WikiLeaks and the Journalism Ethics of Julian Assange

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The issue that we chose to discuss was the various WikiLeaks cases published by journalist Julian Assange. Assange was given the choice whether or not to publish information.


The name “WikiLeaks” has become extremely prevalent in the last seven years- it’s a case that deals with transparency in the government and media and one that published top secret information about the government and large corporations. Assange received and published this information in order to maintain a free press and the stay true to our rights as the First Amendment covers them.


The WikiLeaks domain was registered on October 4th of 2006, and since then the volunteer-based website has published between 35-40 secret documents unavailable to the general public across the world.


Assange describes himself as, “the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier, and all the rest.”

The most popular movie about the cases, The 5th Estate, was written by one of Assange’s first partners in the project Daniel Bruhl, but Assange, despite his numerous titles, refused to associate with the production in any way.


WikiLeaks posted its first document in December of 2006 called: “Inside Somalia and Union of Islamic Courts,” which provided insight information of plausible assassinations of a government official, signed by the Somali rebel leader for the Islamic Courts Union Hassan, Dahir Aweys.


Supposedly, the leak came from Chinese sources and was signed by Aweys.


In detail, the WikiLeaks authors are asking: “Is Somalia the next Iran?… While the West sleeps and celebrates the king of peace (referring to Christmas), the US’s man on the ground, Ethiopia, has launched into a covert invasion which may draw the entire horn of Africa into conflict…”


The document itself ends with, “Whosoever leaks this information and is found guilty should be shot.” This calls into question whether or not the leak is genuine, whether there were links to Bin Laden, or- and this is additionally alarming- whether this is a “clever smear by US intelligence, designed to discredit the Union, fracture Somali alliances and manipulate China…”


Though WikiLeaks never claimed the document was authentic, making it public was hope that it could be verified. Unfortunately, that has not happened although it was the first event that created a stir for the site.


On July 16th of 2009, news agencies in Iran reported that the Iranian Politician and President for Atomic Energy Gholam Reza Aghazadeh had resigned abruptly.


Some believed that his resignation was due to the controversial 2009 presidential elections and the resulting public protests. Soon after, however, WikiLeaks reported that there had been a “serious nuclear accident” at the Natanz nuclear facility in Esfahan.


According to stats from the Federation of American Scientists, the number of enriched centrifuges that were operational in Iran inexplicable declined by about 800 centrifuges around the same time of the report by WikiLeaks. Many media outlets reported that the accident could have been a result of a cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program using the Stuxnet computer worm- created by US and Israeli agencies.


It’s important to note that Assange posted on the site: “WikiLeaks would not normally mention such an incident without additional confirmation, however, according to Iranian Media and the BBC, today the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization… has resigned under mysterious circumstances.”


Obviously Assange was presented with an ethical dilemma in this case in particular and chose to err on the side of information rather than restraint.


On November 28th in 2013 WikiLeaks rocked the diplomatic world by publishing two hundred and fifty one thousand, two hundred and eighty seven confidential communications of 274 US embassies across the world. They expose secrets from 1996 to February of 2010. The leaked cables were knows as “Cablegate.”

The cables illuminated that the relationships and interests between the US and other countries are muddled by exposing cases of: human rights violations, secret war actions, lobbying, spying, and other similar scandals.


The site says: “this document release reveals the contradictions between the US’s public persona and what is says behind closed doors- and shows that if citizens in a democracy want their governments to reflect their wishes, they should ask to see what’s going on behind the scene’s”


Naturally, this was an embarrassment to the US governments, its representatives and the Department of Defense, as well as create poor relations with international allies and enemies.


Assange has many supporters. For example, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism wrote to President Barack Obama: “we all believe that in publishing diplomatic cables WikiLeaks is engaging in journalist activity protected by the First Amendment.”


The Editor of El Pais, Javier Moreno, who has released leaks in Spain wrote, “I believe that the global interest sparked by the WikiLeaks papers is mainly due to the simple facts that they conclusively reveal the extent to which politicians in the West have been lying to their citizens.


After Cablegate and numerous threats by the US government, many people began to donate money to WikiLeaks.


Australian-born Assange has been recognized as one of the world’s most visible human rights activists. He has received numerous awards such as: the Amnesty International UK Media Award in 2009, the person of the year by TIME Magazine in 2010, and was listed among the 100 most influential people.


On the other hand, he was the target of multiple legal prosecutions including one of sexual assault in Sweden in 2010.


At some point WikiLeaks leaked parts of Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo account and as a result, she is not a fan. She said on Facebook, “The Wikileaks directed Julian Assange should be hunted down like Osama Bin Laden.” Seems excessive.


Bob Schieffer isn’t a fan either, saying that the publishing of the documents was irresponsible, not journalism.


And Fox news commentator Bob Beckel even publicly called people to kill Assange!


However, it’s not difficult to conclude that the WikiLeaks cases are the height of what it means to have free speech protected by the First Amendment. By exposing over-confidentialized information Assange is protecting the people’s right to know, and their ability to check the power and actions of their government- a value that is fundamental to our function as a democratic society.


Some agree with this, but others, specifically those close to the events that have been leaked, disagree. The US State Department said that the Cablegate leak posed a threat to the safety of those involved.


WikiLeaks was not the first time something like this had been done. The most obvious example is from 1971 when a US military analyst released the documents that discussed the US’s relations with Vietnam during the war. Ellsberg was accused of conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property. The Nixon administration then put into place the “White House Plumbers” plan- a plan to “plug” the leak.


WikiLeaks has opened the door to mobilization for improved governmental and corporate transparency in many countries. According to author of WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, Micah L. Sifreid WikiLeaks is a symptom of society that mixes older systems with an open Internet culture. “When you combine connectivity with transparency,” he says, “the result is a huge increase in social energy, which is being channeled in all kinds of directions.” Despite Assange’s arrest, the publication continues to run and sites like it have sprung up in Indonesia, Russia, and the EU among others.


In the end, we might never know the exact validity of each and every document. However, the value of the First Amendment and our ability as citizens and as journalists to exercise that Amendment is the pinnacle of importance to our healthy democracy. What’s most important to keep in mind is that if we keep this marketplace of ideas open, flourishing, and un-chilled the truth will always prevail.