Open letter from Reporters Without Borders to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange
Reporters Without Borders (RWB), an international press freedom organisation, regrets the incredible irresponsibility you showed when posting your article “Afghan War Diary 2004 – 2010” on the Wikileaks website on 25 July together with 92,000 leaked documents disclosing the names of Afghans who have provided information to the international military coalition that has been in Afghanistan since 2001.
Wikileaks has in the past played a useful role by making information available to the US and international public that exposed serious violations of human rights and civil liberties which the Bush administration committed in the name of its war against terror. Last April’s publication of a video of the killing of two employees of the Reuters news agency and other civilians by US military personnel in Baghdad in July 2007 was clearly in the public interest and we supported this initiative. It was a response to the Obama administration’s U-turn on implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. The White House broke its word in May 2009, when it defied a court order and refused to release photos of the mistreatment of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But revealing the identity of hundreds of people who collaborated with the coalition in Afghanistan is highly dangerous. It would not be hard for the Taliban and other armed groups to use these documents to draw up a list of people for targeting in deadly revenge attacks.
Defending yourself, you said that it was about “ending the war in Afghanistan ”. You also argued that: “Principled leaking has changed the course of history for the better; it can alter the course of history in the present; it can lead us to a better future.” However, the US government has been under significant pressure for some time as regards the advisability of its military presence in Afghanistan, not just since your article’s publication. We are not convinced that your wish to“end the war in Afghanistan” will be so easily granted and meanwhile, you have unintentionally provided supposedly democratic governments with good grounds for putting the Internet under closer surveillance.
It is true that you said that “a further 15,000 potentially sensitive reports” were excluded from the 25 July mass posting, that they were being “reviewed further” and that some of them would be released “once it was deemed safe to do so.”
Nonetheless, indiscriminately publishing 92,000 classified reports reflects a real problem of methodology and, therefore, of credibility. Journalistic work involves the selection of information. The argument with which you defend yourself, namely that Wikileaks is not made up of journalists, is not convincing. Wikileaks is an information outlet and, as such, is subject to the same rules of publishing responsibility as any other media.
Reporters Without Borders has for years been campaigning for a federal “shield law” protecting sources, one that would apply not only to the traditional media but also to the new Internet media without exception. This is why we condemn all forms of harassment of Wikileaks contributors or informants – such as the recent arrest of Wikileaks researcher Jacob Appelbaum – by government agencies and immigration officials. We also condemn the charges brought against US army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who is suspected of leaking the video of the Baghdad killings. However, you cannot claim to enjoy the protection of sources while at the same time, when it suits you, denying that you are a news media.
The precedent you have set leaves all those people throughout the world who risk their freedom and sometimes their lives for the sake of online information even more exposed to reprisals. Such imprudence endangers your own sources and, beyond that, the future of the Internet as an information medium. A total of 116 netizens are currently in prison in a dozen countries because of the comments they posted online. Can you image the same situation in the country of the First Amendment?
Wikileaks must provide a more detailed explanation of its actions and must not repeat the same mistake. This will mean a new departure and new methods.
We look forward to your reply,
Jean-François Julliard, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general;
Clothilde Le Coz, Reporters Without Borders representative in Washington DC.