If WikiLeaks is dying, then the NYT is partly to blame

In a New York Times piece on the weekend, media writer David Carr argues that WikiLeaks is dying — or at least on life support — for a number of reasons, including founder Julian Assange’s court case and a funding crisis that has caused the organization to put its leaking on hold. While the NYT piece makes it seem as though all of this is somehow a natural course of events and nothing to be upset about, the reality is that both Assange and WikiLeaks have been the targets of a sustained attack by the U.S. government and companies like PayPal and Visa. And if the New York Times is less than choked up about WikiLeaks’ demise, it’s because the organization is a competitor that was beating the Times at its own game.
As Carr notes in his piece, WikiLeaks has been under fire almost from the moment it first emerged on the scene last year with leaked information from the U.S. military — including videotaped evidence that civilians were killed during an air assault in Iraq. That was followed by the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, which were provided by a whistleblower inside the Army, intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who remains in detention. Ever since that event, WikiLeaks itself has been under attack from the U.S. government, and at the same time Julian Assange has also been the subject of bad press surrounding allegations of sexual assault against two women in Sweden.

WikiLeaks is not dying of natural causes

Assange is now likely to be extradited to Sweden to face those charges, after a British court ruled last week that he could be delivered to the authorities there, and there is still a risk that he could ultimately be extradited to the U.S., which is pursuing a case against him and WikiLeaks for espionage related to the leak of the diplomatic cables. And meanwhile, the entity has been forced to stop its operations because it has run out of money — thanks in large part to a financial blockade that includes PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, which have made it almost impossible for anyone who wants to support the organization to donate to it. As Carr puts it in his piece:

Although stateless and seemingly beyond the reach of the law and its enemies, WikiLeaks was, from the beginning, subject to a number of internal frailties and external vulnerabilities.

By frailties, Carr presumably means the personal quirks of WikiLeaks’ founder, who became the public face of the organization, something that other members of WikiLeaks — such as Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir, an early supporter of the project who is one of the targets of the U.S. Justice Department’s espionage case — have criticized, but which undoubtedly got the organization a lot of publicity (both good and bad). And the “external vulnerabilities” must refer to being cut off by payment organizations and having its documents deleted from Amazon’s servers, despite the fact that WikiLeaks has not been charged with any illegal activity.

Although there have been some protests from groups like Anonymous criticizing the payment blockade against WikiLeaks and the U.S. government’s case against the organization, there has been little public outcry, despite the important principles at stake. And as programmer — and visiting scholar at NYU’s journalism school — Dave Winer notes in a post, there has been little or no support for WikiLeaks from traditional media such as the New York Times. In fact, the NYT and former executive editor Bill Keller have done as much to torpedo Assange and WikiLeaks as to support them, despite the fact that the organization is arguably a journalistic entity just like the New York Times itself.

WikiLeaks is a journalistic entity and deserves our protection

That journalistic nature, which led journalism professor Jay Rosen to call WikiLeaks “the first stateless news organization,” is likely a big part of the reason why the NYT and other newspapers have done so little to protest what is happening to the organization — which as Dan Gillmor points out is a restraint on freedom of speech co-ordinated by private companies pressured by the U.S. government, based on allegations that haven’t even made it to court. By becoming the default entity that anyone with secrets looked to for help, WikiLeaks represents a clear threat to the New York Times.
While both the NYT and the Wall Street Journal have set up their own “anonymous drop-box” programs in the hope of luring leakers away from WikiLeaks, there has been little uptake in those services — in part because the terms of use (at least in the case of the WSJ) make it clear that anyone involved will be turned over to the authorities if there is any request from the government. Twitter at least fought for the rights of its users when the Justice Department came with a court order compelling it to release information about people like hacker Jacob Appelbaum and Birgitta Jonsdottir.
As Winer points out, the phenomenon that WikiLeaks created is unlikely to go away even if the organization itself dies. Although alternatives such as OpenLeaks are still in their infancy, the tools exist to replicate what WikiLeaks did, and others will undoubtedly try. But what’s more important is that we have all (including the New York Times) failed to do what Jonsdottir has argued that we should do — namely, support WikiLeaks and its mission of bringing transparency to government despite any misgivings we might have about Assange, because the principles at stake are so important.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users New Media Days and jphillipg