by Benedetta Brevini
As a journalist, scholar and media reformer, I have been following the activities of WikiLeaks for over a decade, assessing the disrupting force of new radical platforms for disclosure. WikiLeaks is a crucial example of a digital platform that exposes the contradictions of the internet as a tool for openness and secrecy, freedom and surveillance, free speech and censorship. But it is much more. I don’t think that anyone would dispute the incredible impact that WikiLeaks revelations have had, not just to disconcert and embarrass power elites, not just to expose crimes in the public interest, but also for bringing renewed debates on free speech, digital encryption and quests for better protections for whistleblowing to the mainstream.
When I moved to Australia about six years ago, with the first academic book on WikiLeaks hot in my hands, I genuinely expected to find Julian Assange hailed as patriotic and a global, tech-savvy freedom of speech star. After all, how could liberal Australians possibly not be proud of a citizen who exposed war crimes and human rights violations?
Assange was by then the winner of The Economist New Media Award 2008, the popular vote for Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ 2011 and Le Monde’s ‘Man of the Year’, as well as receiving the Sydney Peace Foundation’s Gold Medal in 2011.
Surely, I thought, most Australian media outlets, if not regular citizens, would be grateful for the huge reserve of leaked documents providing an immense treasure for Fairfax newspapers leading to an array of major exclusives for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
I also distinctly remember reading an essay in 2011, when living in London, by Australian emeritus professor of politics Robert Manne, reassuring readers that ‘if Rupert Murdoch, who turns 80 this month, is the most influential Australian of the post war era, Julian Assange, who will soon turn 40, is undoubtedly the most consequential Australian of the present time’
During the months spent editing an early collection, Beyond WikiLeaks, I became even more convinced of the incredible importance of WikiLeaks for journalism, international relations, transparency activism, human rights and social justice. I was sure the Australian public and leaders would share a similar understanding.
WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 as an online platform for whistleblowers and the publication of information censored by public authorities and private actors. Its goal was to harness the speed, interactivity and global reach of the internet to provide a fast and secure mechanism to anonymously submit information that would then be accessible to a global audience.
In its first few years of existence, WikiLeaks electronically published a range of documents of varying significance in mixed media. The revelations included: secret Scientology texts; a report documenting extensive corruption by the family of former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi; proof that British company Trafigura had been illegally dumping toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire (a story that the British media was legally barred from reporting); the financial dealings of Icelandic banks that led to the collapse of the country’s economy (a story the local media, too, were banned by court order from reporting); the private emails of then US Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin; member lists of a British right-wing party; the internet filter lists of several countries; and many other disclosures of information that were previously hidden from the public eye.
These releases, occurring between 2006 and 2009, were only the warm-up acts for the torrent of information that WikiLeaks unleashed in 2010, the year when the global interconnected public sphere discovered the disruptive power of the platform. On 5 April 2010, WikiLeaks published a video online evocatively titled ‘Collateral Murder’. It was an edited version of a classified US army video taken from an Apache helicopter depicting a controversial 2007 US Baghdad airstrike that resulted in the deaths of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters employees. On 25 July – in collaboration with established newspapers The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel – WikiLeaks published the Afghan War Diary before releasing the Iraq War Logs on 22 October.
Altogether, the two dispatches comprised almost 500,000 documents and field reports, providing a comprehensive and unprecedented account of the two wars, and revealing thousands of unreported deaths, including many US army killings of civilians.
Finally, on 28 November 2010, WikiLeaks and its partner newspapers began publishing select US diplomatic cables in what became known as ‘Cablegate’. Taken from a pool of over 250,000 cables, the communications offered a fascinating perspective on international diplomacy. They revealed many backroom deals among governments and between governments and companies, as well as US spying practices on UN officials, cover-ups of military airstrikes and numerous cases of government corruption, most notably in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries, where the revelations fueled the population’s growing anger towards their national elites.
Nine months after the first releases were published in its partner newspapers, WikiLeaks made the full tranche of cables available on its website. It has since published other materials, such as the ‘Guantánamo Bay Files’, information about the digital surveillance industry (Spy Files) and emails from political figures and companies tied to Syria (Syria Files).
As I was editing the collection, due for publication in 2013, it became clear how 2010 was the critical turning point that changed the fate of WikiLeaks and the dominant narratives about it.
In fact, precisely in the wake of Cablegate, WikiLeaks’ operations became increasingly hampered by government investigations into its staff (particularly founder and Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange), internal frictions, and extralegal economic blockades that have choked WikiLeaks’ access to financial resources. As I detailed in an essay on the political economy of WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks’ then funding model had at its core a German foundation, the Wau Holland Foundation, which processed personal donations to WikiLeaks.
