An interview with Julian Assange for the Bulgarian site for investigative journalism Bivol.bg – Wikileaks media partner.
Bivol: WL started Cablegate with the partnership of five top international media outlets. Are you happy with this model? What are the limitations of this approach?
Julian Assange: When I founded WikiLeaks my intention was that as we published documents the public and journalists could access these, analyze them, research around them and then write blogs or articles about them. Unfortunately this did not happen organically as I had expected. Rather, many of our documents were essentially ignored. I believe this was due to that fact that an investment of time was needed to be able to make sense of these documents. For media organisations this produced economical issues: what if another organisation was also working on them but with more people and so would produce the story first? Then the time and effort your organisation had invested would be a waste. For bloggers there is another issue as well as time and effort spent: most bloggers spend their time commenting on the issues already being raised in their social groups. Investing their time working on our documents when their social group has not already decided their stance on the issues raised in them would potentially mean they comment unwittingly against how the rest of their group eventually views the information. They do not want to waste the limited time they have outside of their other work spending time on a piece in which they don’t know what opinion to portray. I realised that we would therefore need to work with institutions to ensure the documents we posted received the attention and effect they deserved. By entering collaborations where the media were promised elements of exclusivity: for a period of time, a certain market etc. we ensured exposure of the documents. This model is working well for us, particularly as we roll it out to more and more media organisations around the world. We are now working with over 63 media organisations who are ensuring the cables effect changes in their countries. Unfortunately it means that the public and other organisaitons who would like access to the documents are limited by the media organisations’ scheduling, however, we will publish everything once media organisations in each country have picked out the most interesting cables, analysed them and written about them. We always publish the underlying source material at the moment our partners publish so readers can verify that the stories reflect the true nature of the cables.
B: How about the “cooking” of the cables? We have evidence of a cable about Bulgarian organized crime severely edited by the editors of The Guardian to avoid libel case, as they say.
JA: WikiLeaks have a strict redaction policy that all our media partners agree to. This is that the only names that will be redacted are of individuals at risk of persecution or unfair prosecution and are unable to protect themselves through financial or political power. Our agreement with each of our media partners for Cablegate is that they feed us back the cables as they wish to publish stories about them so that they can be published on our site at the same time as the cable and the story appear on the partners’ site. The format that they return the cables to us is strictly meant to adhere to our redaction policy. They are of course able to publish the cables on their own site in whatever form they wish, although of course we would prefer they not redact for reasons such as libel, but we do not manage them in this way. However, there have been a number of occasions, such as the Guardian’s publications you refer to here, where the version of the cable they have fed back to us has been wrongfully redacted outside of our redaction policy. Where we have seen or been alerted to these we change them, but this has not been possible to catch before original publication every time.
B: Do you plan to review the published material by the big media outlets for such a “cooking”? Will there be a Cablegate 2.0?
JA: At the end of this process, which is still months away, we will be reviewing each cable for this ‘cooking’ and any other issues. Once we have been through this process and have each cable in a form that is only redacted according to our redaction policy then we will release each and every cable.
B: Is there a “second market” for the cables? Aftenposten announced they got access to the cables independently of WL and then they gave access to media in Denmark, Netherlands, Greece… all of them publishing edited versions of the cables. Is this proliferation under control?
JA: Aftenposten have been giving access to various European media organisations who have been doing good work with these. Many have fed back their cables to us. In addition, we are checking across the board for any cables anywhere that have been published by media around the world, such as some from the New York Times, for cables that have not been fed back to us and are inputting these into our system. This does take some time though and with our limited resources the process is not as quick as we would like, but it is progressing.
B: How long it will take to publish all the cables? Months, years?
JA: We are not yet sure exactly how long it will take to publish all the cables. Our system is to contact at least one media organisation in each country the cables originate from and give them cables that are of interest to their market. They then read, analyse and write on these, feeding us the redacted version of the cable. When we have worked with media in each country and various NGOs from around the world and they have all found as many stories of interest as they can, and have the resources to, then we shall do the work to publish each and every cable. This could be six months away, or over a year. We do not know as it depends on how many stories the media are discovering. Currently we are creating headlines around the world on a daily basis, so it certainly will not be any time soon.
B: Why did you decide to trust “Bivol”?
JA: We were approached by Bivol through a mutual contact. We looked carefully at the work they had done. This seemed to be good work that was aligned with our mission. We then arranged to meet people from Bivol and some of our people took time to get to know them and their work better. After this we felt that they could be trusted to have a relevant set of cables to work on. We very much hope that they do good work and their security remains tight so that we can work with them on other relevant projects in the future.
B: You said in an interview that your bedside book is “Cancer Ward” of Solzhenitzin. His character is a dissident, a survivor, exiled for life, but a moral winner. Tell us about your “character”.
