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WikiLeaks and Press Freedom: Is Treason a Civic Duty?

A Commentary by

Since 9/11, press freedom in the West has come under attack as governments argue that national security is more important than transparency. But the hunt for WikiLeaks is a greater danger to democracy than any information that WikiLeaks might reveal.

A protester prepares a Julian Assange mask at a pro-WikiLeaks demonstration in Malaga, Spain, on Saturday. Zoom

A protester prepares a Julian Assange mask at a pro-WikiLeaks demonstration in Malaga, Spain, on Saturday.

Why do we need freedom of the press? The framers of the United States Constitution believed that such a guarantee would be unnecessary -- if not dangerous. There are freedoms that we don't secure through promises, but which we take for ourselves. They are like the air we breathe in a democracy, whose authority is built on public opinion. The democracy that was founded on the basis of such insights is the American democracy. It is an indication of the American revolutionaries' healthy mistrust in the power of this insight that they would later incorporate freedom of the press into the US Constitution after all.

Today, more than 200 years later, this old idea seems naïve to all too many people in the Western world. Since becoming embroiled in the war against terrorism, the US government has transformed itself into a huge security apparatus. The Washington Post recently reported that 854,000 people in the US government, or more than one-and-a-half times the population of Washington, DC, hold top-secret security clearances -- and this under a president who came into office promising a new era of openness in government. An estimated 16 million government documents a year are stamped "top secret," or not intended for the eyes of ordinary citizens.

In the crisis, the countries of Old Europe are also putting up the barricades. Germany's constitution, known as the Basic Law, has a far-reaching guarantee of press freedom and was created after World War II on behalf of the US liberators and in the spirit of the American and French revolutions. But in the 10th year after the 9/11 attacks, one German conservative politician has even pondered whether it might not be a good idea to prohibit journalists from reporting on terrorism in too much detail.

Such people would have been beheaded in revolutionary Paris and probably locked up in Philadelphia. When citizens were revolutionaries, the act of demanding freedom of speech was a revolutionary act. Today, in more peaceful times, we would characterize freedom of speech as a civic virtue.

Playing with Fire

But then along comes someone who is still playing the part of the revolutionary. Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks, is playing with the fire of anarchy. He is constantly threatening new, increasingly dangerous disclosures, which should indeed be of great concern to those affected. But the hatred he reaps in return is beneath all democracies.

In countries that have enshrined the right to free speech in their constitutions, it has until now been taken for granted that disclosures of confidential government information must be measured by the yardstick of the law. Disseminating real government secrets has always been against the law, including in Germany. The journalist Rudolf Augstein, SPIEGEL's founding father, paid for the mere suspicion of having exposed state secrets by spending 103 days in custody in 1962, in relation to a SPIEGEL cover story on the defense capabilities of the German military. But because the courts abided by the law, and freedom of the press was ultimately considered to be worth more than politicians' outrage, it wasn't the press but the government that felt the heat.

But for those who have it in for Assange, it's more a matter of principle than of enforcing the law. The loudmouth from Australia offers a welcome opportunity to finally cast off the old ideas of press freedom as a right that we grant ourselves instead of allowing others to grant it to us. Aren't we all at war? Isn't it the case that citizens must, in fact, protect the state instead of spying on it?

The trans-Atlantic coalition of protectors of the state includes such diverse participants as the chairman of the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Joe Lieberman, who accuses anyone who publishes secret US diplomatic cables of "bad citizenship," and German Green Party Chairman Cem Özdemir, who says that WikiLeaks has "crossed a line that isn't good for our democracy." The need to portray oneself as a good citizen is particularly strong among certain journalists. Even the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which normally takes civil rights very seriously, chides that the WikiLeaks disclosures "destroy politics, endanger people and can influence economies." American journalist Steve Coll, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his own exposés, rages against the activities of WikiLeaks, calling them "vandalism" and "subversion." The Washington Post, whose reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein once exposed the Watergate affair, describes WikiLeaks as a "criminal organization."

