“True intellectual heritage can't be bound up in intellectual property.'' - Julian Assange, Editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks.org
With the most recent diplomatic cable leaks from WikiLeaks.org, Julian Assange might be the world's most wanted man. The controversial website founder's biography reads like the legend of a twentieth century Robin Hood who steals information from the rich and powerful only to give it away free and mostly unedited to the poor.
Born in Australia in 1971, Assange schooled himself in math and physics, and then went on to the University of Melbourne but dropped out because of his ethical problems over the amount of top students being solicited to work on US defense research projects. After pleading guilty to 24 hacking charges at the age of 21, Assange's curiosity for secure information solidified and the seeds of extreme intellectual freedom germinated. An explorer on the 1990s waves of digital information, he founded one of Australia's first ISPs, co-wrote a book on hacking, invented an encryption system, authored free software, and registered the domain name leaks.org. This latter seedling of Assange's fertile brain wouldn't see light until 2006 with the founding of WikiLeaks.org.
Created by a group of political dissidents, academics, journalists, and tech experts, the WikiLeaks website allows whistle-blowers to post original versions of sensitive, often highly classified files to a server which makes the source untraceable. Since 2007, the list of news stories generated by Assange's site has grown increasingly impressive, including video footage of a US military helicopter shooting civilians in Baghdad, evidence of governmental corruption in Kenya, training manuals from Guantanamo and the Church of Scientology, reports of oil traders dumping toxic waste of the Ivory Coast, climate-gate emails, and thousands of internal documents from the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although his work for WikiLeaks is volunteer, there's been no shortage of compensation in the form of international recognition for Assange and his influence on “new media.” But the awards, public speaking engagements, and television appearances have all been cut short by the latest leak, a cache of international cables from the US State Department exposing many of the world's diplomatic secrets. In the aftermath, which is still playing out, Assange is facing an active criminal investigation and being labeled a terrorist by some in the US Congress.
Could this most recent leak be the end of Julian Assange's status of information pioneer and mark his transition to spy and saboteur, even in the eyes of journalists?
Aside from the debate over national security and a government's right to privacy, the persistence of Julian Assange's and WikiLeaks' ability to break huge amounts of classified information raises questions on the real purpose of our media. Assange himself brings up the issue of media effectiveness in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald wondering, “How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined?”
In light of all the continued leaks, one has to consider the basic premise of that question. In a post-9/11 age, where fear and secrecy are becoming more and more part of the norm, why aren't our media outlets doing more to mine the vast quantities of data and expose the harmful, secret operations of our government, especially when each leak seems to paints an ever more critical picture of how our leaders operate? Isn't one role of the press to ensure governmental accountability? Before spouting off rehashed sound bytes about national security interests and the importance of diplomatic trust, think about all the world-changing stories in investigative journalism and the accompanying reforms, from Dachau to McCarthyism to Watergate.
Perhaps the criticisms on Julian Assange in the media recently have less to do with the information his site has leaked, and more to do with the threat of his new media vehicle. As Salon.com's Greenwald points out, the New York Times and others are smearing Assange simply because he is an enemy of the Pentagon, which has become the lazy, modern journalist's most trusted source for information on military exploits.
Whether WikiLeaks' unfiltered approach to journalism is right or wrong, Assange should not be the object of attack just because his site encourages whistle-blowing, especially not attacks from mainstream media who purportedly share that goal. If Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder want to prosecute him for violating the Espionage Act, that's one thing. But when an old media dinosaur like the NYTimes joins in the frenzy, we consumers of information must start to question what forces drive the American media agenda and at what point fear of extinction trumps the original purpose of our once-proud free press.