As Cablegate brought WikiLeaks to the mainstream, the platform has seen constant attacks from both public and private actors, sustained attempts to shut down its operations and even calls for Julian Assange’s assassination. WikiLeaks clearly enraged Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables that exposed critical US appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin, to the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron, to members of the Saudi royal family. Senator Joe Lieberman, Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, famously declared that ‘Wikileaks’ deliberate disclosure of these diplomatic cables is nothing less than an attack on the national security of the United States, as well as that of dozens of other countries’.
WikiLeaks’ activities resumed after a prolonged financial struggle, exacerbated by the legal difficulties of Assange who from 2012 had to take refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, fearing extradition to the US.
Disclosures had another major peak during the US election campaign, on 22 July 2016, when WikiLeaks released over 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the governing body of the US Democratic Party, including key DNC staff members. Later in October the same year, WikiLeaks began releasing emails from John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. In 2017, WikiLeaks published internal CIA documents concerning sophisticated clandestine hacking programs, and spy software targeting cell phones, smart TVs and computer systems in cars.
US and UK media responses
As we discussed in Beyond WikiLeaks, it was not just politicians who were disgruntled with the platform; it was also the media organisations most openly associated with the WikiLeaks exposés that quickly became its primary critics. As Benkler recalled:
It was The Times, after all, that chose to run a front page profile of Assange a day after it began publishing the Iraq War Logs in which it described him as ‘a hunted man’ who ‘demands that his dwindling number of loyalists use expensive encrypted cellphones and swaps his own the way other men change shirts’ and ‘checks into hotels under false names, dyes his hair, sleeps on sofas and floors, and uses cash instead of credit cards, often borrowed from friends’.
And the UK press, following Cablegate, was certainly overall unsupportive as well. After very successful collaborations with him at The Guardian, for example, many editors fell out with him, with David Leigh and Luke Harding describing him as having a ‘damaged personality’. They continued by explaining that ‘collaborators who fell out with him – there was to be a long list – accused him of imperiousness and a callous disregard for those of whom he disapproved. Certainly, when crossed, Assange could get very angry indeed.’
However, although Assange could not count on sympathetic media support in the UK and in the US, I was not fully prepared for what I thought was extraordinary of Assange’s own country: the striking absence of a solid debate on WikiLeaks in Australian mainstream public discourses, especially in light of the growing legal complications following his granted asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
Surely, I thought, there would be a discussion of his request for asylum?
Surely, the Australian government was negotiating behind the scenes to avoid an extradition to the US, to make sure that an Australian citizen had adequate legal protection, also in consideration of the global relevance of the leaks?
While I could not make sense of the blackout then, I am now sure there are two major factors that contributed to this silence.
Firstly, Australia’s strong political ties to the US: politicians and civil servants have considered Assange a problem, rather than a facilitator of US/Australia diplomatic relations. Additionally, Australia’s membership in the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance on intelligence cooperation between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States adds to the hostility towards activities that challenge state secrets. Five Eyes countries have notoriously built one of the most sophisticated international systems of mass surveillance and intensification of government secrecy: Australia is no exception in this rush to intensify its surveillance capabilities. After WikiLeaks and the Snowden leaks challenged the status quo, the Australian government hurried to implement new metadata laws through three major pieces of new national security legislation in 2014 and 2015.
As Attorney-General George Brandis explained during the reading of the bill amending the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 (ASIO Act) and the Intelligence Services Act 2001 (IS Act), the reform was justified by a clear intent to curb whistleblowing activities:
As recent, high-profile international events demonstrate, in the wrong hands, classified or sensitive information is capable of global dissemination at the click of a button. Unauthorised disclosures on the scale now possible in the online environment can have devastating consequences for a country’s international relationships and intelligence capabilities.
The second and crucial factor explaining the lack of a thorough and sustained debate on WikiLeaks and Assange is the fact that Australia has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world.
Without even considering the recent upheaval of the Australian media markets, with the takeover of Fairfax Media by Nine and the planned closure of 100 local and regional newspapers (although owned by the same company, News Corp), the biggest study on media ownership and concentration in the world conducted by Eli Noam at Columbia University found that Australia has the most concentrated newspaper industry out of any country studied, with the exception of China and Egypt which are not liberal democracies.
Excessively concentrated media power in the hands of few owners does not just entail unchecked ties between political and media elites, as the UK Leveson inquiry demonstrated.
The exercise of such power also entails the establishment of a system of control that does not allow space for dissent, for resistance, for minority voices.
