Julian Assange: At the Forefront of 21st Century Journalism

How WikiLeaks is Democratizing Journalism, Redistributing Power and Increasing Transparency

If there were ever a doubt about whether the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is a journalist, recent events erase all those doubts and put him at the forefront of a movement to democratize journalism and empower people.

The U.S. Department of Justice is still trying to find a way to prosecute Assange and others associated with WikiLeaks.  A key to their prosecution is claiming he is not a journalist, but that weak premise has been made laughable by recent events.

The list of WikiLeaks revelations has become astounding. During the North African and Middle East revolts WikiLeaks published documents that provided people with critical information. The traditional media has relied on WikiLeaks publications and is now also emulating WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks has been credited by many with helping to spark the Tunisian Revolution because they provided information about the widespread corruption of the 23 year rule of the Ben Ali regime.  PBS pointed to ten cables dating from 2006 to 2009 published by WikiLeaks in November that were translated and shared widely in Tunisia detailing the corruption and authoritarian rule of Ben Ali who lived in opulent luxury while Tunisians struggled.  Foreign Policy reported that “the candor of the cables released by WikiLeaks did more for Arab democracy than decades of backstage U.S. diplomacy.”

In Egypt, WikiLeaks publications provided democracy activists with the information needed to spark protests, provided background that explained the Egyptian uprising, described the suppression of opinions critical of the regime by arrest and harassment of journalists, bloggers and a poet; showed the common use of police brutality and torture; the abuse of the 1967 emergency law to arrest and indefinitely detain journalists, activists, labor leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood; as well as how rivals were removed to ensure Gamal Mubarak succeeded his father.  Traditional media publications like the New York Times relied on WikiLeaks to analyze the causes of the uprising.

Another set of documents described how Israel and the U.S. wanted Omar Suleiman to replace Mubarak.  Suleiman, a military intelligence officer for three decades, was described by Secretary of State Clinton, as the preferred successor. WikiLeaks wrote an article describing Suleiman’s close relationship with the United States. Suleimen described Egypt as “a partner” with the U.S. and the U.S. described him as “the most successful element of the relationship” with Egypt. The long history of Suleiman working with Israel to suppress democracy in Gaza, keeping the people of Gaza hungry, and being in constant contact with Israel through a hotline was revealed. WikiLeaks also showed that Suleiman shared U.S. and Israeli concern over Iran, and was disdainful of Muslims in politics as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.  All of this made Suleiman very popular with Israel and the U.S., but unacceptable to democracy advocates.

The United States used some WikiLeaks publications to show that it had been critical of Egypt and exerted private pressure, as well as support for democracy activists like Mohammad ElBaradei. Despite what has been portrayed in the traditional media, WikiLeaks published materials with an agenda for transparency and an informed public, not an intent to harm the U.S.

WikiLeaks informed the Bahrain public about their government’s cozy relationship with the U.S. It described a $5 billion joint-venture with Occidental Petroleum, and $300 million in U.S. military sales. ABC reported on WikiLeaks documents that described the close relationship between U.S. and Bahrain intelligence agencies and how the U.S. Navy is the foundation of Bahrain’s national security. This was emphasized to General Patraeus along with their common opposition to Iran, Al Qaeda in Iraq and their desire for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq.

WikiLeaks has been criticized by U.S. enemies.  Iranian President, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described WikiLeaks as U.S. “intelligence warfare” saying: “These documents are prepared and released by the U.S. government in a planned manner and in pursuance of a goal.” WikiLeaks was criticized by Libya’s Ghaddafi who shut down Facebook in Tripoli and sporadically shut off the Internet to prevent Libyan’s from knowing the truth.  No doubt WikiLeaks publications embarrassed Ghaddafi, adding fuel to internal opposition to his regime.

WikiLeaks is filling a void with traditional media as the level of distrust of the mass media is now at record highs. A recent Gallup Poll found 57% of Americans do not trust the media and a Pew Poll found a record low 29% trust the media.  There is good reason for distrust. The New York Times helped start the Iraq War by publishing the false weapons of mass destruction story. It recently misled the public about a Blackwater employee arrested in Pakistan by hiding the fact that he worked for the CIA, while reporting that Obama said he was a diplomat. Even the way the Times and Washington Post reported on WikiLeaks documents showed reason for distrust. WikiLeaks described Iranian long-range missiles that could hit European cities but also reported that Russian intelligence refuted the claim. The Times and Post evidently made a decision to exaggerate Iranian capability and mislead readers by excluding the Russian intelligence report. The Times admits it provides WikiLeaks documents to the government in advance and excludes material at the request of the government.

There has been a steady decline in readers and viewers of newspapers and television news since 1980. The decline began before the existence of the Internet. The decline in younger readers has been particularly noticeable – 30 years ago 60% of people under 36 read a newspaper daily, now it is 30%.  The Internet has seen a steady rise in viewers and news outlets.

