WikiLeaks, 10 Years of Pushing the Boundaries of Free Speech
“To me, freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is… that’s what marks us off from the stones and stars.” These are words spoken by Mario Savio, the spokesperson for the Free Speech Movement in the 60’s. Decades later, the power of free speech has surged onto the global stage and began reclaiming the dignity of humanity.
We are now entering WikiLeaks 10 year anniversary. The organization registered their domain on October 4, 2006 and blazed into the public limelight in the spring of 2010 with the publication of Collateral Murder. This video footage depicted the cruel scenery of modern war seen from an Apache helicopter gun-sight. It became an international sensation, with the website temporarily crashing with the massive influx of visitors.
This stateless media organization, with no allegiance to any country and no corporate or government money behind it, has published over 10 million documents. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains detained in the Ecuadorian embassy. In an interview with Der Spiegel on 10 years of WikiLeaks, he gave his view that the US diplomatic cables they published were the single most important collection of documents, which are up to 3 million now.
Since its first publication on December 28, 2006, the effect of WikiLeaks has been felt across the world. From the 2007 release of the Kroll report on official corruption in Kenya that affected the outcome of the national election, to the exposing of the moral bankruptcy of Iceland’s largest bank in 2009, the information they revealed empowered people and helped revitalize democracy in many countries.
By the end of 2010, WikiLeaks’ social and political impact became quite apparent. An Amnesty International report in 2011 pointed to the role of leaked documents in triggering revolutionary global uprisings. The BBC documentary WikiLeaks: Secret Life of a Superpower also attributed their revelations as a spark for the Arab revolutions. On this 10 year celebration, we shall look back the birth of WikiLeaks and examine its effect on freedom of speech around the world.
Consent of the Governed
WikiLeaks started with a mission to open governments by releasing sensitive and classified documents that belong to the public, which had been unjustifiably kept secret. Early on, Assange saw the existence of a network working in collaborative secrecy as detrimental to all people. The concept of WikiLeaks can be seen as based on this analysis of a hidden force of governance and leaks were used as a means to bring accountability to those in power.
Assange recognized how “people’s will to truth, love and self-realization” are pushed away by institutional hierarchies. He gave a metaphorical picture of this force.
“When we look at an authoritarian conspiracy as a whole, we see a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment.”
This beast-like being doesn’t only exist in power structures, but works inside each person through impulses and desires that are often unknown to us. It is a thinking that arises from animalistic desires that conspires in secret and moves quickly into abstraction, seizing the past, present and future of civilization.
In the old colonial era, this was enacted in the brutal use of force and subjugation. Now in modern time, democracy’s notion of the ‘consent of the governed’ has become a battleground for conquest by this hidden beast. By controlling information and manipulating perception, this creature inside civilization enters thoughts and feelings, dragging our humanity down.
Objectivity of Knowledge
Instincts and personal desires seem to hide in a particular foundation of knowledge, namely what is understood as the creed of objectivity, a dominant logic based in empiricist epistemology laid out by scientists and later researchers of what has become a social science. Professors David Scott and Robin Usher (1996) shed light on the prevailing value of this notion of objectivity:
“One of the most important aspects of these epistemological ‘good grounds’ are that the researcher was ‘objective’, i.e. that he or she was unbiased, value neutral and took care to ensure that personal considerations did not intrude into the research process – in other words, that the researcher’s subjectivity has been eliminated as a factor in the knowledge claim.” (p. 12)
This notion of objectivity assumes separation of observer from the observed and tends to divide the whole world into subject and object. It is a way of knowledge based on solipsism; knowing alone. Through this ethos of separation, it has established a kind of knowledge that scholar and environmental activist Vandana Shiva once attributed to what Francis Bacon described as, “the marriage of knowledge with power, a particular kind of knowledge, a very mechanistic knowledge that defined nature as dead—and, on the other side, women as passive.”
The creed of objectivity has become a powerful shield that covers the motives and influence of special interests or private agendas. In Democracy INC: The Press and Law in the Corporate Rationalization of the Public Sphere, professor of journalism David Allen (2005) observed how science has become a methodology that backs up professional legitimacy and that professionalism was used as a disguise for “public service and impartiality” and to promote a particular ideology in society (p. 55).
