As the Bulletin goes to press, Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, is in custody in the United Kingdom. He faces extradition to Sweden to answer questions regarding alleged sex offenses. Assange, his lawyers, and his many supporters claim that the charges are simply a pretext to silence the controversial distributor of thousands of classified documents, including, in late November 2010, embarrassing U.S. embassy cables.
Despite calls from political figures to charge Assange with crimes ranging from theft of government property to espionage, Attorney General Eric Holder faces significant legal hurdles, not the least being whether the government even has jurisdiction over an individual who is neither an American citizen nor located in the United States.
Journalists and open government advocates are conflicted in this case. They support access to information. They are disappointed that the Obama administration, after promising greater transparency, has continued to thwart it. And they are skeptical of claims that these disclosures genuinely threaten national security and international diplomacy.
On the other hand, WikiLeaks' seemingly indiscriminate release of documents, apparently without thorough review to assess what risks they might pose to safety or privacy, makes many legacy journalists uncomfortable - even those like The New York Times or the London-based Guardian which have received and subsequently published many of them.
In an op-ed essay published by The Australian newspaper on December 8, Assange claims that WikiLeaks has created "a new type of journalism: scientific journalism." This he describes as utilizing the Internet, as well other media outlets, not only to report the news, but to provide readers with links to the original documents that form the basis for a story so that they can judge for themselves whether it was reported accurately. "Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media," he writes. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/in-depth/wikileaks/dont-shoot-messenger-for-revealing-uncomfortable-truths/story-fn775xjq-1225967241332
Some contend that what WikiLeaks is doing is not "journalism." Serving as a conduit for leaked government records, they argue, does not make it "part of that media." By distinguishing WikiLeaks from the mainstream media, they suggest that Assange and his colleagues should not be covered by statutes such as reporter's shield laws, or by the strong constitutional protections against prior restraints on the press recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in cases like "the Pentagon Papers." New York Times v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971)
But the reality is that "doing journalism" is what makes a journalist, a journalist. A fearless and independent press challenges the status quo, questions authority, and allows the public to keep an eye on the government, especially when government resists that oversight. It is sometimes unpopular and often controversial. Yet it is essential to a free society.
From an ethical perspective, any entity that claims to be part of "the media" should be accountable. It should take responsibility for its decisions, and explain how they are reached. But the First Amendment was never intended to protect only "responsible" journalists. Declaring WikiLeaks a media outlaw is a risky undertaking. Journalists should think long and hard before doing so.
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We welcome you to a new volume of the Silha Bulletin. You will notice a new approach to our editorial content, as well as a new design. From an editorial perspective, our staff of graduate and law students explores current topics by taking a more thematic approach than in the past. In this issue, you will find longer articles that wrestle with complicated issues arising in digital media, including freedom of information, video games censorship, access, and intellectual property. We also include an overview of some of the legal and ethical questions prompted by the most recent election, as well as developments in international law.
We hope that our re-designed Bulletin complements and enhances that new approach in ways that are both user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. We are very grateful to Steve Wolf, a senior graphic designer at Goody Clancy in Boston, for his generous donation of time and expertise in assisting us.
We invite you to let us know what you think.
- JANE E. KIRTLEY
SILHA PROFESSOR OF MEDIA ETHICS AND LAW
SILHA CENTER DIRECTOR