Monthly Archives: January 2011

No More Secrets: Al Jazeera and NYT accepting leaks

WikiLeaks has provided a new model of journalism.

-WikiLeaks, About

As Al Jazeera begins publishing The Palestine Papers (presumably acquired through their new Transparency Unit) WikiLeaks’ legacy is already being cemented into the news world everywhere.

The Transparency Unit, introduced earlier in January in the midst of cablegate, gives whistleblowers a place to anonymously upload documents that they hope will make it into the public eye.

Launched in January 2011, the Al Jazeera Transparency Unit (AJTU) aims to mobilize its audience – both in the Arab world and further afield – to submit all forms of content (documents, photos, audio & video clips, as well as “story tips”) for editorial review and, if merited, online broadcast and transmission on our English and Arabic-language broadcasts.

We believe that this initiative will allow Al Jazeera’s supporters to shine light on notable and newsworthy government and corporate activities which might otherwise go unreported.

In other words: WikiLeaks 2. WikiLeaks’ “About” page contains similar concepts and the philosophy is nearly exactly the same.

Before WikiLeaks, such an approach to information gathering might be frowned upon as irresponsible and unethical – in the journalism world, the use of anonymous sources is a dangerous step away from accountability.

What news organizations (up to now) have failed to see is that the WikiLeaks model follows naturally from the world wide web and, frankly, it’s surprising that it didn’t happen sooner.

Early on in online news, user comments were encouraged and rarely censored. Free speech at its finest, everyone thought. Unfortunately, users hiding behind a cloak of internet anonymity began to degrade discourse in the comments section to a point where it wasn’t worth having unmoderated comments sections. Gene Weingarten put it best:

I basically like “comments,” though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It’s as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots.

The internet-induced anonymity of users degraded online news instead of enhancing it. WikiLeaks turned that around. We will always have commenters with the intelligence of a goldfish making racist comments as “xXx_WH!tePWR_xx” (though hopefully those will be moderated by now). Now, though, we see the other side of that coin as anonymous users bring to light aspects of corporate and political discourse that were previously safe behind closed doors.

Raffi Khatchadourian, who wrote an excellent profile of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, raises the vital question:

Has Al Jazeera taken the first step in a journalism arms race to begin acquiring mass document leaks?

Yes.

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told Yahoo’s Cutline blog that the paper was considering putting together a similar unit.

Executive editor Bill Keller told The Cutline that he couldn’t go into details, “especially since nothing is nailed down.” But when asked if he could envision a system like Al Jazeera’s  Transparency Unit, Keller said the paper has been “looking at something along those lines.”

While WikiLeaks’ fate may be unknown – Assange’s extradition hearing on February 7 and 8 could land him on trial in Sweden for rape charges and/or ultimately in the U.S. (maybe as Bradley Manning’s neighbor) – but Assange has already accomplished his mission. No secrets are safe.

WikiWhat? Al Jazeera leaks too

Photo: WikiMedia Commons

Al Jazeera and The Guardian began releasing nearly 1,700 files yesterday in the largest release of leaked files since WikiLeaks began its release of U.S. diplomatic cables in November.

The files, dubbed “The Palestine Papers,” expose more than a decade of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Al Jazeera’s webpage introducing the files describes what they will disclose.

Al Jazeera will release the documents between January 23-26th, 2011. They will reveal new details about:

  • the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to concede illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, and to be “creative” about the status of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount;
  • the compromises the Palestinian Authority was prepared to make on refugees and the right of return;
  • details of the PA’s security cooperation with Israel;
  • and private exchanges between Palestinian and American negotiators in late 2009, when the Goldstone Report was being discussed at the United Nations.

The papers were leaked anonymously, but directly to Al Jazeera. The organization does not plan to disclose the source.

Because of the sensitive nature of these documents, Al Jazeera will not reveal the source(s) or detail how they came into our possession. We have taken great care over an extended period of time to assure ourselves of their authenticity.

I posted last week about WikiLeaks losing its monopoly in the world of anonymous leaking organizations. However, traditional media organizations, The Palestine Papers show, have never fallen off the map.

With the media craze around WikiLeaks, The Palestine Papers are glass of icewater to the face of all of us who forgot that traditional, mainstream media outlets can (and will) publish leaked documents as well.

The question here isn’t “why did this leak happen?” – every leaker has their own personal set of motivations – but why Al Jazeera? The news organization based in Qatar has a strong reputation for editorial independence, but so does WikiLeaks. Plus, the latter is in the public eye far more than Al Jazeera recently.

