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Should WikiLeaks be entitled to same First Amendment rights as The New York Times?

The prosecution of WikiLeaks and the potential extradition of Julian Assange to the U.S. would seriously harm freedom of information and give repressive countries justification to censor, says Reporters Without Borders

The potential extradition of Julian Assange to the U.S. would seriously harm freedom of information, says RSF.
The potential extradition of Julian Assange to the U.S. would seriously harm freedom of information, says RSF.

Chris Helgren / REUTERS

Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange are polarising issues even within communities that are ardent supporters of free expression.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) believes that the information provided by WikiLeaks has alerted international public opinion to the U.S. government's extremely serious breaches of human rights and democracy in the name of the "war on terror".

For instance, it was WikiLeaks that provided television images in April 2010 showing a U.S. army helicopter firing on a group of people in Baghdad in July 2007. These were not armed men but a crew from the Reuters news agency carrying a video camera.

Thanks also to WikiLeaks, the torture and ill-treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq and the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay also came to light.

RSF has, on several occasions, expressed our disapproval of the efforts to censor WikiLeaks and of the treatment of its contributors, real or alleged. In 2010, we created a page on our website dedicated to WikiLeaks and hosted a mirror site of the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

We condemned as "economic censorship" Visa and MasterCard's decision to suspend online payment facilities for WikiLeaks and informed Internet users via our website of alternative payment methods available.

We applauded WikiLeaks's decision to form partnerships with a number of international news organisations, such as The New York Times, Le Monde, the Guardian and Al Jazeera. This strategy allowed it to combine the advantages of new media – immediacy and an almost infinite content capacity – with those of traditional media, where information is checked and context added by journalists who specialise in the issues being tackled.

But the relationships between WikiLeaks and its media partners have experienced some rocky moments.

RSF has also had difficulties with WikiLeaks and its founder. In particular, we felt and expressed reservations about their decision to publish some data, such as the names and locations of Afghans alleged to have acted as informers for the U.S. army.

We believed, and still believe, that this kind of publicity could expose the civilians concerned to serious personal risk. In our view, the public interest did not justify putting those caught up in these events in danger. In September 2011 IFEX members, such as Index on Censorship, also expressed regret at the decision to publish cables from which the names of sources had not been removed.

We refrain from expressing an opinion today on the substance of the Swedish court proceedings against Assange, or on the efforts of the Swedish authorities to hear evidence from the WikiLeaks founder. However, we fear that extradition to Sweden would be the precursor to extradition to the United States, where, as the man who founded WikiLeaks, he could face life imprisonment or even, according to Assange and some of his supporters, the death penalty.

In 2010, RSF wrote to the British authorities, urging them to ensure that political and diplomatic factors would have no part in their consideration of Sweden's request for Assange's extradition. We also wrote to U.S. President Barack Obama and the Attorney-General, Eric Holder, asking them to drop proceedings at a preliminary hearing in Virginia against those alleged to have worked for WikiLeaks.

Professors at the Columbia School of Journalism also wrote a letter to the U.S. authorities, in which they stated, "Government overreaction to publication of leaked material in the press has always been more damaging to American democracy than the leaks themselves." We agree with this analysis.

National security is the prerogative of a government, but the prosecution of the founders of WikiLeaks and its contributors would cause serious harm to freedom of information in the United States and elsewhere, damage the working conditions of U.S. journalists who cover sensitive issues, and allow repressive countries to justify their censorship activities.

The status of the United States as a model of free expression for the world is at stake today. Any arbitrary or abusive proceedings against WikiLeaks for receiving or publishing sensitive documents would set a dangerous precedent and inevitably bring this reputation into question.

Like The New York Times, WikiLeaks should benefit from the U.S.'s First Amendment, which protects free speech. Freedom of expression is also safeguarded under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Rather than conducting a pointless witch hunt, now frustrated by the Ecuadorian government's granting of political asylum to Assange, the U.S. authorities should take advantage of the debate to review its policy of classifying sensitive information and relax the criteria for access to documents that are of public interest, in line with the promises made, but not kept, at the start of Obama's presidency.

Lucie Morillon is Head of New Media at Reporters Without Borders. Christophe Deloire is RSF's General Director.

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