Controversy over WikiLeaks Podesta Emails Opens a Debate for Future Journalism
In its 10th years of existence, WikiLeaks has been at the center of controversy. Ever since its global debut with the 2010 Apache helicopter gun-sight video depicting the killing of civilians in Baghdad, the whistleblowing site has consistently exposed the naked power of empire for the world to see. As a result, the organization has been subject to relentless retaliation. With banking blockades, a secret grand jury and constant character assassination of its founder Julian Assange, who remains arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorian embassy, the U.S. government’s efforts to divert public attention from evidence of its own crimes have quickly escalated into a war on the First Amendment.
WikiLeaks’ publications influenced the outcome of a Kenyan election and played a role in instigating the Icelandic revolution. Now, by means of email leaks, they began informing U.S. voters of the real working of Corporate America’s tradition of lesser-evil politics.
After the DNC email leaks that led to the resignation of top DNC officials, WikiLeaks has intensified its activity. Since October 7, they began publishing emails from the private account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta. The archive contained transcripts of Clinton’s paid Goldman Sachs speeches that show her two faces and total disconnect from the middle class. It also revealed her private remarks dismissing climate activists. As usual, the leaks have been condemned by the status quo and Clinton loyalists. This time, a narrative that ‘Vladimir Putin was meddling in the election’ was used to discredit their publication, with the mainstream media creating an echo chamber of McCarthy-era style hysteria.
Over the years, as WikiLeaks grew, incorporating their evolving strategies, criticism against the organization has also changed. Back in the day, WikiLeaks was slandered with Pentagon official’s rhetoric of “blood on their hands”, and was depicted as reckless hackers putting innocents in danger. Proclaimed liberal media institutions such as The New York Times abandoned WikiLeaks, with then executive editor Bill Keller differentiating it from his kind of journalism.
Now, while the beam of transparency is focused on U.S. rigged contest for power, WikiLeaks is once again in the eye of media storms. Some criticize what they perceive as a politically driven information dump and question whether WikiLeaks has gone too far. This new sensation around WikiLeaks is now opening up a debate for all to examine the role of journalism and at the same time gives us an opportunity to understand how the organization’s efforts to open governments is changing the media landscape.
Role of Journalists
Criticism toward WikiLeaks latest publication also emerged from those who share similar values. The NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who once described WikiLeaks as fearless journalism that they “run towards the risks everyone else runs away from”, weighed in after release of the DNC emails this summer:
Democratizing information has never been more vital, and @Wikileaks has helped. But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) July 28, 2016
Now, renowned author and journalist Naomi Klein joined in this critique. In a recent interview with Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept (funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar), Klein expressed her view that the publication of the Podesta emails is not in the same category as the Pentagon papers and previous publications by WikiLeaks, such as chapters on the TPP trade agreements. Despite her acknowledging valuable and newsworthy stories in this material, she noted how indiscriminate publication of someone’s personal exchanges bring grave threat to privacy.
The crux of the criticism revolves around different views on redaction, which has been debated in past years between Assange and Greenwald, who has been an advocate for WikiLeaks. In May 2014, what came to be widely portrayed as a Twitter storm emerged.
Upon The Intercept’s publication that revealed the NSA interception of phone calls in the Bahamas, WikiLeaks began a series of tweets criticizing their decision to redact the name of a fifth country that was revealed by the Snowden files that was a target of NSA spying. Assange condemned The Intercept for censoring, noting how it is not the place for any media organizations to “deny the rights of an entire people to know they are being mass recorded.” WikiLeaks then announced that in 72 hours they would reveal the name of the fifth country that had been a prime target of NSA mass surveillance and as promised, they identified the fifth country as Afghanistan and provided the reason behind their publication.
The difference in their approach to publishing now came up again and brought out a particular perspective about the role of journalists. In his recent article titled “On WikiLeaks, Journalism, and Privacy”, Greenwald explored obligations of journalists for reporting controversial materials such as Podesta’s emails that are widely speculated to be hacked (in which WikiLeaks noted they have many sources and have not stated the methods they used to obtain each part). He explained how he thinks it should be reported.
In this, Greenwald countered the often held objections that “Journalists should not act as arbiters of privacy or gatekeepers of information.” He emphasized how all journalism is based on this determination of what should or should not be published and stated that “core purpose of the First Amendment’s free press guarantee was to add an additional safeguard against excess government secrecy by ensuring that others beyond government officials made decisions about what the public knows.”
