Emma MacKenzie covers the rise of WikiLeaks and looks at whether it has been a force for positive change.
In 2008 the United States listed WikiLeaks as a threat to the country’s national security. Senior members of the previous Bush Administration also labelled the website’s founder, Julian Assange, a terrorist. There are, however, many who consider Assange to be a hero; a champion for more transparent and accountable governance, tirelessly working against the scourge of corruption.
In a whirlwind, WikiLeaks and Assange have both become household names. Few would have expected that a grassroots, activist organisation exploiting the Internet could exasperate governments to the extent that WikiLeaks has, exposing the political and diplomatic secrets of world’s most authoritative nations. Nevertheless, the question remains as to whether Wikileaks is a force for good or a spurious instrument of ideological warfare.
Five years ago, Julian Assange was anonymous. Once a faceless, Australian hacker, he is now one of the world’s most notorious and illusive figures. In 2006 he established the WikiLeaks website. Wikileaks.org publishes documents shared by whistleblowers, many of which are sensitive or classified. The organisation’s first major releases included secret Scientology Manuals, the ‘Climategate’ emails, as well as the contents of Sarah Palin’s personal email account.
Assange is adamant about the importance of Freedom of Information. Late last year Assange stated that “the citizenry have a right to scrutinise the state” and “freedom of information is the utmost respected liberal value”. He maintains that WikiLeaks’ ends justify its means, exposing corruption while advocating for open governments. He vehemently supports a universal First Amendment, and argues for freedom of speech and expression. “We are if you like, enforcing the First Amendment around the world,” he said earlier this year.
A number of commentators have queried whether WikiLeaks has a hidden agenda, an ulterior motive. Some defend WikiLeaks as an autonomous journalistic entity. Others argue that WikiLeaks’ portrayal of itself as a journalistic endeavour is a rouse, so that it can manipulate the First Amendment to its advantage.
It is ironic that a grassroots, activist organisation campaigning for transparent governance is inherently secretive in its very nature. WikiLeaks’ structure is unusual. It is run by a handful of loosely connected individuals, relying on volunteers and donations to operate. The organisation has no fixed address. “I’m living in airports these days,” Assange acknowledged.
In order to determine WikiLeaks’ impact it is necessary to look at its major releases, including Collateral Murder and Afghan War Diary. The response of governments and corporations to these leaks is telling.
In July 2010, WikiLeaks released a classified video shot in Iraq called Collateral Murder. The video went viral. Collateral Murder explicitly documented the indiscriminate killing of a dozen Iraqi civilians and two journalists, felled by US soldiers manning an Apache helicopter. Two children were also critically injured during the attack.
The images were as shocking as the running commentary of the soldiers, which can be heard over the gunfire. Statements such as “f*** yeah, right through the windshield,” can be discerned as they fire a hail of bullets from the helicopter.
Reaction to the video was varied. WikiLeaks came under criticism for editing the footage, with some critics saying it lacked context and was sensationalised with a subjective title. Others have claimed that the video documented a war crime.
“It is up to a court to decide clearly whether something is in the end a crime. That said, on the face of it, there does appear to be evidence of war crimes in this material,” Assange said.
Not only was the video concerning because it captured a possible war crime, but it also illustrated that news organisations and journalists have failed to report ‘the truth’ of the Iraq war. Some argue that Collateral Murder thus shows the failings of what has been termed as ‘embedded journalism.’
Soon after Collateral Murder, Afghan War Diary went live later that month; an account of the US military operation in Afghanistan. Afghan War Diary consisted of 91,000 documents, which covered every aspect of American activity in the war. WikiLeaks aligned itself with a coalition of well-respected news organisations, including The New York Times in the US and The Guardian in the United Kingdom, for the release of the Afghan War Diaries.
Afghan War Diary was also met with mixed reviews. Chiefly, Wikileaks received criticism from the journalism industry itself. Some journalists claimed that WikiLeaks had been reckless, publishing the names of Afghan informants and thus placing them in danger. This was also the line adopted by the US government.
“The leaks certainly have put in real risk and danger the lives and integrity of many Afghans,” a senior Afghan foreign ministry official said. “The US is both morally and legally responsible for any harm that the leaks might cause to the individuals, particularly those who have been named. It will further limit… international access to the uncensored views of Afghans.”
The leak did not make the impact Assange was expecting. “This was a f***** fantastic leak,” he said. “[Afghan War Diary detailed] the US Army’s force structure of Afghanistan and Iraq, down to the last chair and nothing.”
Afghan War Diary was followed by the release of the Iraq War Logs late last year.
Shortly after the leak of the Iraq war diaries, Assange was issued an arrest warrant charged with sexual assault in Sweden, with the US government capitalising on the opportunity to appeal for his extradition to Washington, D.C. The website was censored in some countries, slashing its audience reach.
So, is WikiLeaks a force for good or is the organisation the ideological weapon that the US government purports it to be? WikiLeaks has certainly provided insight into the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan unparalleled by the world’s traditional media.
Ultimately, WikiLeaks has opportunely exposed the advantages of the Internet for engaged citizens at the expense of their respective governments. WikiLeaks has placed governments in a precarious position; the leaks may be embarrassing and harmful to a state’s reputation, but if they choose to censor WikiLeaks it only empowers the organisation.
WikiLeaks is a unique example of activism in the age of the Internet. If nothing else, the organisation has raised the question: what information should citizens have access to? To this, Assange would respond with one word: everything.