February 25, 2010

Members of Iceland’s parliament are moving forward on a resolution that could transform that country into the world’s first haven for free speech. The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) would reinvent Iceland as a global safe zone for publishers, media organizations and journalists. The movement has been led by WikiLeaks, a Web site that specializes in the publication of sensitive or restricted information.

Barely three years old, WikiLeaks boasts over 1.2 million documents and “more scoops in its short life than The Washington Post has in the past 30 years,” according to one supporter. Simply put, WikiLeaks is a clearinghouse for information. It publishes documents — typically raw and unedited — relating to government or corporate misconduct. Every leak is published anonymously and sources’ identities are tightly guarded.

Until recently it wasn’t clear if WikiLeaks, a nonprofit run on donations, would be able to continue operations. In late December, the site was shut down and replaced by a page seeking pledges to help it meet its $600,000 annual operating budget. Earlier this month, after meeting a minimum requirement, the site resumed activity, albeit on a limited scale. Today WikiLeaks is still short $250,000 — it won’t accept corporate or government donations — and only releases select time-sensitive documents.

The Web site’s representatives have been working closely with the Icelandic government to pass the IMMI. WikiLeaks’ hope is that new laws will create a place where its content is safe from censorship. This permanent home, advocates say, would also ensure that journalists around the globe have an important tool to sidestep the restrictive laws of their own nations.

“This is potentially a tremendous resource for journalists, especially in authoritarian regimes,” David E. Kaplan, the Director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, told me in a telephone interview. “If used right and responsibly, WikiLeaks can be a great tool.”

But both Kaplan and Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, stressed that WikiLeaks was just that: a tool. “WikiLeaks can be an important resource,” said Horvit in a telephone interview. “But that doesn’t mean there’s still not a lot of work to be done in verification and authentication. A tip is a tip and almost never the story itself.”

Although WikiLeaks’ most important leaks have come from nations with oppressive governments, the organization has also broken big stories in western Europe and the United States. Perhaps WikiLeaks’ biggest American leak was last year’s release of over half a million pager messages sent on Sept. 11, 2001. Another headline grabber came in 2008 when the site published Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo e-mail correspondence. In the U.K., WikiLeaks attracted attention last year when it published the membership list of the xenophobic British National Party. Arguably the site’s biggest worldwide leak was the “Climate-gate” e-mails, which sparked the ongoing scandal involving scientists from the University of East Anglia.

Legal issues

In all of these instances WikiLeaks fiercely protected its sources, refusing to reveal even small clues. When Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks, spoke with the radio show “On the Media,” he refused to provide his phone number and location, preferring instead to call the studio from a protected line.

“We are a bit cagey about some of our communications,” Assange admitted to Bob Garfield, the show’s host. “The reason is that we deal with intelligence forces every day. If too much is known about the journalists that are working with us, their telephone can be tapped and monitored … The results of a slip-up on our behalf could be fatal to some of the people that we work with.”

To date, WikiLeaks hasn’t slipped up. None of its informants, hackers or whistle-blowers has been named, and Assange told “On the Media” that WikiLeaks destroys their contact information “as soon as we can.” Yet the site fends off a constant barrage of legal problems. According to Assange, WikiLeaks has fought over 100 legal attacks in addition to being banned in Australia and China and threatened with congressional investigation in the United States.

The Icelandic legislation would increase protection for sources and whistle-blowers, impose stricter limits on prior restraint, strengthen process protection and barriers on “libel tourism” and reinvent the Icelandic Freedom of Information Act.

Laura Handman, a lawyer who defended WikiLeaks as part of media consortium in 2008, said in a phone interview that although sources in the United States receive more protection than in many other countries, they are never completely safe.

“Nowadays there exists no total protection for confidential sources in some [U.S.] courts,” Handman said. “And that discourages sources from coming forward. The beauty of WikiLeaks is that it encourages anonymity.” Handman pointed out that the CIA leak scandal involving Valerie Plame, Judith Miller and Lewis Libby was an ideal example of the hurdles that U.S. sources still face.

But Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, isn’t convinced. “The number of cases in which a journalist has been compelled to identify a source in the U.S. is very small. We’re taking two digits,” Aftergood said in a phone interview. “I think it probably has greater significance for other countries where libel laws are a recurring threat to journalistic vitality.”

The critics

Although WikiLeaks is often lauded as a beacon for free speech, it’s not without its critics. “They’ve often shown atrocious editorial judgment by publishing a hodgepodge of stuff,” Aftergood said. “It seems to be if someone wants to restrict it, they want to publish it. And I think that’s not a welcome approach.”

WikiLeaks has said it’s committed to printing everything of “significant political, diplomatic or ethical significance.” But critics say some of its leaks haven’t reflected that mission. In 2008 WikiLeaks published an unreleased, alternate screenplay for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” drawing headscratching from bloggers wondering how that document exposed anything noteworthy. Aftergood added that while he is impressed with some of WikiLeaks’ work, he’s concerned about its respect for intellectual property and privacy.

“My sense is that these are good hackers and they seem like they’re very effective data unearthers,” said MinnPost media reporter David Brauer. “But when it comes to doing reporting on that data, they seem like crappy reporters.”

Brauer first learned of WikiLeaks during the 2008 presidential election when the site released Norm Coleman’s private donor database. According to a story in the Pioneer Press, WikiLeaks’ media office e-mailed donors, saying the site was seeking “feedback” on behalf of news organizations such as the AP. But after some reporting of his own, Brauer found no news organizations that had agreed to such an arrangement. In a blog post entitled “How much is WikiLeaks lying?” Brauer suggested that WikiLeaks was misrepresenting its relationship with news organizations.

The future

WikiLeaks provides the raw material for journalists or anyone interested in mining it. Most people learned of “Climate-gate” not from WikiLeaks, but from traditional media. “If [a document] stays on WikiLeaks and doesn’t end up on Page One of The New York Times, it’s not yet news. It doesn’t have an earthshaking significance,” said Michael Schudson, a media history professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Perhaps WikiLeaks needs the press as much as the press needs it. And if the site stays around long enough, maybe journalists will find it indispensable for investigative reporting.

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, who had been high-level functionary in President Nixon’s administration, leaked a collection of top-secret documents known as the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. The documents revealed the U.S. government’s deception during the Vietnam War, hastening the end of America’s military involvement in that country and leading to one of the most important First Amendment decisions in our history.

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But would a modern-day Ellsberg turn to an established institution like The New York Times today? Horvit bets he would. WikiLeaks “doesn’t replace the value of the reporter-source relationship,” said Horvit. “People have been leaking stuff to reporters for decades, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”

But Schudson isn’t so sure. When Ellsberg went to The New York Times, “he didn’t know what might happen to him. For several weeks he was living underground and there was a warrant out for his arrest once it became clear that the leaker must have been Daniel Ellsberg,” Schudson said. “If I were Daniel Ellsberg today and I didn’t want to become vulnerable to arrest, I would probably go to WikiLeaks.”

CORRECTION: After publication, this story was changed to attribute some information. In addition, the original version incorrectly stated that the screenplay published by WikiLeaks was for the “next” Indiana Jones movie, but the movie had been released already. This story also incorrectly stated that WikiLeaks volunteers called Coleman’s donors; the donors received e-mails. Those errors have been corrected.

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