Amid a bid to raise funds for his financially besieged enterprise, global whistleblower and Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange told al-Akhbar that in light of the popular upheaval in the Middle East and beyond, the battle is now “bigger than Wikileaks.” It is linked to people’s sovereignty and the right to a truly democratic government.
Wikileaks, the international whistle-blowing website responsible for revealing thousands of secret political and diplomatic documents over the past six years, announced Monday that it was suspending publishing operations in an emergency effort to raise money.
The decision came after what Wikileaks founder Julian Assange calls an “arbitrary and unlawful financial blockade” by American banks, including Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union.
“The issue is bigger than Wikileaks. It’s an issue of sovereignty. Is it right, for example, in Lebanon that Visa card holders are controlled by Washington, even though their accounts are in local banks?” Assange said in a phone interview with Al Akhbar. “We have to show the world that cards and PayPal…are instruments of Washington power. They’re all in service for political corruption, it’s literally a conspiracy.”
“Our fight can be summed up in three parts,” Assange said. “First, to fight against censorship. Second, to fight to protect people’s right for knowledge. And third, to fight for unbiased media to truly report what’s going on in the regimes.”
For Assange, Wikileaks’ crisis is especially relevant in the Middle East. “With the changes occurring in the Arab world, it’s not the time to relax, but to make sure democracies are established fully. To do that it is necessary to make sure they are not implicated with the old regimes. Egypt’s battle is ongoing,” Assange said. “[We’re] making sure the battle for democratic regimes is established, [fighting] for the peoples right to communicate.”
“We’re working on being successful on political and technical fronts; we must fight legally and financially to protect that,” Assange said.
In a press conference at the London Frontline Club, Assange stated that Wikileaks is now forced to focus on raising funds in order to challenge the financial boycott. Since December 2010, following the initial leaks of confidential US State Department cables, the 5 major US-based payment companies have refused to process donations to the website. According to Assange, 95 percent of Wikileak’s potential revenue has been blocked by the embargo.
“A handful of US finance companies cannot be allowed to decide how the whole world votes with its pocket,” Assange said in London. Wikileaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson added that before the boycott began, the average monthly donation to WikiLeaks exceeded 100,000 euros. Since then, Hrafnsson claims, monthly contributions have plunged to approximately 6,000 to 7,000 euros.
The bank blockade poses a serious threat to the relatively new style of investigative journalism brought about by Wikileaks’ whistle-blowing techniques. The website, founded in 2006, serves as an online drop box for anonymous sources to leak classified information without risk. Wikileaks typically partners with international publications, including The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel, to release the controversial documents.
Wikileaks first made waves with the American government in April 2010, when it published helicopter footage of an airstrike in Baghdad on 12 June 2007 that resulted in the death of two Iraqi journalists and an unconfirmed number of civilians. The following July, Wikileaks released the “Afghan War Diary,” a compilation of more than 76,900 internal US military documents about the war in Afghanistan.
And in October 2010, the website released nearly 400,000 documents relating to the war in Iraq. The contents of the Iraq war logs included nearly 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths in Iraq, as well as hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, and rape by Iraqi soldiers.
That November, Wikileaks began the release of information that eventually prompted the current financial boycott. In collaboration with The Guardian and New York Times, Wikileaks began leaking thousands of US State Department cables. Of the 251,287 cables initially released, the majority were unclassified; 11,000 were marked “secret,” and 9,000 considered “noforn,” the shorthand reference for material considered too delicate to be shared with foreign governments. None were classified as “top secret.” The scandal, nicknamed ‘CableGate’ in the American media, nevertheless sparked harsh criticism of Wikileaks’ ethics. Among the cables, diplomats’ confidential sources were revealed, as well as startling revelations about US involvement in the Middle East.
Within the next month, PayPal suspended the account tied to Wikileaks. In a statement last December to the Wall Street Journal, PayPal General Counsel John Muller said the account had been suspended because PayPal’s acceptable-use policy prevents an organization from using the service if “it encourages, promotes, facilitates or instructs others to engage in illegal activity.” Days later, the Wau Holland Foundation, the Berlin-based non-profit that has processed Wikileaks donations since 2009, filed legal action against the company, citing libel for alleging that the foundation was engaged in illegal activity.
However within the next few weeks, MasterCard, Visa, Bank of America and Western Union followed Paypal’s lead, each expressing concern over Wikileaks’ ethics in releasing sensitive information. Yet as many Wikileaks supporters have pointed out, MasterCard and Visa still process payments for controversial groups such as the American Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, Wikileaks staff have not committed, or been charged with, any actual crime against the US government or any of the financial groups. Though the US government has been exploring legal options for prosecuting Wikileaks for over a year now — on grounds that they encouraged the theft of government property — many prosecutors have argued that they do not have a strong enough case. Currently, US government employees are forbidden to access the website, and the American government continues to investigate possible legal charges.
Wikileaks maintains through its website that it works to improve transparency in institutions through scrutiny that “leads to reduced corruption and stronger democratic institutions.” The organization and its many supporters have also argued that while much of their leaked information is “classified,” it is not “top secret,” and people have the right to know.
Besides the bank blockade, Wikileaks has struggled with resistance by US powerhouses Facebook and Apple. In 2010, Facebook allegedly removed Wikileaks’ fanpage, and later in the year Apple removed an application from its App Store that linked to the leaked State Department cables.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has also expressed concern over the pressure being exerted on Wikileaks and its funders by private companies. In a conference on 9 December 2010, the day after Wau Holland Foundation filed suit, Pillay said that, “while it is unclear whether these individual measures taken by private actors directly infringe on state’s human rights obligations…taken as a whole they could be interpreted as an attempt to censure the publication of information, thus potentially violating WikiLeaks right to freedom of expression.”
Assange stated Monday that Wikileaks will need US$3.5 million in the next 12 months if it wants to continue operating.
“If the blockade is not torn down by the end of the year, the organization cannot continue its work,” Assange said in the press conference.
Though Wikileaks has been denied the most common payment methods, Assange stated that the site can still receive donations through traditional checks, cash payments, and transfers through companies that have not banned the group.
“All activities need funding…we were fortunate that we had people to fund us, but we still need more. We are certain of our funder’s dedication to destroy bank blockage,” Assange said Tuesday. He also told al-Akhbar of plans to release a new technical system that “will offer a new generation of techniques to uncover corruption in regimes,” to be launched on November 28.
Interview with Julian Assange was conducted by Sabah Ayoub, a writer for al-Akhbar’s Arabic edition