s policy director for terrorism, counter-terrorism and human rights, told IPS.

ARREST OF ASSANGE 'UNDEMOCRATIC,' SAYS RUSSIA'S PUTIN

Even some world leaders have weighed in on Assange’s case, with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calling his arrest "undemocratic" and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva commenting that, "There is nothing, nothing for freedom of expression and against the imprisonment of this guy who was doing better work than many of the ambassadors."

On Friday, Assange was moved to a segregation unit in Wandsworth Prison. He is due in court today (Tuesday).

Dinah PoKempner of Human Rights Watch says she "has no information regarding Mr. Assange’s personal actions in Sweden and thus no position on his arrest on charges of sexual assault other than that like any suspect in a criminal case, he should be accorded full rights of defense due under international and domestic law."

However, she said that her organization is concerned about recent allegations from various political figures that the actions of WikiLeaks somehow amount to either "terrorism" or "espionage" in the absence of evidence of any intent to attack civilians or endanger national security.

"Threats made against Mr. Assange’s life are particularly reprehensible," she told IPS, adding that, "Although the quantity of the WikiLeaks cable release is unprecedented, the nature of the material is not. Traditional media frequently reveal non-public government information of an embarrassing nature, and this can be in the public interest and in furtherance of the right to receive information in a democratic society."

WORRIES PERSIST OVER SAFETY OF HUMAN-RIGHTS ACTIVISTS ABROAD

"We have expressed concern to WikiLeaks that care be taken not to reveal information that endangers lives, and we continue to monitor the disclosures to that end," PoKempner added.

Human Rights First supports the debate over U.S. diplomacy that has been sparked by the latest round of WikiLeaks documents, but it shares the concerns of Human Rights Watch about the question of human rights activists who may be at danger if certain information is not redacted.

WikiLeaks says it has been especially careful in removing those names.

John Kampfner, the chief executive of Index on Censorship, associated with the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), says, "Good journalists and editors should be capable of separating the awkward from the damaging. Information that could endanger life, either in the short term or as part of a longer-term operation, should remain secret."

CRITIC: WIKILEAKS DOING WHAT MAINSTREAM MEDIA AREN'T

In an editorial last week, he predicted: "Once this latest flurry is over, prepare for the backlash. Mr. Assange’s industrial-scale leaking may lead to legislation in a number of countries that makes whistle-blowing harder than it already is. Perhaps the most curious aspect of the WikiLeaks revelations is not that they have happened, but it took someone as mercurial as Mr. Assange to be the conduit."

"Rather than throwing stones, newspapers should be asking themselves why they did not have the wherewithal to hold truth to power," he said.

Of course, many publications certainly did, if only after the fact. As noted by Reporters Without Borders, which strongly supports the right to publish, "Any restriction on the freedom to disseminate this body of documents will affect the entire press, which has given detailed coverage to the information made available by WikiLeaks, with five leading international newspapers actively cooperating in preparing it for publication."

EFFORTS TO SILENCE WIKILEAKS 'WILL FAIL'

As Assange’s supporters rally to his side, one thing is clear: The genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back, regardless of the pressures exerted on the whistleblower organization by corporations and government authorities.

Chip Pitts, past president and current member of the executive committee of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, told IPS, "Assange’s arrest now further complicates and escalates the situation."

"The ferocity with which the establishment has targeted Assange reveals its profound concern over the historic new trend toward global transparency WikiLeaks exemplifies: If the big thieves can’t keep their thievery secret, what will they do?"

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Special Report Copyright 2010, Inter-Press Service. Republished Under Creative Commons license 3.0.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2010, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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