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WikiLeaks Shames the Old News Media

By Kevin Zeese
March 1, 2011

Editor’s Note: Since the heyday of U.S. investigative journalism in the 1970s, the mainstream American press has been on a steady decline, often acting more as a semi-official news agency of the government than an independent watchdog for the people.

Many senior news executives see their role as protecting the “national interest,” which usually translates into the interests of the rich and powerful, a development that created the opening for WikiLeaks, as Kevin Zeese notes in this guest essay:

If there were ever a doubt about whether the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is “a real journalist,” recent events should erase all those doubts. Indeed, they should 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' newsworthy revelations has become astounding

During the recent revolts across North African and the Middle East, it was WikiLeaks that published documents providing people with critical information. The traditional media also relied on WikiLeaks disclosures for insights into the real world of these secretive, authoritarian governments.

WikiLeaks has been widely credited with helping spark the Tunisian Revolution by providing information about the corruption of the 23-year-rule of the Ben Ali regime. PBS pointed to 10 cables, dating from 2006 to 2009 published by WikiLeaks in November, that were translated and shared widely in Tunisia detailing President Ben Ali’s opulent lifestyle while Tunisians struggled.

In Foreign Policy magazine, Tom Malinowski argued  that “in one fell swoop, 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 regime’s suppression of critics through arrests and harassment of journalists, bloggers and a poet; showed the frequent use of police brutality and torture; revealed the abuse of the 1967 emergency law to arrest and indefinitely detain journalists, activists, labor leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood; and showed 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 historic uprising.

Another set of WikiLeaks 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 Hillary Clinton, as the preferred successor.

WikiLeaks published an article describing Suleiman’s close relationship with the United States. Suleimen called Egypt “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 in Egypt.

Some WikiLeaks documents also have shown that the U.S. government exerted private pressure on Egypt to reform and lent support to democracy activists like Mohammad ElBaradei. 

In contradiction to the traditional media's frequent charge that WikiLeaks seeks to harm the U.S. government for ideological reasons, these disclosures that were favorable to Washington actually reveal a WikiLeaks agenda on behalf of transparency and an informed public.

WikiLeaks also educated the people of Bahrain about their government’s cozy ties with the U.S., describing a $5 billion joint-venture with Occidental Petroleum, and $300 million in U.S. military sales.

ABC News reported on WikiLeaks documents that revealed the close relationship between U.S. and Bahrain intelligence agencies and how the U.S. Navy is the foundation of Bahrain’s national security.

Senior Bahraini officials emphasized this cooperation in meetings with Gen. David Petraeus and noted their common opposition to Iran and to Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Bahrainis also cited their desire for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq until stability is achieved.

WikiLeaks also has been criticized by U.S. enemies. Iranian 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.”

Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi shut down Facebook in Tripoli and sporadically shut off the Internet to prevent Libyans from getting access to this information which no doubt embarrassed Ghaddafi and added fuel to the opposition toward his regime.

The emergence of WikiLeaks also comes at a time when public distrust of the traditional mass media is at record highs. A recent Gallup Poll found 57 percent of Americans do not trust the media and a Pew Poll found a record low 29 percent trust the media

There is good reason for this 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 President Barack Obama’s claim that he was a diplomat.

Even the way the Times and Washington Post reported on WikiLeaks documents showed reason for distrust. U.S. diplomatic cables, released by WikiLeaks, claimed that Iranian long-range missiles could hit European cities but the cables also reported that Russian intelligence refuted the claim.

The Times and Post evidently made a decision to exaggerate Iranian capability and mislead readers by initially excluding the Russian intelligence report.

The Times admits, too, that it provides WikiLeaks documents to the government in advance and excludes material that the government deems dangerous or a threat to national security.

The growing public dissatisfaction with the U.S. news media also is not some new development that can be explained simply by the emergence of today’s Internet. Since 1980, there has been a steady decline in readers and viewers of newspapers and television news.

The decline in younger readers has been particularly noticeable. Thirty years ago, 60 percent of people under 36 read a newspaper daily, now it is 30 percent. Meanwhile, the Internet has seen a steady rise in viewers. 

Even though some in the traditional media are threatened by WikiLeaks, more and more news outlets are acknowledging the organization’s 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 U.S. news organizations how “statist they really are” and leakers going to WikiLeaks rather than the traditional media underscores how distrustful people are of the corporate media.

This all demonstrates that the “watchdog press has died” and WikiLeaks is filling the void, Rosen said.

The void will exist – and be filled – whether or not the Justice Department continues down the path toward prosecuting 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.” 

Indeed, older media outlets are now 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 door to democracy in journalism 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 of Assange and WikiLeaks would only highlight the hypocrisy of the U.S. government, showing the world that Washington does not mean what it says when it claims that freedom of speech and press are cornerstones of democratic government.

Kevin Zeese is executive director of Voters For Peace, and serves on the steering committees of and the Bradley Manning Support Network.

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