There are many questions that have arisen about Julien Assange, primarily debates about whether or not Assange is a full-on criminal, a Fifth Estate journalist exposing a corrupt power’s broken methods of imperial influence, or both. With Asange’s arrest has come the vigilante cyberwar waged by international hackers against U.S. commercial web sites.
One thing has become clear in the past week about the entire Wikileaks situation, the United States reaction to the leaked State Department cables was swift and severe. Rape charges that were once dismissed by Swedish authorities suddenly became the cause for an Interpol arrest of Assange. As to the U.S.’s severe reaction — particularly statements from right wingers like Sarah Palin that he should be hung — have exposed the U.S. as a reactionary power. Shakespeare said it best in Hamlet, Act III, scene II, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Support for WikiLeaks has also been voiced by several world leaders, including Brazil’s outgoing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. “I show my solidarity with WikiLeaks,” Lula said during a press conference Friday. “The fault is not with …the one who divulged the information but with the ones who wrote such stupidity,” he said. Russia went so far as to say Assange should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Regardless of whether history writes Assange as a fighter of imperial ills or a terrorist (surely a question of which country tells the story), numerous questions still remain abut the role of media at the crossroads traditional and new citizen driven self-appointed journalists. The impact will be far reaching, forever changing the role of media in the new world.
Criminal Intent or Journalist?
Parsing criminal versus journalist is a troubling question. Certainly, getting secure documents and leaking them is a criminal offense. Whether it was the right thing to do, an act of exposing corruption versus terrorism clearly depends on a political views.
Many journalists go to jail in the name of exposing corruption and wrong doing. Most recently in the U.S., a national case that caused jail time was the Barry Bonds steroids scandal, which caused Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada an 18 month sentence (waived).
Critics have said that Assange has a political agenda with the United States. So does Wall Street Journal Owner Rupert Murdoch, in case you haven’t noticed the political leanings of Fox News and his contributions to the Tea Party.
Assange and Wikileaks is the ultimate expression of the Fifth Estate. Full of shocking power, Assange has arisen to hold the U.S. Government and its partners accountable (right or wrong) because they will not act responsibly. Further, the media has failed to hold the government responsible creating the need for Wikileaks. When one sees the abuses exposed in Nigeria for example, it’s hard to turn a blind eye and say that Assange is completely off his rocker about U.S. corruption. Further, Wikileaks has demonstrated that the war in Afghanistan is not going well contrary to continuing White House protests that the conflict is winnable… 10 years after it began.
Consider Jay Rosen’s words at the PDF Forum this weekend on Wikileaks: “In my mind, Wikileaks is the world’s first stateless news organization,” said Jay Rosen, media critic and professor at the New York University School of Journalism. “You’ve heard of voting with you feet? The sources are voting with their leaks. If they trusted the newspapers more, they would be going to the newspapers.”
The only thing that could disqualify Assange’s status as a new 21st century journalist would be funding. If Wikileaks is backed by a foreign power (for example, Iran or China) or a terrorist organization (Al Qaeda) then one would have to write Assange off as a political puppet that needs to be treated like a spy or terrorist. Otherwise, America got caught with its pants down by a new jack that showed just how powerful digital media really can be in the modern age.
As to the vigilantes defending Assange, anonymous criminal activity is just that. People die in real wars. Cyberwar has its price, too, and while many of these young digital fighters will never see a courtroom, the romantic aura of their actions shouldn’t fool anyone. If one plays adult games, they should be ready to pay adult prices.