Klein’s thoughtful criticism also appeals to this principle of journalism. In expressing her concern about privacy, she questioned “the subjectivity of who gets defined as sufficiently powerful to lose their privacy…” Implied in this concern is a need for a designated authority who could and should determine what information is to be withheld. The idea here is that certain ‘professionals’ should decide what is to be released in the ‘public interest’ and for her this is certainly the responsibility of journalists.
Scientific Journalism as New Checks and Balance
This traditional role of journalism as a safeguard against the authoritarian state has been under attack for decades. The assault against WikiLeaks and Obama’s war on whistleblowers has shown the dire state of press freedom, even in the West. With consolidation of media and infiltration of commercial and corporate interests, an oligarchic class has captured journalists, bringing them to defend the interests of those in power. As a result, free speech is often co-opted, becoming something that requires permission.
Once a position of authority is inserted, this often becomes a point of control used to violate the privacy and restrict information in favor of the rich and powerful. No matter how good the intentions of journalists are, the act of curating can become a slippery slope, where they engage in self-censorship with their own ingrained bias and act unconsciously as gatekeepers— apologists and stenographers for their patrons.
The question now emerges as to what would hold journalists accountable and how can the everyday citizen protect themselves from those who claim to act on their behalf. Unlike many other media organizations, WikiLeaks is fully independent, with its operation being funded by its readers. By engaging in scientific journalism, they lift the gates that guard the structure of power, while at the same time bringing a new form of checks and balance.
Assange explained this scientific journalism:
“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.”
Gavin MacFadyen, a mentor and staunch defender of WikiLeaks who recently passed away, noted how the good witness is a crucial element in investigative journalism and described this as “someone who bears a truthful account of something they witnessed,” and “can describe it with the same accuracy, hopefully, as they saw it.”
As described in their submission page, WikiLeaks accepts anonymous source material of “political or historical importance that are censored or otherwise suppressed.” They verify the authenticity of these documents and they always release the full source material related to any story, whether it is published by them or someone else. In this, full source documents that are confirmed in their authenticity give opportunity for the public to become a good witness that can provide a true account of events, and this collective witnessing can engage people in what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera once said, “the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
By connecting ordinary people directly to the documents, they replace the source of legitimacy that used to be journalists’ supposed ‘objectivity’ into the public’s understanding of the authentic documents. When the information that can lead 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 draw their own independent conclusions.
This allows the public to critically examine the legitimacy of those who claim to represent them and this brings accountability not only to those in positions of power but also to the media itself. It also makes the system of representation an option. Whether it is WikiLeaks or any other media organization, people can choose for themselves who they want to grant the authority to represent their interests.
The Invention of Anonymous Drop Box
At the core of WikiLeaks scientific journalism is a breakthrough of technological innovation. The invention of the anonymous drop box and mechanism of verifying documents without relying on a third party creatively solves the problem of corporate and state sponsored media. This foundation goes beyond just technology and into the philosophy of the Cypherpunks, a group who advocates the use of privacy-enhancing technologies for social and political change.
In Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, Eric Hughes, one of the founders of the movement, expressed his distrust of illegitimate authority:
“We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence. It is to their advantage to speak of us, and we should expect that they will speak … We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place.”
Residents of the early Internet saw the enclosure of civil liberties and unaccounted power in the rise of the corporate state. Regulation and laws that are supposed to protect civil rights and maintain the function of democracy have shown to now be extremely ineffective. When law enforcement through the system of representation fails to protect the public, they sought for solutions in cryptography. In his speech titled “Computers, Freedom, and Privacy”, John Gilmore, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and one of the individuals on the Cypherpunk mailing list spoke how, “I want a guarantee - with physics and mathematics, not with laws - that we can give ourselves real privacy of personal communications.”
In 1991, as a response to the need for privacy, long before Snowden alerted the public about the looming dystopian vision of mass surveillance on the Internet, Philip R. Zimmermann invented and released PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) software that makes anonymous online communication possible.
