Press Freedom Under Threat in Age of WikiLeaks

Freedom of the press could be seriously impacted across the world in the wake of the ongoing political revelations brought about by whistle-blowing websites such as WikiLeaks, one of foremost constitutional law experts in the U.S. said Tuesday.

Speaking at a Personal Democracy Forum event, "WikiLeaks and Internet Freedom II", at New York University, veteran First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams warned governments could use the controversy surrounding the recent release of thousands of confidential diplomatic cables as an excuse to crack down on journalists and publishers. 

Abrams told IPS some countries could move to change constitutional laws in an effort to "protect their sovereignty". 

"To the extent that diplomatic cables or military secrets – as the governments view them – are publicized they will take whatever steps they find they are able to take," the New York-based attorney said. 

"My point was that in democratic countries they may not be able to take steps of a meaningful nature; that they may change their laws or their attitude towards freedom of expression in an effort to stop what they view as the harmful revelation of secret information," Abrams noted. "The consequence of that would be to harm, not WikiLeaks, which would continue, but others." 

Abrams has himself been embroiled in controversy over the right to government secrecy, having argued for the New York Times and Judith Miller in the CIA leak grand jury investigation in 2003. 

However, he has been a critic of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, calling for the organization to take greater discretion in the release of government documents. 

As political leaks, such as this week’s publication of the Palestine Papers by Arabic news agency Al Jazeera, continue to send world leaders into damage control, debate has once again focused on the role and responsibility of sites such as WikiLeaks. 

With many internet whistle-blowers operating across borders, evading the laws of any one country, it is national media outlets that are expected to face government reforms to restrict the release of leaked confidential information. 

This has already been seen in the United States, where last month a bill was introduced to congress proposing the amendment of the Espionage Act of 1917 to criminalize the dissemination of classified information relating to government intelligence activities. 

These were the issues explored at the forum on Tuesday, where Abrams was joined by prominent journalist John Hockenberry, U.S. writer Clay Shirky, Gabriella Coleman, assistant professor of media, culture and communication at NYU, and high profile WikiLeaks supporter and Icelandic member of parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir. 

Appearing via Skype and kicking off the panel discussion, Jónsdóttir, who is currently fighting a U.S. Justice Department request for her Twitter records, told the audience WikiLeaks and other whistle-blowers were needed in an age where rules to protect freedom of information had failed. 

"Justice is in many countries only for the people with deep pockets," she said. "In others, the right for information is not honored despite well written laws for the benefit of freedom of information." 

In treading the delicate balance between transparency and diplomatic privacy, Jónsdóttir said she accepted certain government dealings required secrecy, but argued for an increase in access to information. 

"Right now a lot of material is kept secret just because authorities and corporations can, not because there is a real debate about it or any reasoning; it is secret by default," she noted. 

"And within the shadows and in the dark dirty dealings are often made. We have witnessed that in Iceland… if we would have had encouragement for whistle blowers in Iceland then someone would have blown the whistle before the third biggest financial collapse in human history… and we would not be in such a terrible shape that we’re in right now."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Andrea Lunt

Andrea Lunt writes for Inter Press Service.