Perhaps the chaos and controversy surrounding WikiLeaks and Julian Assange drove this source to seek another outlet for the documents. Despite this controversy, the information being leaked by WikiLeaks recently has not been proven untrue and the trustworthiness of the organization has not been compromised by Julian Assange’s questionable sexual endeavors.

It will be interesting to see as these stories unfold how the publisher of the documents causes the coverage to differ from that of information disclosed by WikiLeaks.

An often-mentioned difference between WikiLeaks and traditional, mainstream media outlets is that traditional outlets often write stories with excerpts of or references to original documents, but do not post the actual documents. In this case, though, Al Jazeera is releasing entire documents. A practice that may become common in the wake of WikiLeaks’ methods.

5 Great WikiLeaks News Sources

As much as I would like to be a one-stop shop for WikiLeaks news and views, there is far too much going on for one person to cover, so here is a list of some of the best blogs and sites covering WikiLeaks closely.

Media FixOn his blog, Greg Mitchell offers a day-by-day synopsis of WikiLeaks news and coverage, and has been doing so for 54 days and counting.

The Guardian | The U.S. Embassy Cables – The Guardian offers extensive coverage of both cablegate releases and WikiLeaks, also offering a key points page, which gives a day-by-day of the important aspects of WikiLeaks.

Raw Story – Raw Story is a web-only news site that specifically focuses on coverage of stories that are (in their eyes) ignored by the mainstream media. With an issue as vast as WikiLeaks, this site can be very helpful in finding stories that are overshadowed by other WikiLeaks developments.

Threat Level – Wired.com’s Threat Level blog covers “privacy, crime, and security online,” a beat that WikiLeaks falls into almost perfectly. They often feature good posts that offer new insight and commentary about WikiLeaks.

Times Topics – The New York Times offers some coverage of WikiLeaks, and though it is weaker than The Guardian’s, the coverage often features different aspects of the day’s leaks or events.

In First big RuLeaks dump, WikiLeaks loses monopoly

A photo of RuLeaks homepageRuLeaks.net, a Russia-based site dedicated to unveiling corruption in the Russian government, made a splash in headlines  today when they leaked photos of Vladimir Putin’s estate, rumored to have cost $1 billion. The site, which oppened earlier this month according to Raw Story, is one of many sites that have sprung up since WikiLeaks began its legacy.

Putin personally took issue with WikiLeaks’ operations after a leaked cable compared him and Dmitry Medvedev to Batman and Robin, respectively. However, one Russian government official thought WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange deserved a Nobel Prize for pulling the pants off American diplomacy.

The tables have now turned, it seems. As WikiLeaks continues to release a slow trickle of its hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Department cables, RuLeaks has now embarrassed Russia, shedding light on the lavish spending of the country’s leaders.

With the leak comes the loss of WikiLeaks’ monopoly on anonymously leaked secrets. Although RuLeaks’ homepage features a picture of Assange, neither him nor his team is involved in running RuLeaks. As more secret spilling sites open, whistleblowers may be able to choose which outlet to go to.

Competition in the relatively young field of anonymous anti-secrecy organizations will inevitably lead to innovation and adaptation. WikiLeaks (and its competitors) will be forced to become more secure and will fight for audience in the world’s largest news organizations.

WikiLeaks also has dirt on Russia, according to an interview with Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks repreentative.

Rudolf Elmer and WikiLeaks’ source anonymity

As far as we can ascertain, WikiLeaks has never revealed any of its sources.

– WikiLeaks (About)

As former Swiss bank official Rudolf Elmer handed two CDs which he claimed were full of information on unethical and illegal banking practices to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ philosophy expanded.

While there is no doubt that it was entirely Elmer’s choice to publicly reveal himself as one of WikiLeaks’ sources, this choice gave WikiLeaks a new status in the news world. Before this, the organization’s selling point was not the information it had to offer (though this was key in bringing it into the public eye), but the secrecy and protection it offered its sources.

Through various technological safeguards, WikiLeaks has maintained an excellent reputation of source protection. Thus far, the only sources to have been revealed are those who revealed themselves. While PFC Bradley Manning did so privately and was later exposed, Elmer is WikiLeaks’ first source to hand over the information publicly.

Whistleblowers are nothing new. For as long as there has been news, there have been whistleblowers. Previously, though, whistleblowers who aren’t concerned with secrecy – such as Erin Brockovich – have gone through traditional channels (mainstream media or the legal system) to get their messages out.

With Rudolf Elmer’s public passage of banking documents to WikiLeaks, the organization is being used as a journalistic venue, not just a place for people to pass off secrets without being held accountable.

A fellow journalism student, Melissa Caskey, brings up the issue of source accountability in a great post on the ethics of WikiLeaks.