Dark Time for Freedom

To critics, the most threatening aspect of WikiLeaks' "criminal" activities must be the fact that, so far, no one has managed to find a law that these whistleblowers have actually broken. The US Justice Department's attempt to invoke the controversial Espionage Act of 1917 shows how helpless the protectors of the law are as they flip through their tomes. The period of World War I was a dark time for constitutional freedoms in the US. In its practically hysterical fear of communists and all other critics, the judiciary even prosecuted people who distributed flyers critical of military service, and in doing so ignored all constitutional guarantees.

Even the post 9/11 period wasn't quite as bad. In 2005, when the New York Times planned to publish a story about an illegal global wire-tapping program operated by the US National Security Agency (NSA), the paper's senior editors were summoned to the White House to meet with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The most powerful government in the world was forced to resort to moral pressure. Apparently no one knew of any legal justification for the government to bar the Times from going to press. Of course, the newspaper did ultimately publish what it had learned. Nevertheless, America survived.

Or was it the other way around? Did America survive precisely because the New York Times published what it knew?

The Importance of Ethics

A few days ago, Congressional legal experts issued a report warning against dusting off the Espionage Act, arguing that it isn't quite that easy to apply the prohibition on disclosing secret government information to hostile powers to disclosures in the press.

The only remaining option is to challenge the right of Assange and his much-feared organization to claim protection under the Constitution as members of the press. Should every hurler of data be afforded the same political status as the New York Times or SPIEGEL? Isn't it true that what legitimizes the work of the press is the responsible handling of data, as well as the acts of considering the consequences, applying emphasis and explaining the material?

That's the way it should be. The ethics of journalism is what makes the products of the press credible to readers. This is just as applicable to SPIEGEL as it is to its counterparts in New York and Washington. In fact, it should apply to anyone who deals with sensitive data. However, a look at the beginning of the story shows that no one but citizens themselves -- that is, the readers -- can answer the question of whether the standards were adhered to. The worst penalty they can impose is to simply not read a newspaper or a collection of data on the Internet.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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1. Resistance to change
Naturhuf 12/13/2010
This is even very prevalent on forums here in the States which are often heavily moderated. If you do not follow the forum's party line, no matter how respectful and considerate and helpful the posts are, you get kicked out. Free sharing of information does not seem to be desired much, because, oh my God, that could actually lead to change, even when it is positive change!
BTraven 12/15/2010
Zitat von NaturhufThis is even very prevalent on forums here in the States which are often heavily moderated. If you do not follow the forum's party line, no matter how respectful and considerate and helpful the posts are, you get kicked out. Free sharing of information does not seem to be desired much, because, oh my God, that could actually lead to change, even when it is positive change!
Perhaps the censoring has something to do with the exclusive contract the newspapers which were provided with the information allegedly signed with Wikileaks. According to some statements Der Spiegel should pay Wiki a large amount to money to be allowed to publish all the facts. The matter will be discussed in the “Presserat” (council which controls the newspapers). I could imagine that the papers which were not permitted to get first class information do not have any interest to give its readers a platform to discuss all the revelations.
3. Infamous scribblers of the past reborn
ka5s 12/16/2010
These leaks, while quite in violation of security, are very much in the original tradition of American revolutionary journalism. The book 'Infamous Scribblers'(by Eric Burns) writes about early US newspapers George Washington called 'infamous scribblers'. Having sparked a revolution against Britain, our newspapers were not about to shut up when it was won. It was not long until the US government created the 'Alien and Sedition Acts' to suppress them, and this has been repeated at times in US history. But we are an unruly lot and our freedoms are exercised as Europeans would never dare to try. Alles was nicht erlaubt ist, ist pflichtig! Many among us believe there is a duty to publish. But under the US Constitution, that is not treason, no matter how unwise or criminal it may be otherwise, which has yet to be determined.
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Reaction from the US Government
In a statement, the White House has condemned the publication of "private diplomatic discussions" with foreign governments by SPIEGEL and four other international media on Sunday. Click on the link below to read the statement in full.
White House Statement
We anticipate the release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail private diplomatic discussions with foreign governments.

By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.

To be clear -- such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. These documents also may include named individuals who in many cases live and work under oppressive regimes and who are trying to create more open and free societies. President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal.

By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.

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