WikiLeaks fights back in the face of financial blockade and arm-twisting

October 24, 2011, A. Srivathsan

Over the last four years, combining the ethical hacker’s spirit that seeks to set information free, with the journalist’s quest to improve transparency by publishing material that readers ought to know, the world’s leading whistleblower organisation WikiLeaks has exposed a range of suppressed facts and unethical practices in a manner and scale never before seen. It has changed the rules of the game for newspapers. It has prompted new thinking among journalists, publishers, and journalism educators and students worldwide. Starting March 25, 2011, The Hindu was able to offer readers a broad spectrum of articles and reports based on a selection from 5,100 India Cables, aggregating six million words, made available to it by WikiLeaks. The question now is whether the organisation headed by Julian Assange, which was nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, will be able to continue with its public-spirited work — or will choke under an unprecedented financial blockade.

In the last one year, ever since Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union stopped processing financial transactions involving WikiLeaks, this not-for-profit media organisation has lost tens of millions of pounds in donations. The financial blockade has deprived it of some 95 per cent of its revenues and forced it to fall back on its reserves.

The details

Starting October 24, the organisation is launching a fund-raising campaign titled “WikiLeaks Needs You.” Through advertisements in newspapers and online sites, it is appealing to its supporters across the world for contributions. The financial blockade has made it difficult for donors to contribute. Though sending contributions through bank transfer and cheques is still possible, it involves large transaction costs and thus loss of revenue. WikiLeaks has now come up with alternative ways to transfer funds and has provided the details on its website. By doing this it hopes to foil the oppressive measures by powerful groups, and break free to do what it does best – “provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way” for the whistleblowers to share the truth with the rest of the world.

In a statement issued on October 24, WikiLeaks said that the banking and processing blockade, coming as it did at “a time of unprecedented operational costs,” had made it difficult to continue with its activities across 50 countries. It announced that it was temporarily stopping publishing operations and shifting its attention to raising funds and fighting the blockade.

This fight was not only for its own survival but also against its well-wishers being deprived of their rights “to economically express their support for the cause they believe in,” it said.

With the help of whistle-blowers and by means of collaborating with the mainstream media, WikiLeaks has exposed rampant corruption in Kenya, the unethical dumping of toxic chemicals in Ivory Coast, outrageous torture practices in Guantanamo Bay, and secret war manipulations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Closer home, the ‘India Cables’ — U.S. Embassy cables relating to India made available to The Hindu by WikiLeaks — centre-staged, among other things, major bribery charges — cash for parliamentary votes. This paved the way for a new round of prosecution and the arrest of those involved in the major political scandal.

Arm-twisting begins

Trouble started for WikiLeaks in November 2010, after it started publishing the confidential cables exchanged among American diplomats worldwide. It collaborated with five newspapers — The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel — and made available to them some 250,000 cables. Later, other newspapers including The Hindu, and Pakistan’s Dawn, joined the project. As more and more uncomfortable truths surfaced from Cablegate, concerted efforts to block WikiLeaks intensified. Two days after select cables were published, the U.S. government announced that it would investigate WikiLeaks for violation of espionage laws. Mike Huckabee, a Republican politician, called for the execution of Julian Assange, Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks. Fellow-Republican Sarah Palin wanted Mr. Assange to be “hunted down.”

The consequences of the U.S. arm-twisting were immediately visible. On December 1, 2010, after receiving a call from Joe Lieberman, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Amazon Web services stopped hosting the WikiLeaks website. Mr. Lieberman stepped up the offensive by asking organisations that were helping WikiLeaks to “immediately terminate” their relationship with it. On December 3, PayPal, the online payment site, announced that it had “permanently restricted” WikiLeaks accounts that were used to seek donations and mobilise funds. MasterCard followed and announced that it would not process financial transactions involving WikiLeaks. Bank of America and Western Union were the next to join. By the end of December 2010, donations routed through banks and credit card companies stopped reaching WikiLeaks. Similarly in Europe, donations to WikiLeaks were blocked by Visa and MasterCard, which together had 95 per cent share of the European payment card market in 2010.

A WikiLeaks app that allowed users to access the leaked documents was removed by Apple towards the end of December 2010, only four days after it had been launched. Quoting ‘Igor Barinov,’ the developer of the app, The Guardian reported that half the money raised from the sales of the app — which cost $1.99 apiece — was to be donated to WikiLeaks. ‘Barinov’ claimed that about $1,000 was raised in three days, mostly from U.S. sales.