JA: “Cancer Ward” it is one of my favorite books. I mentioned it in the interview as I read it again whilst I was in prison: it was the only book in the prison library (a shelf containing under forty books) that I was interested in. I do relate to the book’s protagonist. I am seen as a dissident by many, though I would generally see myself as a fighter for my ideals. Often these are ideals that governments (such as the US) preach but do not adhere to. At times I have been in self exile due to attacks on us by the Australian government. I doubt I shall ever be able to travel to the US again. The people of Australia are now very supportive, but the government is still oppositional and last year publicly set both the intelligence agencies, the military, the attorney general and the federal police against me in what was called a “whole of government task force”. The government moved to cancel my passport, then changed their mind saying they found it useful to track me with. And I am currently trapped in the UK, a different sort of exile, but an exile nonetheless.
B: Do you have an ideal you can outline in one sentence?
JA: I believe in the right to communicate and the inviolability of history, privacy for the weak and transparency for the powerful.
B: You are a demonized and mythologized person. What do you want to achieve in life regardless of the price? The thing you are thinking about when you’re alone with yourself?
JA: I want to achieve many things. WikiLeaks is just one of the projects I hope to achieve in my life. Most of my projects though do center around information and the accessing and preserving of it. I hope that each of these projects will make a difference to the public and allow them to preserve their history forever. I like to spend most of my time alone, which is not much as I am always working, thinking about how to improve and expand WikiLeaks, how to better protect my staff and about future projects.
B: What is it that you want to do, but can’t because of the bail conditions?
JA: Work is more difficult due to the bail conditions. It is extremely difficult to get to London due to the time I must sign on at the police station and then be back at the house in the evening. Usually I would do many meetings in one day by running around and seeing many people for a short time. This is currently not possible so I am not able to meet the people I need to as often/as soon as I would like. In addition I often use anonymity as a protection, this is no longer possible as my location is known: the internet or even rooms themselves could be bugged, so I must spend more time and effort to preserve a certain level of security.
On freedom of speech
B: Is there an “Empire of Evil” in the contemporary world?
JA: The US and other Western states are constantly calling Middle Eastern countries the ‘axis of evil’ as part of their propaganda for the so called ‘war on terror’. There are of course people with incorrect methods to showing their views, but these exist everywhere, it is not a concept particular to one nation, religion or ethnicity anywhere. However, there are ‘Empires of Evil’ in many places. Governments that censor, as they all do, create their own empires of evil, governing their people with lies and propaganda.
B: Some analysts predict harder times for transparency after the Cablegate. They believe governments will tighten security and limit further the citizen’s rights to access information. Is this a real danger or blown up fears? Or are these opinions an attempt to blame WL?
JA: We are used to attempts by governments and others to smear us and this reaction to Cablegate is one of these. Cablegate was not born from the citizen’s rights to access information: if this was the case Cablegate would have come from FOIA requests. Rather it was born from people who presumably worked for the US government feeling the information they saw showed wrongdoing that the public should know about. Creating more secrecy will not stop this. Rather it will increase the amount of information we receive as people working in governments and large corporations will see more that the public should know, but are not able to, causing an increase in these sorts of leaks.
B: What do you think about the WL copycats: Balkanleaks, Brusselsleaks… are they useful or just redundant?
JA: We very much support any organisation or people that copy but do not misrepresent WikiLeaks’ work. For two reasons: one, we believe first and foremost in the ideals we stand for, so the more people that believe in them and promote them the better. Secondly, we are currently getting more submissions than we have the resources to work with. Therefore we are excited about smaller, localised organisations that can assist us in this work, whilst we, as an organisation with global interests can deal with the megaleaks of international interest that have become our speciality.
B: Post-communist countries have generally a poor transparency and freedom of speech record. Do you think the crowd-journalism model WL promotes can improve those parameters and how?
JA: We believe that it will. Although our concept of crowd-journalism did not work at the beginning we were less well known then. As we are getting more popular the wider community, outside of journalists, are beginning to proactively work on our material. Sites such as Cablegatesearch and WL Central are being built and growing in popularity. The public are taking the source material and working with it in various ways. This is exciting and heartening to see. It also begins to remove the issue that we have seen in come cases, including post-communist ones, that the mainstream media is so censored and controlled that a government spin is used in the stories from our publications, rather than reveal the truth in what the documents show. However, we can see in some such places that bloggers and citizen journalists are able to resist this censorship (often through anonymity) in ways corporate media cannot. We have seen such cases in the Middle East, where bloggers analysing documents and situations have helped to contribute to the revolutions there. And I think it is the same in post-communist countries; the traditional media are mainly government owned or controlled, so it is often proactive, citizen led (rather than corporate media led) organisations such as Bivol that are writing the most daring, analytical, and therefore helpful to the public, pieces.