Wikileaks crackdown draining free speech

September 30, 2010 — by Anshu Siripurapu

Bradley Manning is the finest example of Internet irony. A young man working as an analyst for the U.S. army, he was arrested in May 2010 after allegedly leaking videos of U.S. Marines attacking Iraqi civilians to the whistle-blower organization WikiLeaks. In a Shakespearean twist, he was turned into the federal authorities by a fellow “leaker” after bragging about his accomplishment over e-mail.

Manning’s plight illustrates perfectly the nebulous realm of Internet publication. Organization’s such as WikiLeaks, which are entirely Internet based, are exempt from the strict standards that traditional journalists have to adhere to. Despite this, they are still extremely valuable organizations that promote global free speech and should not be targeted by governments.

WikiLeaks boasts complete anonymity for their contributors by routing their data through servers in Sweden and Belgium, countries famous for their tough shield laws for journalists. These laws prevent authorities from forcing newspapers to disclose sources. This tactic has allowed the website to remain within the jurisdictions of multiple countries and thus escape culpability for any material published, allowing for a veritable flood of leaked information from around the globe. In fact, the organization’s scope is purported to rival that of some intelligence agencies.

Manning’s arrest made headlines for weeks as it soon became apparent that more than 90,000 classified documents relating to the war in Afghanistan were sent to WikiLeaks and published under the title “Afghan War Diary.” He currently faces two federal charges for transmitting classified U.S. military information, and is suspected in the leak of the “war diary” as well.

The military maintains that the leak has jeopardized the safety of the troops in Afghanistan as well as the safety of Afghanis collaborating with coalition forces. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has stated that while the administration is “alarmed” at the breach of security, the bulk of the leaked information was already public knowledge.

Surprisingly, Manning has generated almost as much support as condemnation. Ardent supporters of whistle-blower organizations have put together a fund for his release and popular figures like film-maker Michael Moore have expressed their support for his actions. They view his actions as courageous; to them, people like Manning are essential to preserve the spirit of democracy.
While critics of WikiLeaks argue that it lacks the standards for vetting information that established news sources do, this is untrue. WikiLeaks is supported by well-established sources such as the Associated Press, a news wire service and the Los Angeles Times. Furthermore, it is precisely this lack of oversight that makes it such a powerful tool. WikiLeaks practice of ensuring complete anonymity for its sources is essential for fostering the free exchange of ideas as well as shedding light on issues that would have otherwise remained in the shadows.

WikiLeaks has no obligation to any individual or any nation in publishing its information and thus can remain virtually free of the ramifications of its actions. As the example of the Afghanistan documents shows, a net-based publication was able to release documents that are of vital interest to the public but would have surely been censored at an established paper because of the political backlash that would have ensued. Other notable leaks include a manual for operating procedures at Guantanamo Bay.

In more extreme circumstances, WikiLeaks can be the only option for people to express ideas. In countries such as China, where press censorship is extreme, the anonymity afforded to contributors by the website is essential in providing dissidents with an outlet to voice their opinions without fear of persecution. WikiLeaks unique status as an online entity allows it to avoid affiliation with its contributors and avoid the jurisdiction of such government. Without this valuable tool, the voices of the oppressed would be silenced.

Unfortunately, WikiLeaks and its members have been plagued by harassment and surveillance at the hands of governments trying to circumvent free speech protection through intimidation rather than censorship. Its founder, Julian Assange, has claimed that he himself has been harangued by agents of various intelligence agencies while traveling abroad. These underhanded attempts to take away freedom of the press are an egregious violation of the rights of citizens around the world.
WikiLeaks provides an essential function in allowing people around the world to bring hidden issues to the public’s attention and it deserves the same respect awarded to any news publication. We must hope it will continue dripping despite government attempts to plug it up.