Quoting Harvard law professor Morton J. Horwitz, Allen (2005) described that “the attempt to place law under the banner of ‘science’ was designed to separate politics from law, subjectivity from objectivity and layman’s reasoning from professional reasoning” (p. 71). He continued, noting how the creed of objectivity is also used as a professional methodology for journalism, using this purported neutrality as a “strategic ritual”, which in the words of sociologist Gaye Tuchman; “journalists use to turn facts into truth” (p. 58).
People who are indoctrinated into this orthodoxy of objectivity have become a new class of humanity. This was once priests and royalty. Now they are scientists, lawyers and journalists that carry the role of authority, elevated from the status of ordinary citizens. Like a kind of intellectual survival of the fittest, perceived truth is crafted through a win or lose, right or wrong debate with shattering logical conclusiveness, certainty, cleverness and persuasion. The ultimate accomplishment of this practice is a merger in perception of the public interest with the narrow interests of the few, specifically citizen’s adoption of a knowledge that denies inherent connections to the other and defines each other in rank.
By locking people in a singular viewpoint, this invisible force of control makes those captured in its sight surrender their experience and become defined within this confined narrative. With the cloak of objectivity, this beast within humanity claims authority, rising through the will to rewrite history.
Source Driven Journalism
WikiLeaks challenges this authority of knowledge that manufactures consent of the governed without public participation. They do this through engaging in a new journalism backed by the conscience of whistleblowers. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Assange described the engine behind the organization:
“What keeps us going is our sources. These are the people, presumably, who are inside these organizations, who want change. They are both heroic figures taking much greater risks than I ever do, and they are pushing and showing that they want change in, in fact, an extremely effective way.”
One of WikiLeaks most prominent sources was U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning, who is now serving 35 years in prison. The publication of the Collateral Murder video in 2010 brought the first glimpse of this innovative source-driven journalism. With the powerful unfolding images of the 18 minute film, we were able to see what Manning saw. In this raw image of modern war in Iraq, Manning witnessed something that those indoctrinated by the ideology of terrorism often fail to see.
At her pretrial hearing for releasing the largest trove of secret documents in U.S. history, Manning spoke about facts regarding the July 12, 2007 aerial weapons team in the video depicting the incident in New Baghdad. Manning pointed out “the seemingly delightful bloodlust” that soldiers engaged in and spoke about the specific moment where the father driving his kids to school in a van stopped and attempted to assist the wounded, noting how she was “saddened by the AWT crew’s lack of concern about human life.”
Manning had come to see this everyday reality in Iraq from the perspective of those who had been conjured into the designation of “enemy.” In that moment, she began to see these unfolding human events more from the point of view of those she was trained to see as ‘others’ and methodically demonized by the Bush era doctrine of War on Terror. She saw what amounted to murder; the acts of these soldiers, who she found as “similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.” She saw civilians, including journalists defending themselves against the aggressors invading their own neighborhood. Through her act of conscience, Manning restored knowledge gained through placing herself in relationship with others;
In elucidating the etymology of the word conscience, Jungian psychoanalyst Edward Edinger (1984) related this to the concept of consciousness:
“Conscious derives from con or cum, meaning ‘with’ or ‘together,’ and scire, ‘to know’ or ‘to see.’ It has the same derivation as conscience. Thus the root meaning of both consciousness and conscience is ‘knowing with’ or ‘seeing with’ an ‘other.’ In contrast, the word science, which also derives from scire, means simple knowing, i.e., knowing without ‘withness.’ So etymology indicates that the phenomena of consciousness and conscience are somehow related and that the experience of consciousness is made up of two factors—‘knowing’ and ‘withness.’” (p. 36)
Edinger articulated how conscience and consciousness transforms the dichotomy of subject and object, as it is “the experience of knowing together with an other, that is, in a setting of twoness” (p. 36). Manning’s act of conscience gave birth to a new subjectivity, one that can witness and bring back the consciousness of withness. Through this knowing of putting oneself in the shoes of others, the mirror of subject-object dichotomy was shattered, liberating the perspective that had once been conquered.
