Some journalists stand up for WikiLeaks

Unfortunately, they're not American journalists

Published December 13, 2010 5:25PM (EST)

It's heartening to see some journalists standing up for principle in the WikiLeaks affair. A case in point is this letter to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It begins:

The leaking of 250,000 confidential American diplomatic cables is the most astonishing leak of official information in recent history, and its full implications are yet to emerge. But some things are clear. In essence, WikiLeaks, an organisation that aims to expose official secrets, is doing what the media have always done: bringing to light material that governments would prefer to keep secret.

In this case, WikiLeaks, founded by Australian Julian Assange, worked with five major newspapers around the world, which published and analysed the embassy cables. Diplomatic correspondence relating to Australia has begun to be published here.

The volume of the leaks is unprecedented, yet the leaking and publication of diplomatic correspondence is not new. We, as editors and news directors of major media organisations, believe the reaction of the US and Australian governments to date has been deeply troubling. We will strongly resist any attempts to make the publication of these or similar documents illegal. Any such action would impact not only on WikiLeaks, but every media organisation in the world that aims to inform the public about decisions made on their behalf. WikiLeaks, just four years old, is part of the media and deserves our support.

The letter is signed by a who's who of Australian professional journalists -- men and women at the pinnacle of their nation's craft. They know what is at stake as governments, led by the United States, work feverishly to shut down WikiLeaks and criminalize what it has done. Here's more of the letter:

To prosecute a media organisation for publishing a leak would be unprecedented in the US, breaching the First Amendment protecting a free press. In Australia, it would seriously curtail Australian media organisations reporting on subjects the government decides are against its interests.

WikiLeaks has no doubt made errors. But many of its revelations have been significant. It has given citizens an insight into US thinking about some of the most complex foreign policy issues of our age, including North Korea, Iran and China.

It is the media’s duty to responsibly report such material if it comes into their possession. To aggressively attempt to shut WikiLeaks down, to threaten to prosecute those who publish official leaks, and to pressure companies to cease doing commercial business with WikiLeaks, is a serious threat to democracy, which relies on a free and fearless press.

Now contrast this with the what we're seeing from prominent U.S. journalists. Most are merely silent on the principle of free speech, which is bad enough. An apparently visceral dislike of Julian Assange is causing many who do discuss the issue to make distinctions that will haunt their profession later on. Here's a case in point in this morning's Wall Street Journal, an op-ed piece by Gordon Crovitz, whom I consider a friend but with whom I could not disagree more on this topic. Like too many of his colleagues, the logic of his distinctions invites criminalization of practices we've long taken for granted in America and many other places that purport to enjoy serious press freedom -- practices that have shone vital lights into dark corners of policies, often misguided and sometimes criminal, that our government has carried out in our names and with our money.

The U.S. government's legal attack on WikiLeaks -- as opposed to the disgusting bullying of intermediary corporations to take the site off the Internet -- appears to be growing stronger. As CNN reports this morning, Julian Assange's lawyer told Al Jazeera that a grand jury has been meeting in Virginia, and that Assange may soon face espionage charges here.

I received a letter over the weekend, similar in tone to the Australian journalists' letter to that nation's prime minister, from an organization that wants to garner support from U.S.-based media people. I'm signing it. I'd have been happier if it had originated from major news organizations. The fact that it did not is testament to their collective abdication at a time of unprecedented peril.

By Dan Gillmor

A longtime participant in the tech and media worlds, Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Follow Dan on Twitter: @dangillmor. More about Dan here.

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