Even though some in the traditional media are threatened by WikiLeaks, more and more outlets are acknowledging their journalism.  Reporters Without Borders hosts a mirror site of WikiLeaks as “a gesture of support for WikiLeaks’ right to publish information without being obstructed.” Similarly, a mainstream French newspaper Liberation announced a “mirror-WikiLeaks” site on its website

Jeff Jarviz of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism writes:

We in journalism must recognize that WikiLeaks is an element of a new ecosystem of news. It is a new form of the press. So we must defend its rights as media. If we do not, we could find our own rights curtailed. Asking whether WikiLeaks should be stopped is exactly like asking whether this newspaper should be stopped when it reveals what government does not want the public to know. We have been there before; let us never return.

The Guardian, a WikiLeaks partner, wrote in an editorial:

There is a need as never before for an internet that remains a free and universal form of communication. WikiLeaks’ chief crime has been to speak truth to power. What is at stake is nothing less than the freedom of the internet.

Jay Rosen of the New York University journalism school describes WikiLeaks as the first “stateless news agency.” The actions of WikiLeaks, he noted, show our news organizations how “statist they really are” and leakers going to WikiLeaks rather than the traditional media, shows how distrustful people are of the corporate media. This all shows that the “watchdog press has died” and WikiLeaks is filling the void.

The void will exist – and be filled – whether or not the Department of Justice prosecutes Julian Assange. The Economist writes:

With or without WikiLeaks, the technology exists to allow whistleblowers to leak data and documents while maintaining anonymity. With or without WikiLeaks, the personnel, technical know-how, and ideological will exists to enable anonymous leaking and to make this information available to the public.  Jailing Thomas Edison in 1890 would not have darkened the night.

The traditional media is emulating WikiLeaks. Al Jazeera has created a “transparency unit” that launched in January 2011 and has published the Palestine Papers, which describe the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, based on leaked documents.  The New York Times is now talking about creating its own version of WikiLeaks.  Students at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism designed LocaLeaks, allowing anonymous encrypted leaks to over 1,400 U.S. newspapers.  Government employees and business insiders can now report illegal or unethical practices without being identified.

The journalism democracy door has been opened, power to report is being redistributed, government employees and corporate whistleblowers are being empowered and greater transparency is becoming a reality.  The United States would be better off accepting these realities than prosecuting the news organization that showed the way.  Prosecution will highlight the utter hypocrisy of the U.S. government, showing the world it does not mean what it says when it claims that freedom of  speech and press are cornerstones of democratic government.

Kevin Zeese co-directs Popular Resistance and is on the coordinating council for the Maryland Green Party. Read other articles by Kevin, or visit Kevin's website.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. jayn0t said on March 1st, 2011 at 5:48pm #

    Far from being soft on Israel, as some conspiracy-minded comrades alleged, Julian is a victim of the usual distortions by the Lobby:


  2. 3bancan said on March 2nd, 2011 at 5:12am #

    jayn0t said on March 1st, 2011 at 5:48pm #

    “Far from being soft on Israel, as some conspiracy-minded comrades alleged, Julian is a victim of the usual distortions by the Lobby”

    I haven’t heard/read a single statement by Julian that could be interpreted as “far from being soft on Israel”. And The Guardian is just another zionazified rag.

    Btw, Julian wrote “We treasure our strong Jewish support and staff”. And my hunch is that everyone of those “strong Jewish supporters” claims that “Israel has the right to exist” and “Israel has the right to defend itself”…

  3. jayn0t said on March 2nd, 2011 at 7:10am #

    Some commentators on this site seem to think they can convert the whole Western world to opposing Zionism by insulting it. You have to be a bit more subtle than that. Whatever he thinks of Israel’s ‘right to exist’, Assange in practice has exposed a Zionist smear campaign. Much of the left believes the Zionist canards against Israel Shamir, whereas Assange has stood by him. I’m embarrassed that I gave credit to the idea that Wikileaks was trying to help the Israeli state. Jeff Blankfort was right to criticise us for that notion.

  4. Jonas Rand said on March 3rd, 2011 at 5:45am #

    My ‘hunch’ is that both of you hate Jews, not Zionism, and Assange is not “a shill for Israel”. The documents recently leaked by WikiLeaks prove collaboration with Arab client states of the USA, run by aristocratic dictators like Ali Abdullah Saleh. This simply proves the truth about American imperialism; how can the truth act as an agent of Zionism? There is no evidence that he is leaking the documents selectively. Also, it invalidates the bizarre claims of “Wikileaks as a fifth-column” even more if the alleged “proof” for these claims is that the leaks did not confirm some sort of speculation or theory of yours.

