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IFEX members speak out on WikiLeaks

As online whistleblower WikiLeaks started publishing hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. embassy cables this week, from unflattering assessments of world leaders to secret plans to topple governments, here's what three IFEX members - ARTICLE 19, Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) - had to say.

First some background: according to the "Guardian", there are 251,287 dispatches in all, from more than 250 U.S. embassies and consulates. "They reveal how the U.S. deals with both its allies and its enemies... all behind the firewalls of ciphers and secrecy classifications that diplomats assume to be secure."

WikiLeaks posted a selection of the cables on Sunday, while the "Guardian" has published bits independently but simultaneously with "The New York Times", "Der Spiegel" in Germany, "Le Monde" in Paris and "El País" in Madrid. The papers have redacted information likely to cause reprisals against vulnerable individuals and have sought stories of public interest.

"We're more or less satisfied with WikiLeaks' evolution," the head of RSF, Jean-Francois Julliard, told AFP. "We like this partnership with the newspapers and this work to put things in context, verify the information and draw lessons from it," he said.

ARTICLE 19 reiterated its call for governments to improve the public's access to information, and only limit access if governments can demonstrate it would cause a specific and articulated harm. "The rules should not be used to hide other interests. Indeed, the existing U.S. rules on secrecy prohibit classifying information about crimes and as a means to prevent embarrassment. Those rules are ignored far too often," said ARTICLE 19.

That view is echoed by Index on Censorship. In an editorial this week, chief executive John Kampfner lamented that in the U.K. "free speech is regarded as a negotiable commodity. An interest group's right to be offended is seen as just as important as the right to air an opinion. A government's right to secrecy is seen as more important than the public's right to know." He said that as with all free speech, when reviewing material posted by WikiLeaks, "context is key."

"It is vital to know when governments collude in torture or other illegal acts. It is important to know when they say one thing in private (about a particular world leader) and do quite another in public. It is perturbing to know that aid agencies may have been used by the military, particularly in Afghanistan, to help NATO forces to 'win hearts and minds'," said Kampfner.

He continued, "These questions, and more, are vital for the democratic debate. The answers inevitably cause embarrassment. That too is essential for a healthy civil society. Good journalists and editors should be capable of separating the awkward from the damaging. Information that could endanger life, either in the short term or as part of a longer-term operation, should remain secret."

Kampfner said what is most curious is that the WikiLeaks revelations were delivered by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and not by the media, "who should be asking themselves why they did not have the wherewithal to hold truth to power."

All three members are adamant that Assange and other WikiLeaks contributors should not be prosecuted under state secrets or espionage legislation in the U.S. or other countries.

"It is a well established principle that public authorities bear sole responsibility for protecting the confidentiality of official information. Other persons and entities, including WikiLeaks and journalists, should never be subject to liability for publishing leaked information, unless it was obtained through fraud or another crime," ARTICLE 19 said after files on the war in Afghanistan were leaked.

Similarly, ARTICLE 19 said, whistleblowers should be protected if there is a strong public interest in the release of the information and the benefits of disclosure outweigh the harm - even if the whistleblower acted without authorisation.

RSF has for years been campaigning for a U.S. federal "shield law" to protect sources - including for sites such as WikiLeaks. According to RSF, 40 U.S. states have laws that protect the confidentiality of journalists' sources but there is no such law at the federal level. RSF pointed out that the House passed a limited version in July 2008, but with the recent scandal, senators are now trying to exclude whistleblowing websites from it.


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