Her courage to defy the US military’s official narrative and put forth a view that had been concealed by the euphemism of collateral damage broke the chains of illegitimate authority that enslaved most people into a false vision of isolated personhood and the biases of patriotism, imperialism, and militarism.
WikiLeaks’ source-driven journalism has ushered in a new form of science. It is a conscience that unites the knowledge that had been separated; that which was dividing the population into knower and the known, master and slaves. It brings a true objectivity rooted in inter-subjectivity, making journalists and American people who have been elevated to a professional class or privileged citizens of empire to see events together with others as citizens of the world.
Methods of Transparency
Unlike conventional journalism’s creed of objectivity, WikiLeaks employs a different methodology. At an interview with journalist John Pilger, when he was asked about his passion, Assange responded, “We are an activist organization. The method is transparency. The goal is justice” and emphasized the importance of not mixing up the two.
In the current climate of secrecy, transparency is largely talked about in the context of exposing concealed information to hold a powerful organization accountable. Yet transparency also means an act of self-disclosure, in which transparency is brought forth voluntarily. WikiLeaks’ method of transparency extends into both.
Senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center David Weinberger recognized the importance of transparency in the form of disclosure of bias or potential conflict of interest. He proposes transparency as the new objectivity:
“What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.”
This creed of transparency allows WikiLeaks to be true to their source. It replaces the source of legitimacy of the professional class, guarded by their false objectivity with the conscience of ordinary people. Like any researcher who strives to disclose their motives and hidden agendas, WikiLeaks is eminently transparent in disclosing the motives behind their work. Assange said at the Sydney Peace Prize award ceremony: “We’re objective but not neutral. We’re on the side of justice – objectivity is not the same as neutrality.”
This commitment to justice is manifested in their publishing criteria. In the website’s publishing policy, WikiLeaks spelled out the criteria for their publishing, saying that they accept material that is of “diplomatic, political, ethical, or historical significance, which has not been published before, which is being suppressed …”
Assange described how they are most interested in a particular quality of information and pointed out that concealed information has greater potential for just reform because those who hide it spend energy and resources in concealment for a reason.
With this transparency, WikiLeaks incorporates the scientific basis of objectivity within the very infrastructure of their website. The technological system does not play favorites or target specific groups or governments. Their job is to simply verify the authenticity of the submitted materials and if it fits the criteria for publication, then they find a way to best represent and manifest the wishes of the source. In the mainstream media spin concerning the recent DNC leaks, where they criticize WikiLeaks as aiding Donald Trump, Assange made it clear that the role of the organization is to publish whatever is given to them and they will not censor their publications for any political reasons. He noted that if they receive documents pertaining to Trump, they would publish them.
Upon this carefully established foundation, WikiLeaks engages in scientific journalism. They always release the full source material related to a story. Assange explained:
“Everything we do is like science. It is independently checkable because the information which has informed our conclusions is there, just like scientific papers which are based on experimental data and must make that experimental data available to other scientists and to the public if they want their papers to be published.”
When the information that led to a conclusion is made available to the public, people can follow the process themselves and examine the validity of the disclosures and analysis so they can make their own independent conclusions about the material.
WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison, who showed extraordinary commitment to source protection in her rescue of Edward Snowden from Hong Kong, stated that WikiLeaks believes the public should have access to full source documents in order to see pieces of information within their context as any omission can change its nature. Along with scientific journalism, Harrison also noted the ethics of preserving history and providing people with full archives in a searchable format, allowing “the public an ability to engage with their own history.”
Instead of pretending to be neutral and bias free, honest disclosure of motives allows journalists to connect with their convictions – in service to the wishes of the source and achieve their stated goal of justice.
Unleashing the Power of Free Speech
WikiLeaks liberates the right to free speech from authorities that restrict access. They amplify the voice of the common man by working to bring maximum political impact. Assange spoke of how “history belongs to human civilization that understands in order to better itself.” The whistleblowing site pushes boundaries of free speech in order to get information back to the historical record. Their act of publishing online instigated not only a free flow of information, but also an awakening of history.
