In 2010, Wikileaks released its first tranche of classified US state department cables. If Julian Assange, founder of the whistle-blowing website, qualifies as a journalist then he would be protected under the first amendment, writes Katie Engelhart.
In February 2010, Wikileaks, a clandestine whistleblower outlet, released the first in a series of classified US state department cables. The documents, which came from 274 US consulates and embassies around the world, contained confidential reports (at times, extremely unflattering) on host countries and their leaders. They are alleged to have been leaked by former US army officer Bradley Manning. (He has been tried for the offence, and is awaiting a verdict.) Eventually, over 250,000 cables were made public, in the world’s largest-ever release of classified material. By the end of 2010, the cables had been published widely in the press, as part of a deal between Wikileaks and five major newspapers. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates deemed the document dump “extraordinarily embarrassing”. Others preferred the term “national security threat”.
The episode – which has since been dubbed “Cablegate” (a reference to the 1970s Watergate scandal) – made Julian Assange a celebrity. But did it make him a journalist? That question is now the crux of a pressing debate: about who qualifies as a “journalist” and what constitutes “journalism” in the internet age. If Assange is a journalist, he receives certain rights that many states extend to that professional group. In the US, for instance, reporters who receive information from government sources enjoy a number of privileges, and often protection, under the first amendment. Yet if Assange is not a journalist, he is on his own – and not protected by press freedoms. In the US, this debate about where to draw professional boundaries is an old one. (Recall the “Pentagon Papers” leak of 1971.) But it has recently taken on new urgency, with a number of US prosecutors demanding that Assange be tried in court for his involvement in Cablegate”.
Critics charge that “dumping” documents online is not part of the journalistic enterprise. Instead, they call Assange a “source”. The most extreme opponents have branded Wikileaks a terrorist organization – a far cry from a news outlet. (Former US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin puts Assange on a par with al-Qaida.) But groups like the Centre for Investigative Journalism recognise Assange as one of their own. And many first amendment attorneys and American commentators agree with that classification, arguing that “the lines distinguishing professional journalists from other people who disseminate information, ideas and opinions to a wider audience have largely disappeared with the advent of the Web.”
(Assange himself prefers the title “publisher and editor-in-chief who organises and directs other journalists”.)