    As for why I think you hate Jews, one of you (jaynot) expresses support for “Israel Shamir”, a known anti-Jewish writer, and distorts Assange’s statements about him to infer that Assange actually has expressed support for the views that Shamir has been criticized for on the Left. The other (3bancan) served for weeks if not months as a one-liner attack dog and now writes posts like the above, where he criticizes Assange’s affirmation of support for Jewish staffers at the WikiLeaks organization. That, frankly, is racist.

  5. 3bancan said on March 3rd, 2011 at 7:16am #

    Jonas Rand said on March 3rd, 2011 at 5:45am #

    Typical zionazi blather…

  6. jayn0t said on March 3rd, 2011 at 5:19pm #

    I won’t try to have Rand’s libels removed, as it’s better to expose them. Calling Shamir ‘a known anti-Jewish writer’ is a masterpiece of Zionist trollmanship. You can’t say something’s ‘known’ without providing any evidence, and ‘anti-Jewish’ is so ambiguous as to mean almost anything. The allegation of ‘racism’ is the last refuge of scoundrels. I’ve attempted to show how this leftist ploy is more use to Zionism than to its opponents.

    Rand claims I distort Assange’s statements about Israel Shamir. According to the New York Times, Assange denied the Zionist smear that Shamir is a ‘holocaust denier’, so if the NYT is right, so am I, and Rand is wrong. Unlike ‘3bancan’, I don’t condemn Assange because he doesn’t agree with me on everything – I salute his courage and integrity.

  7. 3bancan said on March 3rd, 2011 at 5:49pm #

    jayn0t said on March 3rd, 2011 at 5:19pm #

    “Unlike ’3bancan’, I don’t condemn Assange”

    It would be nice if jaynot could produce some proof to his assertion that I “condemn Assange”…

  8. jayn0t said on March 4th, 2011 at 5:37am #

    Perhaps ‘condemn’ is too strong a word to describe what ‘3bancan’ said about Assange.

    However, he came close in comments on the article ‘Julian Assange: At the Forefront of 21st Century Journalism’.

  9. 3bancan said on March 4th, 2011 at 6:04am #

    jayn0t said on March 4th, 2011 at 5:37am #

    “However, he came close in comments on the article…”

    Where’s the proof?…

  10. Max Forte said on March 5th, 2011 at 6:20pm #

    Leaving aside the simplistic notion that “information is power” or the Eurocentric assumptions that turn one white man into the hero of every Arab’s story, let’s just focus on the careless misquoting that occurs:

    “WikiLeaks has been credited by many with helping to spark the Tunisian Revolution because they provided information about the widespread corruption of the 23 year rule of the Ben Ali regime.”

    Many? The article links to one single opinion. Does that opinion state, or even suggest that Wikileaks helped to spark the Tunisian revolution? No. Instead the language is much more careful and toned down:

    “gave even greater weight and proof to an already widespread belief…”

    “WikiLeaks merely further exposed an already discredited and reviled regime”

    Neither of these two statements amounts to “sparking” a revolution.

    As for, “In Egypt, WikiLeaks publications provided democracy activists with the information needed to spark protests,” the assertion is beyond absurd. Wikileaks cables on Egypt started being released three days after the Jan. 25 protests had begun, and when the Internet was shut down in Egypt. So Wikileaks helped spark nothing at all in Egypt, and this sloppy and dishonest claim only serves to rob Egyptians of their own history.

    Please stop this kind of hype. It only makes Wikileaks and some of its supporters seem terribly naive, ignorant, and mendacious.

  11. MichaelKenny said on March 6th, 2011 at 4:27am #

    A small point on the word “Eurocentric” that has been floating around the site for a few days, there is nothing “Eurocentric” about “assumptions that turn one white man into the hero of every Arab’s story”. That is typically American and to find such colonial delusions in Europe, you’d have to go back 40 or 50 years. They persist in the US precisely because the US is a product of European colonialism and since Americans cannot legitimate themselves by attachment to the land they live on, they do it by hyping the supposed supreiority of their colonial ancestors’ culture. Equally, Assange isn’t a European, he’s an Australian. Thus, making a non-European into “the hero of every Arab’s story” cannot be described as “Eurocentric”, but for the reason set out above, it is typically American. “Americocentric” would thus be a better word.

  12. Max Forte said on March 6th, 2011 at 9:12am #

    “Americocentric” would thus be a better word…

    No, it would not. People who have some understanding of the concept of Eurocentrism understand that it refers to history and culture, rather than geography, and often cite Europe *and* its settler colonies (including Australia and North America) as a greater Europe in cultural terms. Assange being Australian does not challenge the fact that his assumptions, and those who back the claims as in the article above, are Eurocentric ones, where Europe is at the centre of world history, and the rest of the world is denied a history except as a reflection of, or reaction to European history.

  13. 3bancan said on March 10th, 2011 at 2:19am #

    In contrast with Kevin Zeese, John Pilger’s opinion about The Guardian and The New York Times doesn’t seem to differ much from mine: