Freedom of Speech in the Age of WikiLeaks
Posted on July 16, 2011 by Nozomi Hayase
A World Beyond Borders Thanks to Coleen Rowley for calling attention to this article.
Image Credit – Nilankur Das, www.multiastudio.com
“Give me your secrets, your oppressed, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your tax havens offshore. Send these, the whistle-blower, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp of sunshine through the darkened door!“
A whirlwind of change in the way people communicate is sweeping the world. The spread of social media, blogs and online alternative media is rapidly changing how people are informed about current events. More are turning away from newspapers and TV, which have over the last few decades become monopolized by large corporations. Along with the spread of the Internet, WikiLeaks and their release of secret government documents has changed the landscape of the media. As Greg Mitchell’s recent book title states, we are now in “The Age of WikiLeaks”.
There is much controversy over the future of journalism. The discourse surrounding WikiLeaks in its relation to traditional media has become the eye of the storm. Both the New York Times and The Guardian have come out strongly critical of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times has refused to refer to Assange as a journalist. In an interview on PBS Keller described Assange as an activist with an agenda to promote, carrying an ideology of transparency, claiming that his aim is to embarrass the US government. Recently, Keller’s view on this topic has shifted a bit. He came close to admitting WikiLeaks is a journalistic entity. Yet, he distanced himself from the non-profit whistle-blower site, saying “it still wasn’t ‘my kind of news organization,’ and that if Assange was acting as a journalist, ‘I don’t regard him as a kindred spirit — he’s not the kind of journalist I am’” (as cited in Ingram, 2011).
There are various possible motives at work here. American mainstream media’s lack of support and even hostility towards WikiLeaks could indicate simple jealousy of WikiLeaks’ accomplishments and also may come from sensing a threat to the familiar way of practicing ‘journalism’. Yet, the debate surrounding WikiLeaks’ status as a journalistic organization and the question of whether First Amendment protections cover the unauthorized release of sensitive or secret government documents bring out a larger issue. It urges us to reexamine what freedom of speech and the press really is.
The First Amendment of the United States:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Attorney Jonathon Peters wrote in his article titled WikiLeaks, The First Amendment, and the Press, “The First Amendment does not belong to the press. It protects the expressive rights of all speakers, sometimes on the basis of the Speech Clause and sometimes on the basis of the Press Clause.”
In a representative democracy, it is vital for citizens to be vigilant and aware of the actions of their government and aware that they are free to speak. This is different from a monarchy where the authority comes from centralized throne of a King. The First Amendment was meant to bring a new balance of power between citizens and the government, particularly as a check on the executive branch. It gives ordinary people power to challenge the gap in power between those who are in a position of the official authority and the ‘governed’ on the street. Those who govern are meant to be in service to the best interests of the general populace. It is therefore both a right and also a responsibility in a democracy for individuals to engage as watchdogs against abuse of power. The First Amendment as a whole is meant to safeguard that role, encouraging communication between citizens and governments to move toward dialogue rather than monologue.
Peters brings out a question unique to the case of WikiLeaks:
To argue that the First Amendment would protect Assange and WikiLeaks only if they are part of the press is to assume (1) that the Speech Clause would not protect them, and (2) that there is a major difference between the Speech and Press Clauses. (Peters, 2011)
Journalists share the right of free speech and press with ordinary people as they themselves are citizens. Yet, they serve as a critical link as purveyors of mass communication. The press in its early form was simply the collective effort of individuals, aided by the technology of printing that gave power to multiply and distribute information faster and more effectively than any one individual alone. Though journalism is the only occupation explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution, the journalist’s freedom to print is there to serve the citizen’s right to know and is not meant to take precedence over those citizens’ right to speak, have access to and utilize all organs of communication.
Yet, what has been happening is a deviation from this Constitutional right, through monopolization of the organs of mass media and the professionalization of journalism. This was revealed in the established media’s dealings with WikiLeaks. At the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston, one of the panelists, Greg Mitchell, writer for The Nation magazine described how the establishment media functions as a gatekeeper that decides what to withhold and what to cover. They decide what the public should know according to that media organization’s relationship to those in power. When WikiLeaks first tried to partner up with established media organizations in a gesture of equality, these established media outlets such as the New York Times attempted to take the traditional stance of control and management.
How did the established media come into this role as self proclaimed gatekeeper? The profession of journalism arms itself with the creed of objectivity to exercise this control. This idea of objectivity can be traced back to the epistemology of physical science, which has been extended into the field of journalism and psychology in the guise of social science.
David Scott and Robin Usher (1996) showed how the foundation of knowledge for this notion of objectivity depends on validation by an outer authority:
One of the most important aspects of these epistemological “good ground” are that the researcher was “objective”, i.e. that he or she was unbiased, value neutral and took care to ensure that personal considerations did not intrude into the research process – in other words, that the researcher’s subjectivity has been eliminated as a factor in the knowledge claim. (p. 12)
Yet, the so-called unbiased reporting is filled with private agendas. Constitutional scholar and blogger, Glenn Greenwald pointed out how American journalism identified themselves as a part of political power. Executive editor such as Bill Keller went to great lengths to show how he is proud of the fact that he always turns to the Administration for permission for what the Times should or should not publish. For some journalists, what they claim to be a creed of objectivity is actually replaced with or a cover for government authority or corporate interests.
David Allen (2005), associate professor of journalism describes the consequence of this creation of professional authority:
The importance of professionalism can be seen in the passivity it has created within the body politic. Individuals began to regard professional judgments, often supported by scientific data, as unquestionable, ‘discouraging independent evaluation. (p. 54)
With the rise of the expert class in mass communication, a gap is created between professionals and layman, where people are not encouraged to think for themselves. They start to distrust their own intuitive and experiential ways of knowing. While science relies on external validation, an epistemology of art would be founded in a more subjective domain. When the scientific approach becomes more dominant, art is often degraded as inferior and considered an illegitimate way to process reality. Many of the creative avenues of art have been co-opted by commercial interests and are contained within constricted bounds. Music is labeled and controlled by big companies and public art or murals have been replaced by corporate advertisement billboards.
Instead of expanding the First Amendment right for all people, the professionalized media appears to have been doing the opposite. This censoring of art and particular political points of view is indeed a fundamental assault on free speech and amounts to a colonization of the cultural sphere, where citizens would naturally cultivate connection with their innate creative force through arts and education.
What is happening to WikiLeaks in terms of attempts to discredit them has already been done to ordinary people. Under the umbrella of professionalism, those in power tend to devalue or exclude the voices of citizens from participating in democratic action.
Image Credit – jerryjazzmusician.com
“Freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is … “ said Mario Savio, a spokesperson of Free Speech Movement.
What was this freedom of speech that Savio so fiercely defended? The commonly held view is that freedom of speech is simply the right for people to speak without interference. One underlying principle for this idea is the notion of individuality. Interpreted from the Western framework of the idea of enlightenment, the focus is given to individual expression. Free speech as self-expression is a vital first step of any healthy communication. Yet, man does not exist in isolation. What is often not looked at is speech from the paradigm of the interdependent self. The meaning of speech is found in the communal ground because humans are inherently social beings and speech is only useful when there is common interest and active listening is involved. The capacity for dialogue where both parties are given space to freely express themselves with interest in the other is essential. True speech is founded on listening. It requires recognition of the other as an independent being. When one truly speaks, this act is based on the speaker’s listening into where the listener of their speech is coming from.
This vital connection between the act of speaking and listening is not often given its due. In modern days, speaking as an avenue toward ones own personal gain is emphasized. Speech that is not grounded in listening becomes indulging self-talk or animal roaring without higher meaning. Established media has not been listening to the public. This disrespect for citizens is seen in the act of engaging the public in tabloid drivel, lowering news reporting into trivial gossip. Citizens voices are not held to be worth listening to. What could be a conversation easily becomes a monologue, with information that is fed from top down.
Language gets abstracted from the common ground. Those who are separated from listening can often speak with complexity and technical jargon. Such speech becomes babbling and tends to obscure or break down communication. Foremost it uses semantics and euphemisms that distort reality and cut off one’s feeling from other human beings. Torture becomes enhanced interrogation. Illegal kidnapping is replaced with extreme rendition and civilians are described as enemy combatants. This one-sided communication that is often seen in traditional news does not make room for interaction, while increasingly popular online alternative media opens up a space for lively dialogue.
