Julian Assange: a journalist?

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.

The case

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”.)

Author opinion

Julian Assange is a journalist, and should be treated as such. The current debate rests on an archaic definition of the journalist and the news organisation, which has not adapted to the age of citizen journalists, tweets, leaks, links and re-posts. We should expand our concept of what makes a “journalist” - and thus, who can take shelter under the umbrella of “media”. We may need to interrogate the lines between “speaker’, “disseminator”, “source” and “reporter” of knowledge.

Otherwise, we risk obstructing the new media’s use of government sources. And we risk applying the law in a lopsided fashion. Consider this: if we agree to prosecute Assange - for endangering national security by leaking confidential government information - should we not also prosecute the editors of The New York Times, Der Spiegeland the other traditional news outlets that re-published Wikileaks material?

On the other hand, we could draw the very valid conclusion that these flagship newspapers are already bound by editorial guidelines, ethics standards and professional journalism practices: like verification, fact-checking, placing in context, and anonymising names of those in danger. In other words, these newspapers act professionally - and it is that which earns them the kinds of protection extended to other professional groups, such as lawyers and doctors. If Wikileaks does not act in accordance with journalistic standards, should it be able to seek refuge under journalistic privileges?

- Katie Engelhart

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Comments (5)

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  1. I have been an activist for good causes for many years; I have a degree of ambivalence regarding it all. I believe that in some cases Julian Assange may have been wrong according to the written letter of the law. However surly the law should be able to accommodate fairness and justice. I must confess to being a moron and not having studied these issues devoutly. The more I have seen during my campaigning the more I have learned that the law is often the plaything of the rich. Particularly where the United States or big corporations are involved. I remember the Vietnam war and Daniel Ellsberg’s whistle blowing about the true horror and hopelessness of that war. Has time past : Anne Machon, Katharine Gunn, Craig Murry, and a multitude of others have spoken out regarding the ubiquitous horrors they had discovered.
    I used to write silly campaign letters to ‘tin pot despots’ in countries I had to look for on a big map; now I see evil all around me I have written to Julian Assange many times and have sent Postal Orders , but the Postal Orders have been stopped. The media has changed, few people trust the media or anything official. We are seeing much unrest.

  2. I fail to see what journalism has to do with it–except in the US? No profession should have special privileges. Either all have the same imprescriptible right of free speech or none have.
    As to Julian Assange, his case rests entirely on whether he knew he was disseminating stolen materials. If yes, then he should be charged accordingly. If not, then he was free to disseminate them in the belief they were in the public domain.
    Of course, if he were sensitive about the provenance of his materials, he should have inquired before scattering them all over the world. The evidence suggests that he was intent solely on embarrassing the American authorities. If that is the case, it is up to the Americans to charge him with some offence or other. But then, if he has not committed an offence in the country from which he disseminated the materials, he should not be subject to extradition. But we all know how politicians and governments behave when they want to appease or offend others.

  3. Fair point, Jorge, I was sloppy with Ellsberg and used his name as a shorthand for “disseminator of documents” rather than inside whistleblower.

    Ellsberg of course was arrested and very likely could have gone to jail or worse. The last time I saw him speak, last year at HLS, he talked about a plot by Nixon adviser Howard Hunt to “neutralize” Ellsberg, including having Cuban waiters drop acid into Ellsberg’s soup before he was to speak at a benefit event.

    I agree, Jorge, that Assange’s sneering public attitude has limited his ability to be perceived as a public hero. But is he a Woodward? He certainly disseminated a lot of information. But to my mind it was a glut, without much investigative or reportorial about it. (i.e. without much judgment or value added.) And none of it was as earth-shattering, at least in direct political effects, as the revelations of Woodstein (or, for that matter, Ellsberg) — so I’d hesitate to place Assange above them.

  4. I’m going to start my comment by agreeing, partially, with David. I’m not certain that it’s useful, or desirable, to distinguish between free speech and a specific journalistic privilege. But by that logic (and to return to Katie’s point), why isn’t Assange a journalist? He probably has little resemblance to your beat reporter, but how different is he from the editor or owners of the New York Times in terms of disseminating information? I don’t think Assange is wrong in asserting that hypothetically, although no one would want him as their editor. I think he is a journalist, rather than some sort of whistleblower or terrorist.

    He’s also not a Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg was a definitely whistleblower, and in the same vein you could probably apply that label to Bradley Manning and other insiders who put their necks on the line. The two have shared different fates for the same reason: whether or not it was politically desirable to prosecute them for releasing classified information. What constitutes sensitive information for government officials is based on highly irrational logic. If you are government or military personnel, however, there are restrictions on your behavior that make releasing information from the inside illegal. Bradley Manning could have got the death penalty for what he did because he’s a soldier. Ellsberg, I’m sure, wondered for a while whether he’d go to jail (I think he may have even said so when Fred Logevall had him speak at Cornell my first year).

    The fourth estate, however, has an obligation to dredge up the stuff that the government wants to keep classified. In this regard, one has to wonder how much Assange’s megalomania turned off potential defenders in the media. Clearly his best defense is to be seen as an investigative journalist of sorts. But NYT / DS /etc were certainly turned off by reckless decisions he made (such as revealing sources in cases where it would endanger their lives), and of course by his later sexual indiscretions.

    I can’t help but think that the process of disseminating all the classified material that Wikileaks had gathered is ultimately what soured the professional and public perception of Assange. Ultimately he released classified documents in order to inform the public of what the U.S. government (and others) we up to. When we describe in one sentence what happened, isn’t he closer to a Novak, Woodward or even an Herbert Matthews than anyone else? Take away the sneering, nasty megalomaniac and focus just on his actions, and I see the most wildly successful piece of investigative journalism in history.

  5. Katie, within the context of “journalism,” it’s hard to label Assange a journalist. He’s more like Daniel Ellsberg than Carl Bernstein. But the solution is not to expand the definition — legal, lay or otherwise — of “journalism.” Because if speech is a right, whether or not a particular citizen is a “journalist” shouldn’t matter.

    If speech is a right, then all citizens should have so-called journalistic privilege. Speech rights (and derivative rights like press and religion) are universal, and shouldn’t be contingent on whether a citizen is a “journalist” or a “cleric.” It’s dangerous for governments to draw lines among “journalists” and “non-journalists,” (or any of the other categories you mentioned). It amounts to governments deciding who may and may not speak. This line-drawing — and the attendant situational government privilege-granting it entails — seems antithetical to the notion of speech as a “right.”

    Even so, in this particular case, your concern with “applying the law in a lopsided fashion” seems misplaced. I can’t say (at least, not briefly) whether or not Assange’s actions ought to be criminalized — or whether he’d have a valid First Amendment defense even if they were (the U.S. Government seems intent on his extradition, so let’s assume U.S. law at least for my sake). But Wikileaks’ original publication of classified material is qualitatively and legally different from newspapers’ ex-post publication of content that Wikileaks had already made public.

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