Free Speech or Illegal Speech? Wikileaks and Democracy

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The BNP membership list, withheld information in the ‘Climategate’ scandal, Guantanamo Bay standard procedure manuals and, most notably, a recent video showing a US attack on civilians in Iraq are a few amongst countless leaks of sensitive information that Wikileaks has released into the public domain since its inception in 2006. As a result it has gained a considerable reputation as, in the words of its central figure Julian Assange, the “leading disclosure portal for, classified, restricted or legally threatened publication” providing “an anonymous safe harbor for the submission and uncensorable provisioning of documents”. The organisation claims to be the “intelligence service of the people” which proves to be less farcical than it first sounds considering that it relies solely on public donations, has obtained “more scoops than the Washington Post has had in thirty years, consistently receiving up to 10,000 pieces of leaked information per day. (Full details of Wikileaks aims and operational details can found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zNFe1mQ6Tc).

Wikileaks seeks to protect the core fundamentals that underpin both the consolidation and progression of democracy: freedom of speech, and freedom of information available through a free media. The protection of these values will result in better-informed citizens able to exercise their democratic right to vote more effectively. These principles are widely advocated within liberal democracies throughout the world, including the USA and UK, however, it is evident that many states fall short and actively seek to stem these ideals they so claim to promote.

Wikileaks stands firmly against this undemocratic trend which has become deeply entrenched within numerous societies. The true extent of this complete disregard for democratic ideals is no better demonstrated than within the UK which in 2009 issued the highest number of gag orders preventing the publication of information or comment becoming public, and requested the highest removal of data and user information from Google in Europe (more details at http://www.eweekeurope.co.uk/news/google-exposes-government-censorship-requests-6562). Furthermore, the highly restrictive ‘super-injunction’, has become a common tool used by corporations and government alike within the UK. A ‘super-injunction’ is a form of gag order which stipulates that the media outlets are not only forbidden from reporting on a certain subject, but also forbidden from reporting on the existence of the injunction.

In 2009, Wikileaks brought the UK commodities trader Trafigura to account whilst also exposing the grave situation with respect to ‘super-injunctions’. Trafigura had dumped toxic waste around Abidjan on the Western Coast of Africa, as this was the most cost-efficient option, culminating in numerous hospitalisations and deaths of coastal inhabitants. Trafigura had prevented media outlets such as the BBC and the Guardian from exposing this disgusting misconduct with the use of super-injunctions.  In addition, a direct attack on democracy and free speech established in the 1688 Bill of Rights came from an initial attempt by Trafigura to prevent media outlets reporting on Prime Minister’s Questions in which the Labour MP Paul Farrely questioned the Trafigura injunction.  Wikileaks published the BBC defence against a Trafigura libel suit which had prevented the BBC from broadcasting a Newsnight report which had suggested that 16 deaths had occurred as a result of Trafigura’s misconduct. Subsequently, Trafigura has been forced to withdraw its libel suit and are have subsequently paid out £30 million in damages to the victims (further information on the Trafigura cover up can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/16/trafigura-oil-ivory-coast). This is a clear example of where Wikileaks played a pivotal role in protecting democratic ideals and delivering justice for the innocent victims involved.

Arguably the most harrowing and widely viewed Wikileaks release to date is ‘Collateral damage’ which exposed the brutal realities of the Iraq war and a subsequent Pentagon cover up. ‘Collateral damage’ comes in the form of video footage, depicting a US airborne force killing 12 innocent civilians, including two Reuter’s journalists. The US government had previously withheld information from Reuters who had continuously pushed to establish the truth about the death of their two employees. These types of exposures have led to Wikileaks and its small team of workers to receive a considerable amount of hostility from both governments and economic elites alike.

The US government in particular has given Wikileaks significant attention, classifying the site as a threat to state security. The US Army Counterintelligence Center prepared an extensive report into the workings of the website and methods that could destroy the organisation in the section “Is it Free Speech or Illegal Speech”. The proposed methods to undermine the current success of the project was to ruin the trust that leakers placed in Wikileaks to guarantee their anonymity though exposing and prosecuting the contributors. In addition, the report discussed the possibility of making accessing of the website alone a crime, in a similar vein as the relatively undemocratic governments of China, Israel, North Korea, Russia, Vietnam and Zimbabwe who have sought to impede the operations of Wikileaks. The report was subsequently leaked and posted on the Wikileaks website and details of incidents of harassment targeted at the company through surveillance are regularly publicised on Wikileaks’ Twitter page. An equal level of harassment and effort to close Wikileaks down has come from corporations in the form of law suits and injunctions, however, in many cases the organisations have drawn more attention to the documents that they were tried to suppress as a result of their actions.

Undeterred by these persistent disruptions, Wikileaks are seeking to press ahead in their defence of democratic ideals and exposure of wrong doing by focusing their attention on Iceland. The full-scale economic collapse that Iceland suffered in 2009 has been attributed to corrupt loans and off-shore transactions, with early warning signs remaining undiscovered due to complete failure by the legislature, media and regulatory bodies. Iceland has recognised that the work of Wikileaks would have been and could be potentially valuable to prevent such a situation occurring again. As a result, there is currently a bill put forward by the Icelandic parliament that could potential make Iceland a safe haven for investigative exposure by offering substantial protections. It is evident that, although Wikileaks has been subject to considerable hostility, it is increasingly being recognised for the valuable work that it carries out. In 2009, Wikileaks received Amnesty International’s New Media Award for its role in the production of the revelatory document, ”Kenya: The Cry of Blood – Report on Extra-Judicial Killings and Disappearances, Sep 2008″, which exposed Human Rights abuses. This not only demonstrates that Wikileaks is at the forefront of investigative journalism but is becoming widely recognised and credited for its work.

There is presently an acute need for the whistle-blowing exposures that Wikileaks provides as crippling media constraints due to injunctions have left investigative journalism largely ineffective, whilst the media as a whole is restricted by political motives and profit margins. Furthermore, institutions responsible for oversight and exposure have consistently failed against the tide of public and private organisations which are set on maintaining complete secrecy surrounding their affairs. In seeking to fill the void that is presently left, Wikileaks is now a significant force in the protection of the fundamental ideals of democracy; freedom of speech, freedom of information and free media, allowing citizens to make more informed decisions.

If the workings of Wikileaks has particularly interested you I encourage you to visit their website  http://wikileaks.org/ and in particular watch the Iraqi civilian killing leak which truly brings home the disturbing misconduct that Wikileaks is trying to expose and bring to account. (found at http://www.collateralmurder.com/).

Article by Adam Punzano. Edited by Liam Geoghegan.