As his lawyer alleges a grand jury in Virginia is working up charges to file against him, Julian Assange has found a powerful ally—or, at least, defender—in his homeland: the press.
On the same day that nineteen faculty members from the Columbia Journalism School signed and sent a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder warning that prosecuting WikiLeaks and its founder would “set a dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity,” ten board members of the Australian SPJ-equivalent, the Walkley Foundation, along with twenty-six of the nation’s leading journalists and editors, sent a letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard voicing their concerns about the government’s rhetoric and talk of charges.
The leaking of 250,000 confidential American diplomatic cables is the most astonishing leak of official information in recent history, and its full implications are yet to emerge. But some things are clear. In essence, WikiLeaks, an organisation that aims to expose official secrets, is doing what the media have always done: bringing to light material that governments would prefer to keep secret .
The volume of the leaks is unprecedented, yet the leaking and publication of diplomatic correspondence is not new. We, as editors and news directors of major media organisations, believe the reaction of the US and Australian governments to date has been deeply troubling. We will strongly resist any attempts to make the publication of these or similar documents illegal. Any such action would impact not only on WikiLeaks, but every media organisation in the world that aims to inform the public about decisions made on their behalf. WikiLeaks, just four years old, is part of the media and deserves our support.
Already, the chairman of the US Senate homeland security committee, Joe Lieberman, is suggesting The New York Times should face investigation for publishing some of the documents. The newspaper told its readers that it had ‘‘taken care to exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security.’’ Such an approach is responsible — we do not support the publication of material that threatens national security or anything which would put individual lives in danger. Those judgements are never easy, but there has been no evidence to date that the WikiLeaks material has done either.
There is no evidence, either, that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have broken any Australian law. The Australian government is investigating whether Mr Assange has committed an offence, and the Prime Minister has condemned WikiLeaks’ actions as ‘‘illegal’’. So far, it has been able to point to no Australian law that has been breached.
To prosecute a media organisation for publishing a leak would be unprecedented in the US, breaching the First Amendment protecting a free press. In Australia, it would seriously curtail Australian media organisations reporting on subjects the government decides are against its interests .
To aggressively attempt to shut WikiLeaks down, to threaten to prosecute those who publish official leaks, and to pressure companies to cease doing commercial business with WikiLeaks, is a serious threat to democracy, which relies on a free and fearless press.
The letter is signed by journalists and editors from all journalistic walks: the right, the left, the blogosphere, talk-back radio, the national public broadcaster, network and cable news, and the nation’s big legacy papers—with the exception of national broadsheet, The Australian. There is the News Director of talk-back station 2UE Clinton Maynard, the editor-in-chief of Murdoch-owned national site news.com.au David “Penbo” Penberthy, editors-in-chief and editors of each daily covering Sydney and Melbourne and the single dailies covering Brisbane and Adelaide, director of News and Programs for Sky News, Ian Ferguson, and Eric Beecher, chairman of the brilliant Crikey, among others. Aside from The Australian, I see no significant opt-outs. This is a statement virtually on behalf of the Australian media. (I am an Australian, have worked for The Sydney Morning Herald, whose editor-in-chief, Peter Fray, signed the letter, and was a subscriber to the Walkley’s monthly magazine.) And it’s a brave move; something akin (fashioned to scale) of the editors or chiefs of the Times, the Post, NBC, NPR, PBS, CNN, Salon, Slate, the New York Post, etc., teaming up to publish a statement challenging the government’s posturing on WikiLeaks, with only the Journal not signing on.
The note echoes in parts an open letter sent to PM Gillard—who has walked back a statement in which she called WikiLeaks’ actions “illegal” but who has not made any supportive statements of the country’s most hunted citizen—by various academics, artists, and activists on December 7. In many ways, the new letter could be more powerful and persuasive than that letter, and even the one sent by the Columbia faculty members, because it represents such a united front. Every corner of the Australian media landscape is covered here, and the PM, whose honeymoon period was blip-length following her rise to power in a June leadership challenge and her artless fumbling through the August election, would be wary of putting the press further offside.
It will be interesting to see if a similar move is made on this side of the Pacific.
*Note: The Sydney Morning Herald began publishing the “Canberra Cables” last week. Reporter Philip Dorling has an interesting piece on how he came to obtain the papers from the once elusive Assange, with links to the paper’s full WikiLeaks coverage.