Reporters Without Borders (RSF, in French) today published an open letter to Julian Assange, one of the founders of WikiLeaks, its spokesperson and recent worldwide media and internet celebrity. In it, RSF openly criticises him and WikiLeaks about the publication of the ‘Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010‘. WikiLeaks presented this as a “compendium of over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010″. And it has its own website: Kabul War Diary.
This ‘diary’ was published by WikiLeaks last 26 July. But prior to this, WikiLeaks worked with the Guardian, the New York Times and the Spiegel, all of which published online and one day before their particular more journalistic version of the big leak.
On the same 26 July, the White House condemned the leak and accused WikiLeaks “of putting the lives of US, UK and coalition troops in danger and threatening America’s national security of the US“.
And a few days later, some US officials went personally for Assange and admiral Mike Mullen graphically said WikiLeaks could already have blood on their hands:
Mr Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.
And then Assange defended WikiLeaks’ action and said it was the US itself that might have failed to its sources:
We are appalled that the US military was so lackadaisical with its Afghan sources. Just appalled. We are a source protection organisation that specialises in protecting sources and have a perfect record from our activities.
This material was available to every soldier and contractor in Afghanistan… It’s the US military that deserves the blame for not giving due diligence to its informers.
The debate went and goes on and one can only imagine how excited some journalism students -and how bored some others- may be while discussing the whole thing and drinking at the Queen Boadicea.
And now here it comes RSF joining the criticism. It’s an interesting text in itself and the arguments are mostly pragmatic and involve the security of the sources.
RSF begins its letter by saying the WikiLeaks’ logs disclosed “the names of Afghans who have provided information to the international military coalition that has been in Afghanistan since 2001″. Later it goes on and says that “revealing the identity of hundreds of people who collaborated with the coalition in Afghanistan is highly dangerous. It would not be hard for the Taliban and other armed groups to use these documents to draw up a list of people for targeting in deadly revenge attacks“.
Now, I don’t know if it’s that easy to identify the informants mentioned in the logs, so I’ll leave that point aside.
Then RSF offers a pragmatic argument about the consequences for the internet in democratic countries:
We are not convinced that your wish to “end the war in Afghanistan” will be so easily granted and meanwhile, you have unintentionally provided supposedly democratic governments with good grounds for putting the Internet under closer surveillance.
This is an interesting point for anybody publishing stuff in the internet. Should you not publish something that is worth knowing because democratic governments could find it uncomfortable and could put the internet under close surveillance? Mmm, that’s a difficult one. Or is it? I would go ahead and publish it. Then it’s up to the government. One can argue how much any particular information is worth knowing and if this outweighs the risk of the government then increasing internet surveillance – but that’s missing the point. I think the point is: are you responsible for the government’s move after your publication? I do not think so, not even considered from a purely pragmatic point of view. Also, doing otherwise and not publishing it would mean there is a red line you don’t want to cross and that, effectively, the possibility of the government knowing did stop you from publishing something. Which is bad.
Then, in my opinion, RSF goes to a key point:
Nonetheless, indiscriminately publishing 92,000 classified reports reflects a real problem of methodology and, therefore, of credibility. Journalistic work involves the selection of information. The argument with which you defend yourself, namely that Wikileaks is not made up of journalists, is not convincing. Wikileaks is an information outlet and, as such, is subject to the same rules of publishing responsibility as any other media.
I think the arguments Assange uses to defend himself and WikiLeaks are much more complex than only that. After all, Julian is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. (Ups, there it goes, I didn’t want to say I know him but couldn’t help it.) Anyway. The main point is what I made in bold. I agree with it: anybody or anything that publishes information should be held to the same rules of “publishing responsibility” as any other person or organisation that also publishes stuff. What takes me back to the former point. I don’t think anybody should not publish something fearing the government’s reaction might be to increase the surveillance of the internet (which anyway governments try already to do).
Then RSF says Assange and WikiLeaks “cannot claim to enjoy the protection of sources while at the same time, when it suits you, denying that you are a news media”. Again, I think RSF misses the point. WikiLeaks does protect the identity of their sources. If we are to believe them, they say they even avoid knowing who their sources are and so they couldn’t reveal them even if they wanted to.
And finally, RSF makes the judgement:
The precedent you have set leaves all those people throughout the world who risk their freedom and sometimes their lives for the sake of online information even more exposed to reprisals. Such imprudence endangers your own sources and, beyond that, the future of the Internet as an information medium.
What? The Afghan informants who may be in danger didn’t become informants “for the sake of online information”. They did because they thought they were doing the right thing or because the US army paid them or whatever the reason. They probably didn’t think their information would end up freely available in the internet. And they were the US army’s sources. Apart from that, how does this whole thing actually affect whoever risks her freedom or her life for the sake of online information? I don’t think risking your freedom or your life for the sake of online information has become riskier, or less risky, because of this whole issue. In the occasions when it’s dangerous, wherever every time it happens to be, I think it remains as much as it was before.
And about the second point in that paragraph. This hasn’t endangered WikiLeaks’ sources. If Bradley Manning is a source of WikiLeaks’, as funny as the story looks like, then it was he who got himself into trouble by confessing to Lamo. Nothing to see with WikiLeaks. If it wasn’t him, nothing has happened to any source of WikiLeaks’ as far as we know. And I can’t see how the Afghan logs could endanger those who already are WikiLeaks’s sources or those who may become so in the future.
So I don’t really see the point of this letter – apart from the argument that I left aside: whether the publication of the logs does endanger the Afghan informants’ lives or not. Again, I don’t know enough about that issue to really discuss it. But I don’t think this very issue is one for RSF to send an open letter to Assange. I think it’s not the stuff RSF usually deals with or criticises people or organisations for.
But I think the more journalistic and media-related arguments RSF makes, about protecting the sources and being careful about not annoying the government, are mostly bullshit. Why did they say all this?
Anyway, an idea comes to my mind about the whole informants thing. If, as Assange claimed, “this material was available to every soldier and contractor in Afghanistan”, and if it’s that easy to identify informants in the text, then maybe whoever wrote the logs should’ve been more careful when mentioning the sources? Then maybe there should be different rules in place when writing these logs to protect the informants’ identities? Or maybe not, I don’t know.
WikiLeaks and the ‘Afghan diary’ may or may not be bad for a number of reasons and Julian Assange may be becoming too much of a celebrity himself. But, as much as I respect RSF, I think this letter is mostly bullshit. Even though, now that I think about it and to be honest, I don’t know that much about RSF. But anyway, I don’t understand why they wrote this letter and what they are actually after with it. We’ll see what Assange replies if he does.
I’m meeting some friends for dinner and cocktails and I’m already late. And so I wrote this very quickly and I’m sure I made mistakes and I hope I said outrageous things. Or maybe it’s not RSF but me who is missing the points here. And I could even be wrong about something, even if such a thing doesn’t usually happen to me. So c’mon, say it, point those things out in the comments and let’s begin an interesting debate for the first time in the history of this blog.
(All the bolding in the quotes is mine.)