Journalists play an essential role in the dissemination of information that leads to “freedom,” and that’s necessary for democracy to function as it should. However, while journalists work to uncover and report accurate information, governments often work to suppress truth, or spread false information, to further their agendas. That’s why organisations like Wikileaks, that work to hold governments accountable by providing accurate–and usually hidden–information, are beloved by some and reviled by others.
The internet has made accessing, and disclosing, information increasingly easy. Wikileaks has contributed to that ease. On its website, the organisation claims: “We are of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and institutions. We aim for maximum political impact.”
The information found on Wikileaks can be of great use to journalists. But it’s become apparent that the average person isn’t as interested in using the website. The volume of information on that site—including 90,000 leaked documents on the war in Afghanistan and another 400,000 pages of secret Iraqi war material—makes sifting through it and understanding it a daunting task. Most people don’t even make time to read a newspaper anymore, let alone attempt to uncover the truth about government corruption, mismanagement, and illegal activity. For Wikileaks to achieve its goals, journalists are required to help the public make sense of the information available, and verify its validity. That’s why Wikileaks benefitted from coverage and analysis of its documents in the Guardian, the New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel.
But revealing classified information doesn’t come without consequences. In some parts of the world journalism has always been risky business, but in nations that promote free speech, the profession is expected to be less dangerous. Assange may find out otherwise.
There are governments that react strongly towards those who expose, or oppose, them. Assassination has often been used to eliminate opposition. For example, the numerous CIA assassination plots, and attempts, during the Cold War to counter the threat of spreading Communism are documented in a report produced by the U.S. Select Committee to Study Government Operations, entitled, “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders” (or the “Church Committee Report”). And in April 2010, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president in history to order the assassination of a U.S. citizen—Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric, now on the CIA hit list.
Some say that similar tactics are currently being used in Rwanda to preserve President Kagame’s international reputation as “saviour” of the nation by quashing suspicions about his oppressive, and allegedly genocidal, regime. It’s been reported that some Rwandan journalists have been imprisoned, killed, or forced to flee; human rights workers have been expelled; and numerous political opponents have been assassinated in recent years.
There is speculation that Wikileaks’ Julian Assange will be similarly targeted by the CIA since, according to a CIA document leaked through Wikileaks, the agency considers him a threat to national security.
In the Wikileaks case, however, the internet has made it nearly impossible to “kill” the messenger. Wikileaks has taken precautions to see that the information it publishes remains available even if its site is hacked, or its founder assassinated. It uses many hosting services in different countries, and it has numerous “mirror” sites that will continue to function if the main Wikileaks site is offline. According to Palantir Technologies’ leaked plan to bring Wikileaks down,
As of January 2010, the WikiLeaks team consisted of five full-time employees and about 800 volunteers – The employees and volunteers are spread across the world, with their identities largely unknown…. Julian Assange has a veritable army of supporters who can take over his work, should he be incapacitated or eliminated.
Time magazine stated that Wikileaks “could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act.” If that’s true, Julian Assange has every reason to feel at risk. Those in power understand the power of information.