Laws that are in favor of free speech have been increasingly weakened. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was constantly undermined (as proven in the case of Reuters not being able to obtain the footage of 2007 U.S. airstrikes in Iraq that were later released as Collateral Murder video by WikiLeaks). The Whistleblower Protection Act was also gutted. Now, a free press needs to be guaranteed not by laws but by strong math. WikiLeaks created an anonymous drop box that cryptographically ensured anyone to communicate and transfer information securely and made it possible for whistleblowers to exercise unhindered free speech.
With this new technical capability combined with the ethics of Cypherpunks, WikiLeaks built a robust platform of publishing. By making servers run through various countries that have strong source protection laws and by bouncing encrypted information through dozens of computers, they decentralized their infrastructure, making them resilient to censorship and legal attacks.
With scientific journalism, WikiLeaks challenges the traditional role of journalists, shifting it from a gatekeeper to a liberator of information – to facilitate the public to bear witness to what whistleblowers saw and bring concealed information back into the historical record.
Contrary to U.S. high officials denouncement of this new journalistic organization, WikiLeaks, founded on the values of the American Revolution liberated the First Amendment from the castle of this empire state. By doing so, it appears to fulfill the promise in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal, with abolition of any single power that claims authority over history. But this time, it is at a global scale.
Assange once articulated this passionate conviction, reminding us how:
“History does not belong to institutions that is engaging in the world like National Security Agencies and the State Department. History does not belong to journalists. History does not belong to a media organization. History belongs to human civilization that understands in order to better itself.”
Then he added that history also doesn’t belong even to whistleblowers either, although they play a vital role. This commitment to preservation of history is shown in their approach to redaction. In addressing the issues of redaction at re:publica14, WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison (who facilitated the safe passage of Snowden out of Hong Kong) spoke about how the concept of redaction came to imply responsible journalism. She then pointed out that the process of redaction is often used to hide the deeds of those in power, where large companies’ names are redacted and not for the reasons stated. Harrison explained how through their past publication experience, WikiLeaks learned that the best approach is to start with the premise that the public deserves everything and thus everything should be given to them.
She stated how the concept that information itself causes harm is illogical. She did clarify how names of individuals that cause imminent threats and loss of someone’s life need to be redacted for a short period of time. Nevertheless, the organization believes that the public should have access to full source documents in order to see information in context as each part can change meaning in relationship.
As a critical part of preserving history, WikiLeaks believes that information needs to not only be accessible, but also usable. They teach the public how they can read and access documents, such as the Public Library of US Diplomacy or PlusD that contained Cablegate. By actively engaging the public to inform themselves, this publisher of last resort makes sure that no nation, president, political party or corporation -including journalists, can control the past, present or future of our civilization.
Insurgent Publisher of the Internet
In this new digital age, the role of media organizations is quickly changing. The Internet on one hand has become a terrain of surveillance and control. But, it also has fostered democratization of knowledge and free flow of information. Former Secretary of State John Kerry once said, “This little thing called the Internet … makes it much harder to govern.” Now, each person around the world can set up a blog or website and connect with social media and technically become their own media.
WikiLeaks is the iconic insurgent publisher of this new digital age. It ushers in a new journalism that is borderless, censorship resistant and participatory. In this, conventional lines between journalism and citizens dissolve and ordinary people are empowered to participate in history as authors of their own lives, as they themselves become watchdogs for force of power that omits, erases and alters history, in order to fight against collective amnesia.
With its Twitter account that has now close to 4 million followers, WikiLeaks actively interacts with its readers around the world. They now have created two new Twitter accounts, @WLTaskForce and @CommunityWL for the supporters to spread releases from WikiLeaks, verify facts and correct misinformation. Instead of top-down distribution of information, it encourages grassroots organizing and seeks for an awakening of civic power.
Despite massive attacks and threats coming from the Washington halls of power and its European allies, the organization remains relevant than ever. From creating sparks for uprisings in the Arab World to disrupting the scripted corporate sponsored charade of the current U.S. presidential election, WikiLeaks stays strong.
In its 10 years of activity, WikiLeaks publications have caused no harm. With a perfect record of authentication of documents, they are at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of free speech. WikiLeaks will continue to be in the spotlight, challenging our preconceived notions of journalism, law and governance, and inviting all to envision the future of democracy. Has WikiLeaks gone too far? Perhaps the real question that should be asked is how far can the rest of media organizations go to keep up with this world’s first truly global 4th estate.