CLAIRE FITZPATRICK: For the past year and a half, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange has been granted political asylum in Ecuador’s London Embassy as he faces extradition to the US on charges arising from the publication of thousands of leaked secret documents by US Army solider
Bradley Manning. (Sydney Morning Herald. 2013) During the trial of Manning, prosecutors claimed that Manning and Assange collaborated to steal and publish US secret military documents without authorisation. (nymag.com, 2011)
The problem with this type of source obtainment is that even though it encourages whistle-blowers, and is legal under the freedom of speech act, it has triggered a debate within the media about the levels of secrecy one can go to without revealing their sources, the public’s right to be conversant with government information, and how much information investigative journalists are allowed to reveal to the public before it becomes illegal.
So, the million dollar question is: should journalists have absolute right to protect their sources? And is this abusing the freedom of speech act, or liberating it?
In the case of Bradley Manning, it all comes down to how you would describe his actions.
Was he an innocent whistle – blower, or did he abuse his position in the US army? Even though there’s a difference between selling secrets for personal gain and exposing them to the general public to reveal criminal injustice, Manning chose to release highly classified documents even though he was trained and educated on the importance of properly handling them. In the same way, Assange chose to publish these documents, even though he knew that Manning had violated his security requirements to reveal them to him. Assange did not have the right to publish the documents without the acknowledgement of the US army, but he chose to anyway, for the sake of investigative journalism.
Supporters of Bradley Manning believe in his right to publicise the documents. On the 23rd of February, 2013, demonstrations were held in London, Yorkshire and Cardiff as a part of a global protest to mark his 1,000th day spent in prison following his arrest. A spokesman for one of the many Manning campaign groups in the United States said: ‘There has never been a more important time to broadcast our message of support for exposing war crimes, international justice, and people’s rights to know what the government does in our name.’ (itv.com)
In July, 2003, a New York Times reporter was jailed for ‘refusing to submit to questioning by a special prosecutor investigating possible wrongdoing by the Bush administration.’ Judith Miller, 57, was imprisoned for not naming a CIA operative, and was ordered to testify by a
US district judge, who declared that ‘the rights of journalists to gather news and protect confidential sources must occasionally yield to the power of prosecutors to demand testimony and investigate suspected crimes’(Los Angeles Times, 2003)
Similarly, in November, 2006, investigating journalists Bart Hos and Joost de Haast ‘were jailed for not revealing the identity of the sources for a story they wrote for the Amsterdam – based independent daily De Telegraaf.’ On January 21st, the Dutch duo published ‘a first in a series of articles about alleged access of the local mafia to classified files of the Dutch intelligent service.’ (cpj.org)
In the Daily Telegraph, media mogul Rupert Murdoch has gone under fire for printing nude photos of Prince Harry. However, Murdoch defended the publication of the photographs by saying that Britain has ‘no free press’, therefore he is allowed to print whatever he wants. Is this a matter of foddering public interest? And who decides whether it is newsworthy? Can this be compared to WikiLeaks, or is it an abuse of media power?
Article 10 in the European Convention of Human Rights states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.’
Representative John Conyers of the Obama administration dismisses calls for the censorship of media. ‘Whatever you think about this controversy, it is clear that prosecuting Wikileaks would raise the most fundamental questions about freedom of speech, about who is a journalist, and about what the public can know about the actions of its own government.’
By law, however unsound it might be, Rupert Murdoch had every right to publish nude photos of Prince Harry. Bart Hos and Joost de Haast had every right to publish their articles on the Dutch intelligent service. And Julian Assange had every right to establish WikiLeaks and publish classified US documents. The problem is morality. While Assange might have had innocent intent, his actions are not without consequence. Some information is classified not to obstruct liberty, but to protect it. While protecting sources to save innocent lives should not be illegal, using media to reveal classified information that may fall into the wrong hands needs to be justified.