The recent release of more than 400,000 documents relating to the war in Iraq has focused unprecedented attention on the practice of whistleblowing. It has also divided journalists themselves on whether WikiLeaks, the site that published the material, is promoting transparency or treason. 

Investigative journalists spend a lot of time thinking
about whistleblowers.

They encourage them to come forward, persuade them to
talk, promise them anonymity, and sometimes they even risk going to jail to
prevent their identities from being known. Whistleblowers have been key to many
important exposes over the years, and they are a crucial component to
investigative journalism.

That’s why the current debate over WikiLeaks is both
perplexing and troubling. The website, founded in 2006, is devoted to soliciting
and publicizing important information from whistleblowers. So why are so many
journalists, including some investigative reporters, raising questions about
what WikiLeaks is doing?

WikiLeaks has broken many stories in its brief history,
posting everything from secret detention documents at Guantanamo Bay to a video
showing American Apache helicopters firing at civilians in Baghdad. The stories
have not endeared the site to U.S. authorities.

But whistleblowers rarely lead a placid life after they
make their information known, and media that transmit the information also
often find themselves targeted for retribution. Just ask Daniel Ellsberg and
the New York Times, both of whom faced threats, injunctions and prosecutions
for their role in publishing the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers.

This year, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange raised the
stakes by publishing more than 77,000 classified Pentagon documents on the war
in Afghanistan. He followed that up recently with a further release of about
400,000 documents on the war in Iraq.

The Pentagon was predictably not happy. It said the Afghan
documents endangered lives of people whose names had not been redacted, though
no concrete evidence has yet surfaced of reprisals against anyone. Its reaction
to the Iraq documents has been twofold: on the one hand, it says they reveal
little new, while it also feels their release may be grounds to charge the
people who leaked and publicized the documents with treason.

It is generally accepted that the release showed evidence of
about 15,000 previously unreported and undocumented civilian deaths in Iraq, a
remarkable fact given the difficulty of concealing such a large number of
casualties in today’s plugged-in world. It also called into question previous
U.S. and British claims that there were no official counts of casualties in
Iraq. The documents instead showed meticulous records and an exact toll of
66,081 non-combatant deaths over a five-year period.

Assange also maintains the records show the U.S. failed to
investigate hundreds of reports of rapes, assaults, and even murders by Iraqi
police and armed soldiers over the years, a charge the Americans deny.

What has been the response of the journalism community to
WikiLeaks? Surprisingly, there have been many reporters sniping from the
sidelines. Reporters Without Borders criticized the site for publishing names
of Afghans acting as informers for the U.S., while other journalists have
supported the Pentagon’s analysis that the site is playing into the hands of
terrorists.

Marc Thiessen, former White House staffer and a weekly columnist for the Washington Post,
was blunt: “Let’s be clear: WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a
criminal enterprise. Its reason for existence is to obtain classified national
security information and disseminate it as widely as possible — including to
the United States’ enemies.”

Assange himself now finds himself living like a virtual
fugitive. Originally from Australia, he is looking for a safe haven were he
won’t be subject to a possible prosecution under the 1917 U.S. Espionage Act,
the same legislation that was used to prosecute Ellsberg.

This seems odd, since a Pentagon spokesman has called the
latest release “mundane”, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted
that it contained nothing new. Some have argued that authorities simply want to
ensure future leaks are plugged before they can cause any further
embarrassment.

Nevertheless, the level of international intrigue
surrounding Assange seems to grow daily. He applied for Swedish residency, but
shortly afterwards was accused of molestation and rape by two women there.
Assange maintains it was a set-up, but whatever the case, it torpedoed his
attempt to settle there. He is now looking at Switzerland as a possible new
home. A former professional hacker, he protects the security of the site by
routing his servers through a maze of complex connections in safe locations.

In response to the backlash, especially from some sectors
of the reporting community, a group of international investigative journalists
is now coming to the defence of Assange and WikiLeaks. A statement of support,
signed by members and associates of a global investigative journalism
association, seeks to defend the principle and practice of the site.

“We believe that Mr Assange has made an outstanding
contribution to transparency and accountability on the Afghanistan and Iraq
wars, subjects where transparency and accountability has been severely
restricted by government secrecy and media control,” the statement says. “He is
being attacked for releasing information that should never have been withheld
from the public.”

The statement, which has already been signed by
journalists from more than 40 countries, defends WikiLeaks’ right to post
confidential military documents. “If it is espionage to publish documents
provided by whistleblowers, then every journalist will eventually be guilty of
that crime. Mr Assange deserves our support and encouragement in the face of
the attacks.”

Investigative journalism seeks to hold powerful people and
interests to account, and that inevitably means challenging the status quo. The
history of such reporting shows that those same powerful interests often strike
back, launching counter-offensives. How this current battle will end is
unknown, but it is fascinating to see how members of the journalism community
are aligning themselves in the process.

The full statement in support of WikiLeaks is
available at the Global Investigative Journalism Network website.

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