In today’s mass media, the spirit of freedom of speech is often lost. By not engaging in active listening and by serving the moneyed elites, many established journalists end up actually working against the true meaning of the First Amendment.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Assange described how he was surprised by the lack of public response after the release of two war logs. When journalists act as professionals who have lost community values and become sentinels for the status quo and when art is enslaved to commercial interests, then public space is privatized or left in a vacuum. Citizens who became apathetic and cynical are driven to consume products of a soulless culture to fill that empty space.
In Guernica magazine article on April 29, 2008, Assange posed an urgent question:
What does it mean when only those facts about the world with economic powers behind them can be heard, when the truth lays naked before the world and no one will be the first to speak without payment or subsidy? WikiLeaks’ unreported material is only the most visible wave on a black ocean of truth in draws of the fourth estate, waiting for a lobby to subsidize its revelation into a profitable endeavor.
There are a few excellent journalists, yet many who have professional skills become obedient, taking orders from authority. The failure of the Fourth Estate is only the surface of a deeper illness in society. The deeper issue is the decay of the cultural sphere, and absence of a public who holds policymakers accountable. Fredrick Douglas once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Systems will not change from the top, but only when demand for that change comes from the bottom, through the actions of ordinary people. Before journalists start acting out of morals and speaking truth to power, they must first be reminded of their roots as citizens that share communal values. What comes first is the enlivening of the cultural sphere, for each person to restore the lost union of speaking and listening. For this, the true impulse of art that had been enslaved by commercial and empirical supremacy must be allowed to freely speak once again.
The authentic hard source material of WikiLeaks made it possible for the organization to meaningfully challenge the authority of establishment and the sophisticated perception management that had been built up over the years. Their passionate disclosure of classified documents has broken the chains of the creed of objectivity that have kept people down in skepticism and apathy.
Image Credit – restoretherepublic.com
WikiLeaks’s release of Collateral Murder broke through the shield of professions and showed the world what modern war really looks like. Assange described how WikiLeaks wanted “to knock out this ‘collateral damage’ euphemism, so when anyone uses it they will think ‘collateral murder.’” (as cited in Khatchadourian, 2010). “Because Assange publishes the full source material, he believes that WikiLeaks is free to offer its analysis, no matter how speculative” (Khatchadourian, 2010). Only when this scientific approach is taken does a space open up for editorial freedom. WikiLeaks’s titling of that video Collateral Murder was perceived by some as political slant. Yet, when publishing all source material and disclosing the motives behind it, what is characterized as political slant moves into the realm of artistic license.
WikiLeaks, with its editorial freedom and passionate activism, created a space where uncensored images from a war zone are disseminated freely, encouraging people to step out of a given framework to see things that had been intentionally concealed. Brutal and honest images confront preconceptions and sanitized images that emanate from the halls of power.
“’All’ artists who believe in artistic freedom create work that challenge domination.”(bell hooks, p. 42, 1995). The role of art lies in bringing constructive critique to a dominantly held view. WikiLeaks’s presentation of Collateral Murder was an artistic act. It invited the world to examine what is portrayed through the euphemism, ‘collateral damage’, and to feel the misery of innocent people subjected to the barbarism of war –collateral murder. Images of the Apache helicopter, gunmen shooting at a crawling wounded man emerged before the public eye and could speak for themselves. They call for emotional engagement and for a compassionate shift in perspective. The use of Native American nomenclature in the US military such as Apache and Black Hawk helicopters had for a moment been lifted and revealed for what it is -the continuation of oppression of indigenous people and of genocide.
WikiLeaks instigated the freeing innate power of art. This is only just a beginning. Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire (2000) spoke of how once art’s inherent creative power is released, it spreads and transforms the work of artists:
The arts gradually cease to be the mere expression of the easy life of the affluent bourgeoisie, and begin to find their inspiration in the hard life of the people. Poets begin to write about more than their lost loves, and even the theme of lost love becomes less maudlin, more objective and lyrical. They speak now of the field hand and laborer not as abstract and metaphysical concepts, but as concrete men with concrete lives. (p. 51)