WikiLeaks has exposed a range of suppressed facts and unethical practices in a manner and scale never before seen, writes 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 15, 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.
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.
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.