What’s so special about WikiLeaks? Nothing!

December 3rd, 2010 by Julian Egelstaff Leave a reply »

Why isn’t anyone in the media standing on the rooftops, defending WikiLeaks?

After the whistle-blowing website released thousands of documents recently, the spin in the news has been focused on the government outrage, and the outrageous calls to assassinate Julian Assange, the “editor-in-chief” of WikiLeaks.

OK, let’s imagine for a moment that the government called for the assassination of the editor of the Globe and Mail, because they disagreed with a story the Globe published. Can you imagine that?! What kind of banana republic would this country be if that happened? But when Stephen Harper’s former advisor, Tom Flanagan, says just that about WikiLeaks where is the outrage from sane individuals in this country?

In Canada, at least, journalists are no different from anyone else. They have no special rights and no special laws protecting them or their work. If they publish something you don’t like, you can sue them, just like you can sue anyone else when they say or write something you disagree with. If someone publishes information that undermines the state, there are laws against that too. But you have to prove that it undermines the state, you can’t just say it does, and suggest assassination as a remedy!

And it should be needless to say that there’s a fine line between information that undermines the state and information that’s in the public interest. The Pentagon Papers are one of the most famous examples of this fact. If you condemn WikiLeaks, then you either have to condemn the New York Times for publishing the Pentagon Papers, or you have to explain why WikiLeaks is somehow different from the New York Times.

Before you say, “of course it’s different,” remember that in this country at least, journalists have no special rights. There is no difference between this blog and the Toronto Star in a legal sense. In the United States, there are some states where journalists working for “recognized media outlets” have special rights and responsibilities. That creates the possibility of separating “real” journalists from plain old bloggers and WikiLeaks.

But who gets to make that distinction? The people who make the laws granting journalists special rights? The courts when ruling whether someone is protected by the law or not? I much prefer the Canadian model where we’re all equal under the law, and all equally able to take the government to task (more statutory protections for those that do would be welcome of course, whether journalists or not!).

Sweden, where WikiLeaks is based, has different rules about freedom of the press from Canada or the US. So once again, the online world is forcing people to confront distinctions in the laws of different countries, but that’s not new, right? It’s the same old thing as when debates have erupted about copyrights and patents and so-called digital rights management. We’re used to seeing the old media/new media story play out around relatively trivial subjects, like whether you can download movies from the internet. We’re not used to seeing it play out around freedom of the press.

Maybe this is why the media is not rallying to WikiLeaks defence. Old media hates new media. It’s the new kid on the block, and it’s going to eat old media’s lunch sooner or later. Maybe the editorial boards of major newspapers are happy to see this new media upstart under the gun. But they should think long and hard about the role of journalism in a democracy before they spend too much time on the side lines. When they look at the vitriol being cast at WikiLeaks, they should remember, “there but for the grace of God go I.”


1 comment

  1. Amazon recently ceased hosting WikiLeaks, due in part to political pressure (at least, whatever they say about the site violating their “terms of service,” they didn’t have a problem with WikiLeaks until the recent firestorm, so draw your own conculsions).

    The Electronic Frontier Foundation rightly takes them to task for stomping all over the proud tradition of freedom of speech that book publishers and sellers have previously upheld:


Leave a Reply