Out-sourcing the job of muzzling the media

A comment posted to London’s Guardian newspaper said it best: “Censorship, like everything else in the West, has been privatized.”  The writer, somebody called “edensasp,” was referring to news that Wikileaks—the online whistleblower that has been embarrassing governments and corporations worldwide by disclosing their secrets–was suspending operations.

Why? Had its leader, the mercurial Julian Assange, been indicted? Had the black choppers swooped in and taken him out? No, nothing that cinematic. It was the bankers. A handful of big money handlers decided they wouldn’t process donations to Wikileaks, it had exhausted its reserves, and it was going broke.

The fund cutoff started in December 2010. That’s when Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union, Amazon and Bank of America discovered their patriotic duty.

At the time, five of the world’s top news organizations—The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde and Der Spiegel—had begun publishing articles based on a remarkable trove of U.S. State Department cables shared with them by Wikileaks. The organizations had spent months sifting from among the documents, eliminating those they thought might cause needless harm. They then launched a barrage of articles derived from candid reports from U.S. diplomats that exposed official lies, both our country’s and dozens of others’.

But official lies have their supporters too, and there was a huge fuss. Because the secret cables were American—even if the people whom the secrecy protected often were not—U.S. politicians led the charge against Wikileaks. Assange was denounced as “a high-tech terrorist,” law-makers demanded his head, and Attorney General Eric Holder launched a criminal investigation of his operation.

And so the money-handlers were stirred to action. Within days Wikileaks was under a financial stranglehold, and it now says its revenues dropped from $140,000 a month to less than a tenth that.

Why did the companies do it? PayPal, the flagship paymaster of the digital world, said it forbids payments to anything that “encourages” illegal activity, and MasterCard said its “rules prohibit customers from directly or indirectly engaging in or facilitating any action that is illegal.”

Really? “Indirectly facilitating” an illegal act? Think about that. It’s a formulation a second-year law student could tear apart as not just unenforceable, but unintelligible. Doesn’t selling gasoline “indirectly facilitate” speeding? How much of what we consider normal commerce would escape that catchall?  Shouldn’t Bank of America require you to apply for your next ATM withdrawal, just in case?

Besides, what was the illegal act that was facilitated? Nobody has suggested the publications that used the material acted illegally.

And don’t we normally punish after conviction, not before? (Nearly a year later, Wikileaks hasn’t even been charged.)

The explanation was hogwash, of course. It seems obvious the money-handlers’ actions were political, not legal. The financial industry isn’t particularly popular right now, and in the wake of the worst banking meltdown in generations Obama administration officials had made a special point of denouncing the consumer finance sector for its furtive charges and extortionate rates. With regulation looming, tossing a bone to the Justice Department had to make sense.

And they’ve gotten away with it, largely because of the news media’s own deep ambivalence about Wikileaks.  McClatchy’s Nancy Youssef recently reported that support for WikiLeaks was generally weak among U.S. journalists. A committee of the Overseas Press Club of America, she noted, had decided Assange was “not one of us,” the National Press Club wouldn’t comment on whether he should be charged criminally, and such renowned media champions as Floyd Abrams, who helped represent the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, and Lucy Dalglish, head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, question whether Wikileaks deserves the protections journalists warrant.

Assange has helped arm his critics by releasing in September, without editorial review, the unpublished remnants of the 250,000-document State Department trove that the five news organizations had so carefully picked through last December.

Still, the logic under which critics deny Wikileaks standing as a journalism organization is, to me, baffling. At considerable risk, it acquires information of vast public significance and makes it publicly available. Its disclosures have made headlines worldwide, and have been credited with helping nourish pro-democracy forces with solid information about their own corrupt governments. That sounds like journalism.

Some say Wikileaks has been secretive and irresponsible. If so, it has plenty of company. Any number of perfectly legitimate news organizations resist scrutiny and can be irresponsible in the stories they mangle, overplay or ignore.

That’s regrettable, but the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee a responsible media. It guarantees a media free of censorship. And the principle is the same, regardless of whether the censors are government apparatchiks or private-sector toadies who decided, out of self-interest, to pin a deputy’s badge on their lapels.

Edward Wasserman is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. This column was originally published on Nov. 7, 2011 on “Ed Wasserman’s Blog.”


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