Wikileaks: the rise of new media?

6 December 2010

Written by: Renee Tibbs

To look at, Julian Assange is not an extraordinary person, yet the 39-year-old Australian is doing something extraordinary.  He’s in hiding and wanted by Interpol.

Wikileaks, the international non-profit organisation that publishes political documents leaked to it by anonymous sources and that Assange helped to found, has from 28 November 2010 published over 250,000 documents online with simultaneous press coverage worldwide from publications such as The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and Le Monde.

The majority of these documents are US diplomatic cables from over 250 embassies dating as far back as 1966.  The cables cover a substantial range of topics, from the War on Terror, to nuclear disarmament, to the Middle East.  One of the more surprising revelations is the fact that most countries in the Middle East have been pushing for the US to go to war with Iran.

Another revelation has it that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton ordered diplomats to spy on the UN, blurring the line between diplomacy and intelligence-gathering.

This is not the first time Wikileaks has revealed information potentially devastating to the US.  In October this year, it released the infamous Iraq War Logs, a collection of almost 400,000 documents which revealed an additional 66,000 civilian deaths that had not been accounted for, including 15,000 civilian deaths that had not been admitted to by the US government.

The logs also exposed a gross negligence on the part of US authorities, who failed to investigate hundreds of cases of torture, abuse and rape by US soldiers.

Of course, these leaks have huge ramifications for the US, the fallout of which we are only just beginning to see.  Secretary of State Clinton is confident that the leaks ‘won’t hurt US foreign relations’, but this is belied by the fact  that the US is in full damage control mode.  What is more interesting, in terms of the media’s role in 2010,  is the US’ aggressive witch-hunt of Wikileaks in general and Assange in particular.

Legally, it is not clear what Wikileaks has done wrong.  Even if Assange was able to be prosecuted under US law, the US Constitution grants the First Amendment right for the press to publish information significant to the people’s understanding of their government’s policy.  It is both infuriating and embarrassing for the US that they have no grounds on which to arrest or detain him, and therefore no grounds to shut him up.

Not since the release of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times in 1971, in which it was revealed that the US government had systematically lied to both Congress and the US people about the Vietnam War, has the world seen a leak so devastating to the US government.

For their troubles, Wikileaks has come under sustained cyber-attack. EveryDNS, Wikileaks’ management service, has dropped Wikileaks from its entries, citing distributed denial of service attacks, causing it to be unreachable at its old site of  Moneybookers, the internet payment company that collects donations for Wikileaks, closed down its Wikileaks account after being placed on a US watchlist.  Both Amazon and Paypal have severed ties with Wikileaks and it is hard to believe that the US —and other governments that have been the target of Wikileaks — have not had a hand in this.

More alarming  is the strategically-timed Interpol red notice issued for Assange accusing him of rape.  In what smacks of too-perfect timing, not one week after the leaks Assange is now on Interpol’s ‘Most Wanted’ for this crime.  The rape arrest warrant was originally issued by the Swedish Public Prosecutor’s Office in August this year, only to have them embarrassingly withdraw the warrant when they realised there was, in their words, ‘no evidence’.

This new notice by Interpol has been issued because, apparently, Assange did have sex with a woman – but the condom came off, which is a prosecutable offence under Swedish law, called ‘sex by surprise’.  Not rape.  Not molestation.  A misdemeanour with a maximum punishment of 5,000 kronor (or about $AUD750).  Yet this, apparently, is enough to get you on Interpol’s Most Wanted list.  It would be laughable if it wasn’t frightening.

Yet Assange and Wikileaks are doing the job that the mainstream press should have been doing all along.  They are exposing truths relevant to the US people, and truths that the US people have a right to know.

After President Obama garnered massive public support for  his ‘Change You Can Believe In’ campaign, the public has a right to question not only why that change has not come, but why the Administration has not reversed some of the most controversial and contentions decisions of the Bush Administration. For example, why has Guantanamo not been closed down?  Why has the war in Afghanistan escalated with an additional 30,000 troops being deployed this year alone?

We live in a strange time,  where in the US the backlash against Assange has been taken up in some places by the press itself.  Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly has gone so far as to say Assange should be executed for treason, and that he would ‘like to see [him] hit by a drone strike’.

Wikileaks is redefining what ‘journalism’ means.  For the first time in history, we are seeing the effects of the horizontal, peer-based architecture of the internet on journalism in a way that people have theorised for some time but have never really seen in actuality.  Information is not filtered but is accessible instantaneously and by anyone.

Assange may look nondescript, but his actions are anything but.  He is doing an extraordinary thing.  He isn’t the man behind the curtain.  He’s the man willing to be ostracised, hated and hunted so the real people behind Wikileaks can keep doing the work. While Wikileaks might make the business of government more difficult, it’s comforting to know that there is someone out there still watching the watchmen.

Renee Tibbs has just completed the Graduate Diploma in Journalism at La Trobe University and is the current editor of upstart.