This is why it has been so difficult for Assange’s supporters to bring the debate to the mainstream, to generate an informed public discussion, to question political leaders on their inaction.
As Barnett explains, ‘The fewer owners or gatekeepers, the fewer the number of voices and the more damaging the consequences for diversity of expression’. As a result, ‘the powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear and think about, and to “manage” public opinion by regular propaganda campaigns’.
With the few notable exceptions of Crikey, The Saturday Paper and The Guardian (due to its UK ties), and the relentless efforts of Philip Dorling, Phillip Adams, Geoffrey Robertson and Mary Kostakidis, an informed public sphere discussion about Assange and WikiLeaks failed to materialise in his own country.
The request for Assange’s extradition to the US and the global debate on the violation of freedom of speech safeguards
When Assange was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in April 2019, in violation of political asylum, the global debates about Assange and his arrest picked up again. Lawyers, politicians, freedom of speech advocates and activists saw his arrest, pushed by the Trump administration, as a clear attack on press freedom. A year later, we are becoming accustomed to the harassment of journalists by police and authorities of the Trump administration. Police brutality and racism in the US are rightly challenged with protests that have spread across the globe, starting with the demands for justice for the murder of George Floyd. Continuous arrests and persecution of journalists are occurring during the protests, and US Press Freedom Tracker has registered at least 74 reports of journalists being physically attacked, with 21 arrested and many more targeted by police using rubber bullets.
In April 2019, Assange was indicted by the US Justice Department of the same Trump administration with 18 charges, of which 17 are under the Espionage Act, for his role in receiving and publishing classified defence documents both on the WikiLeaks website and in collaboration with major publishers. Not even the Obama administration, notoriously rapid in making use of the Espionage Act, dared to cross the line of free speech protection to prosecute a non-American citizen for his activities as a journalist.
Clearly, if Assange is extradited to the US for espionage, it will establish a worrying precedent that could then be used against reporters and editors of major publications, generating a chilling effect for any news organisations that dare to publish classified US government documents in the public interest, regardless of their country of origin.
Reporters Without Borders has written that the arrest would ‘set a dangerous precedent for journalists, whistleblowers, and other journalistic sources that the US may wish to pursue in the future’. In January 2020, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted to oppose Assange’s extradition to the US. Both Agnes Callamard, the United States human rights expert, and Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, spoke of severe risks of human rights violations if Assange were extradited to the US. In particular, there are new disconcerting aspects of the UK hearing and possible US extradition that make it hard to believe in the possibility of a fair trial for Assange in the US. In a Spanish court at the end of last year, it was alleged that a Spanish security firm hired by the Ecuadorian Embassy illegally recorded Assange’s meetings with his team of lawyers and passed these recordings on to the US intelligence services. During those meetings, Assange prepared his legal defence against an extradition request to the US, so any such recording would be in breach of legal professional privilege.
In the months before the June 2020 hearing, politicians from the UK and Europe also joined the fight against the extradition of Assange, including former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said that Assange had revealed ‘atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan’ and that his extradition ‘should be opposed by the British government’.
Australian media response to extradition hearings
One would have expected that considering the gravity of the recent developments, and the documented health problems of Assange, this animated international discussion would have been reflected by Australian mainstream media. However, it is rarely featured in mainstream news outlets, being mainly covered by outlets that have a small audience share compared to the colossal News Corp, Fairfax and the ABC, which have been spasmodic in their coverage of WikiLeaks.
Despite the unfavourable media landscape, in October 2019 eleven federal MPs created a cross-party group to put pressure on the Australian government to intervene in defence of Assange. Additionally, just before the extradition hearing of June 2020, over 100 Australian politicians, lawyers, activists and journalists wrote to Foreign Minister Marise Payne asking her to request the UK government to have Assange released on bail, because of his serious and ongoing health issues.
Why do I need to follow Assange’s mother on Twitter to hear about these crucial debates? Why aren’t the major television news shows more willing to engage with a topic – protecting freedom of speech – that should be top priority for the Australian public, especially in light of the recent AFP raids against ABC and News Corp journalists?
For Australia the combination of this anti-democratic media concentration and the old colonial habit of passivity to the (now declining) US empire is perhaps too arduous to overcome.
Benedetta Brevini is a journalist and media activist. Dr Brevini lectures in the political economy of communication at the University of Sydney.
This is an edited extract from A Secret Australia: Revealed by the WikiLeaks exposés, edited by Felicity Ruby and Peter Cronau, available December 1 from Monash University Publishing.
This article was first published in The New Daily and is reposted here with the permission of the author and the publishers.
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