Thus starved of funds, WikiLeaks had to fall back on its reserves to continue setting up computer servers in different countries and publishing stories and leaks.

Credit card companies and banks have tried to defend their actions by stating that their “payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity.” However, the fact remains that no charges of illegality have so far been officially brought against WikiLeaks.

In December 2010, the Australian Federal Police, which investigated whether WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange had broken any laws by publishing classified U.S. documents, concluded that there was no evidence to press any charges. On January 14, 2011, The Wall Street Journal, quoting Dow Jones Newswires, reported that the U.S. Treasury Department did not have “enough evidence to place sanctions on” Mr. Assange or WikiLeaks. A Reuters report confirmed that the U.S. State Department held a similar view. Quoting a congressional official, the news and financial information agency stated that the administration was “compelled to publicly say” that the WikiLeaks revelations had seriously damaged American interests. In private, the State Department officials told Congress that the leaks were embarrassing but not damaging. This was done “in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers.”

At the WEF, Vienna

How does WikiLeaks relate to journalism as “the source that is not a source” and as an intermediary “with an agenda”? How should newspapers deal with such organisations, which have had a big impact on journalism and have prompted changes in the journalist-source relationship? These questions were debated by a panel at the 18th World Editors Forum (WEF) held in Vienna in October 2011. Ahead of this discussion, Mr. Assange, in a conversation with N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu and a panellist, offered his perspective on WikiLeaks as a journalistic organisation and as source.

“WikiLeaks is a publisher…breaking news and writing stories,” he said. “And it’s a rather generous publisher. When the source material that we acquire is more than we can make use of ourselves or has more relevance to other regions, then as an act of generosity and collegial spirit we pull together other organisations to share in the bounty.” As for WikiLeaks as source, “it’s often that your source is not the person who wrote the document,” Mr. Assange explained, “but someone in a chain who perhaps comes to you [with the sensitive material]. And from that perspective, we’re no different from any other source in the chain.” The WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief offered yet another perspective: WikiLeaks was also “like an agent for writers. [Without an agent] writers don’t tend to get a very good deal. But if they have an agent who goes and shops around the material to different publishers, they get a much better deal. That’s a sort of WikiLeaks-as-a-source perspective.”

Quoting Mr. Assange’s responses at the WEF panel discussion in Vienna, Mr. Ram commented that “the muddle is not out there but only in our mindsets as professional journalists who often work on the assumption that we have, and follow, clear and accepted professional standards of dealing with ‘sources.’ This assumption is a myth. When it comes to dealing with sources, especially sensitive sources, market practice takes in an astonishing range…from ethically sound rules and safeguards introduced by the journalistic supervisors within news organisations…to anything goes. It’s the vast middle ground that is ‘nebulous.’” As for the ‘agenda’ question, The Hindu’s Editor-in-Chief commented that every news organisation had an agenda and there was “no special reason to be suspicious towards, or unduly wary of, the agenda of WikiLeaks” or any other whistle-blowing organisation, for that matter. “You just have to apply good journalistic verification procedures and standards of dealing with both content and sources.”

This being the case, singling out WikiLeaks for aggressive and unprecedented attacks smacks of wholesale hypocrisy and arbitrariness. The not-for-profit organisation, which depends on volunteers, has understandably characterised the financial blockade as unlawful. It views it as an “unprecedented attack on supporters’ freedom of expression” and “a direct interference into people’s ability to affect change.”

Comparing the round of actions with the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era, it has cautioned that unless the unlawful action is seriously challenged and reversed, “Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and other international NGOs that work to expose wrongdoing of powerful players risk the same fate as WikiLeaks.” Even the newspapers that publish leaked material may not be spared in future, it warned.

WikiLeaks has announced that it is in the process of legally challenging the blockade “in different jurisdictions.” As a first step, along with DataCell, an information technology company based in Iceland, which handled its credit card donations, it has filed a formal complaint with the European Commission against VISA Europe and MasterCard Europe. The Commission has sought an explanation from the companies.

Detailed information on the “WikiLeaks Needs You” campaign and how to donate is available at

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