In the released video of Collateral Murder, the buried stream of history arose and intersected with the present. In the unfolding scenery in that Iraqi suburb, the shadow of colonization lingers. A hidden past behind the legacy of the U.S. Empire, with its dark history of genocide and slavery haunts the present. It is now being carried over into the military-industrial age of the 21st century with the global war of terror and its outward thrusting machine-like brutality.
The cynical naming of the Apache helicopter evokes a memory of the mass murder of American natives. Native American activist and writer Winona LaDuke once spoke of how the military is full of native nomenclature and it is common military-speak that when you leave a base in a foreign country to say that you are heading out into ‘Indian Country.’ The brutal projection of U.S. power into the oil-rich Middle East contains echoes of these same savagery of massacres waged against indigenous people.
Those images released from the cross-hairs of a gun sight on that fatal day in New Baghdad shattered the mirror that has kept us in amnesia of our true history, rendering us into mere reflections in the eyes of those who seek to bend the narrative to their selfish aims. In this awakened consciousness, a spark of awareness reversed the shadows and those who had been made into ‘enemy combatants’ on the other side of the barrel of the gun started to reveal who they are.
The voices that had been silenced between the lines of history books now began to speak. The words of Frederick Douglass in his speech The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro echoes from the past:
“Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Tiny cracks have now been opened within the cemented consciousness of Western civilization. Winds of silence have begun to unwind untold stories of our ancestors. Mathew King of the Lakota tribe once spoke:
“We Indians lived a good life, a happy life until you came here and made it miserable. Who gave you the right to do that? You killed our people. You killed our chiefs. You stole our land. But God gave us this land. You can’t take it away!”
The beast inside humanity grows in darkness, trying to swallow the consciousness of knowing together, so to render all into automatons and become defenseless before the terrain of an occupied future. Free speech is the freeing of consciousness from forces that keep us asleep and make us remain victims of our unredeemed past. The roots of speech go deep into listening. It is the heart that seeks for what is silenced and actively senses what remains to be spoken. This act of speaking calls for a response, as human speech can’t exist alone. Images buried inside history beckons. They seek to be re-membered. When original events are brought to public sight, the veil of night shifts and our perception of reality changes, making it possible for us to become aware of that which would have us fall prey to a single vision.
Manning’s conscience cast a light onto what has been forgotten in history, allowing the view that was lost to come forward. At the same time, we are now given an opportunity to see something that has been sealed from our memory, our barbarian within; that which binds our will to the tyranny of the past, which has continued into the present. This act of free speech is not just a political deed, but as Savio once said, is something that represents our very dignity; “the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”
Awakening the Sleeping Giant
With its perfect record of confirming the authenticity of their documents, WikiLeaks has begun to awaken our own giant from its long slumber —the author within each person whose inspiration can defeat what seeks to conspire inside us.
2011 was the year it all caught fire. Courage that was sparked online became contagious on the streets. What had only been in history books was unfolding in real time as a rolling wave of revolutions moved around the world. The fire of self-immolation and global awakening, confirmed by US-Tunisian diplomatic cables spread like wildfire through social media and lit the passions of Egyptians in Tahrir Square.
Around the globe, people began taking the reins of their destiny into their own hands. In the U.S., coalitions of resistance made across political parties morphed into the powerful 99% alliance. WikiLeaks cables fueled insurgents in Mexico, bolstering its peaceful youth movement against political corruption of the media. “The TV is yours,” read one banner, “but Mexico is ours.”
From TPP trade agreement chapters, the emails of AKP, Turkish ruling party to the recent DNC emails that revealed the rigged presidential primary, WikiLeaks is still going strong, inviting people to participate in the history that is happening.
With the coming of this momentous 10 year anniversary, let us celebrate this publisher of last resort —this fierce vanguard of democracy. Greek philosopher Diogenes once said, “the most beautiful thing in the world is free speech.” WikiLeaks, the innovation of stateless journalism on the Internet is perhaps the most beautiful thing that has happened in the world for decades and it continues to grow.