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Journalists Begin, Finally, to Stand Up in Defense of WikiLeaks and Freedom of Information

by John Nichols

Leading Australian journalists have stepped up in a big way to defend WikiLeaks, with the head of the nation's major media union arguing that "attacks on WikiLeaks can also be seen as attacks on the Australian media outlets which have worked with the organisation to publish leaked material."

In response to calls for the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (an Australian) and attempts to block the distribution of leaked US diplomatic cables, Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance federal secretary Christopher Warren says: "Allegations that the work of WikiLeaks is somehow illegal are yet to be proven in Australia, or in any other country. The Alliance and (the International Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific section) calls on governments to refrain from prejudicial speculation that risks harming our democratic system."

While most US journalists have been slow to defend WikiLeaks-and some have been openly critical of the website's distribution of leaked US diplomatic cables-their Australian peers are pushing back against attempts to constrain freedom of information and the press.

Dozens of major newspaper editors, broadcasters and leading journalists have signed a letter defending Wikileaks, and the nation's most respected senior journalists are condemning Australian officials-including Prime Minister Julia Gillard and federal Attorney General Robert McClelland-for suggesting that Assange broke the law by publishing the diplomatic cables.

"What they said was ridiculous," declared Laurie Oakes, a veteran newspaper and broadcast journalist who for years has been one of the nation's highest-profile political commentators. "To brand what the WikiLeaks site has done as illegal when there is no evidence at all of any breach of the law, was I think, demeaning. I think as journalists we should make it clear that that is our view. Whether it's a letterbox full of classified cables, or a quarter of a million documents in digital form, the principle is the same, and we should fight for the right to publish."

The Alliance's Warren says: "This is an issue of freedom of the press. People have a right to information through the opportunities provided by the web. Journalists remain ready to fight for the principle of exposure journalism."

"Alliance members are behind Assange in his campaign to publish in the face of government attempts to curb the public's right to know," adds the union leader and former journalist on leading Australian newspapers. "Assange has taken the ethical responsibilities of the press seriously by collaborating with established media outlets in order to withhold information that could threaten lives. His organisation has done nothing more than publish information that holds governments to account, and we stand by him in his right to do so."

American journalists have been slower to step up. And some have even joined Sarah Palin and others in attacking WikiLeaks at a time when key players in Congress are proposing official assaults on the website and those associated with it.

But the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting  has stepped up with a strong letter signed by author Barbara Ehrenreich, academic Noam Chomsky, Pentagon papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and a number of journalists associated with The Nation, Salon, In These Times, Free Speech TV and other outlets.

Here's the FAIR letter:

 

December 14, 2010

As journalists, activists, artists, scholars and citizens, we condemn the array of threats and attacks on the journalist organization WikiLeaks. After the website's decision, in collaboration with several international media organizations, to publish hundreds of classified State Department diplomatic cables, many pundits, commentators and prominent US politicians have called for harsh actions to be taken to shut down WikiLeaks' operations.

Major corporations like Amazon.com, PayPal, MasterCard and Visa have acted to disrupt the group's ability to publish. US legal authorities and others have repeatedly suggested, without providing any evidence, that WikiLeaks' posting of government secrets is a form of criminal behavior--or that at the very least, such activity should be made illegal. "To the extent there are gaps in our laws," Attorney General Eric Holder proclaimed (11/29/10), "we will move to close those gaps."

Throughout this episode, journalists and prominent media outlets have largely refrained from defending WikiLeaks' rights to publish material of considerable news value and obvious public interest. It appears that these media organizations are hesitant to stand up for this particular media outlet's free speech rights because they find the supposed political motivations behind WikiLeaks' revelations objectionable.

But the test for one's commitment to freedom of the press is not whether one agrees with what a media outlet publishes or the manner in which it is published. WikiLeaks is certainly not beyond criticism. But the overarching consideration should be the freedom to publish in a democratic society--including the freedom to publish material that a particular government would prefer be kept secret. When government officials and media outlets declare that attacks on a particular media organization are justified, it sends an unmistakably chilling message about the rights of anyone to publish material that might rattle or offend established powers.

We hereby stand in support of the WikiLeaks media organization, and condemn the attacks on their freedom as an attack on journalistic freedoms for all.

******

Daniel Ellsberg
Noam Chomsky
Glenn Greenwald (Salon)
Barbara Ehrenreich
Arundhati Roy (author)
Medea Benjamin (Code Pink)
Tom Morello (musician)
John Nichols (The Nation)
Craig Brown (CommonDreams)
Glen Ford (Black Agenda Report)
DeeDee Halleck (Waves of Change, Deep Dish Network)
Norman Solomon (author, War Made Easy)
Tom Hayden
Fatima Bhutto (author)
Viggo Mortensen (actor)
Don Rojas (Free Speech TV)
Robert McChesney
Edward S. Herman (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania)
Sam Husseini
Jeff Cohen (Park Center for Independent Media)
Joel Bleifuss (In These Times)
Maya Schenwar (Truthout)
Greg Ruggerio (City Lights)
Thom Hartmann
Ben Ehrenreich
Robin Andersen (Fordham University)
Anthony Arnove (author, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal)
Robert Naiman (Just Foreign Policy)
Dan Gillmor (Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship)
Michael Albert (Z Magazine)
Kate Murphy (The Nation)
Michelangelo Signorile (Sirius XM)
Lisa Lynch (Concordia University)
Rory O'Connor (Media Is a Plural)
Aaron Swartz
Peter Rothberg (The Nation)
Doug Henwood (Left Business Observer)
Barry Crimmins
Bill Fletcher, Jr (Blackcommentator.com)
Bob Harris (writer)
Jonathan Schwartz (A Tiny Revolution)
Alex Kane
Susan Ohanian
Jamie McClelland (May First/People Link)
Alfredo Lopez (May First/People Link)
Antonia Zerbisias (Toronto Star)
Mark Crispin Miller (NYU)
Jonathan Tasini
Antony Loewenstein

(Organizations/institutions listed for identification purposes only)

For more on the FAIR's efforts, visit the group's website at www.fair.org

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