However, in cases where anonymous users provide a majority of a site’s content, delegating the validity of sourcing creates issues of trust and accountability.

In the case of Rudolf Elmer’s information (which Assange said could be released within weeks), trust and accountability are no issue because the public has seen exactly where the information came from. This is a very important development for WikiLeaks as they will now be a medium for distribution of publicly sourced information – something they have never done before.

Digging Deeper

 

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks at a security conference in 2009. Photo / Creative Commons / Darryl Yeoh

The story of WikiLeaks is a long one, beginning as far back as Julian Assange’s early childhood and continuing today. Unfortunately, media coverage of WikiLeaks since the beginning of cablegate, the organization’s slow leak of a massive collection of U.S. Embassy Cables (a full collection of all the cables released to date can be found on WikiLeaks’ website), has been shallow. That is, media reports about WikiLeaks – with some exceptions – do not dig deep enough. They cover the latest developments in the story – surely an important function of a news organization – but they fail to provide sufficient background information.

When WikiLeaks began to release the cables on November 28, 2010, a flurry of media coverage followed. As the cables roused outrage in governments worldwide, this media coverage turned into a blizzard. The amount of coverage was extensive, but the ratio of new information to stories was far too low.

As soon as WikiLeaks came back into the spotlight for the first time since releasing Afghanistan & Iraq  War Logs this summer, so did its founder Julian Assange. When looking into Assange, the vast majority of articles looked back not to his childhood – which was extremely important in the formation of the ideas that WikiLeaks is based on – but only three or four months, to August 2010. Most sounded much like this November 18 New York Times story:

Marianne Ny, director of the Stockholm prosecutor’s office, said in a statement that she had moved to have Mr. Assange extradited to Sweden on suspicion of “rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion.” The accusations were first made against Mr. Assange, 39, an Australian who created the whistle-blowers’ site, after he traveled to Sweden in mid-August and had brief relationships with two Swedish women that he has described as consensual.

The New York Times story came out on November 18, before the new wave of news coverage. Somehow, though, nearly every news outlet on the planet thought it appropriate to restate this information ad nauseum without ever looking into Assange in any other time period or context. The information was conveniently available, so it was reported. Unfortunately, convenient journalism is often bad journalism.

Then a virtually unknown blogger wrote up a post without having to fly across any oceans or deal with FOIA put reporting on Assange (and the foundations of WikiLeaks) to shame. Until a post from The Atlantic put him on a list with esteemed journalists David Carr and John Noughton, very few people had heard of Aaron Brady.

But among that list you’d also find Aaron Bady and his blog zunguzungu.wordpress.com. His probing analysis of Julian Assange’s personal philosophy and possible motivations became an oft-cited piece of the global conversation about what WikiLeaks might mean. Before Bady’s November 29 post, Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”, only a few hundred people a day found their way Bady’s blog. In the days afterward, tens of thousands of people swarmed to the site — and Bady ended up linked by some of the most influential media outlets on the planet.

Using essays by Assange and interviews published before the media explosion about WikiLeaks, Bady dissected the events that were unfolding during cablegate. Assange spells out his unique philosophy in great detail in some of his essays, shedding light on what WikiLeaks is doing now. Aaron Bady did what reporters should have been doing from the beginning: research.

In contrast to Bady and his limited resources is The New Yorker magazine. While today’s journalism industry doesn’t give anyone a blank check, The New Yorker can afford to pay for deep research and travel. And they did. In June of 2010, the magazine ran the best in-depth look at WikiLeaks and how Assange came to start the organization to date. The piece is exceptionally long, but not unnecessarily so, and the reporting is fantastic and relevant.

Assange was born in 1971, in the city of Townsville, on Australia’s northeastern coast, but it is probably more accurate to say that he was born into a blur of domestic locomotion. Shortly after his first birthday, his mother—I will call her Claire—married a theatre director, and the two collaborated on small productions. They moved often, living near Byron Bay, a beachfront community in New South Wales, and on Magnetic Island, a tiny pile of rock that Captain Cook believed had magnetic properties that distorted his compass readings. They were tough-minded nonconformists. (At seventeen, Claire had burned her schoolbooks and left home on a motorcycle.) Their house on Magnetic Island burned to the ground, and rifle cartridges that Claire had kept for shooting snakes exploded like fireworks. “Most of this period of my childhood was pretty Tom Sawyer,” Assange told me. “I had my own horse. I built my own raft. I went fishing. I was going down mine shafts and tunnels.”

While I don’t have the resources that The New Yorker has, my hope with this blog is to be able to join Aaron Bady in the quest against regurgitated, convenient information and try to bring something from beyond the beaten path to the discussion about Wikileaks, secrecy, and free speech.