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WikiLeaks, are they ethical?

While the world waits to see if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be located and taken back to Sweden for questioning about rape and sexual molestation claims, Reporters without Borders and the Society of Professional Journalists’ president has weighed in on how to ethically report WikiLeaks.

The WikiLeaks site has had trouble staying online, but Assange has resurfaced for at least one question-and-answer with the Guardian.  But, the site has sent out messages to the public via its Twitter account.

Reporters without Borders on WikiLeaks

Reporters without Borders, the nonprofit press freedom advocacy site, spoke out “condemning” the attacks on WikiLeaks’ website.  The advocacy group, based in France, claimed that  the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the WikiLeaks publication and claimed that limiting WikiLeaks’ freedom would lead to a greater restriction on the press.

“This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency. We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed,” Reporters without Border wrote.

Further, the group stated that it supports “net neutrality,” which prevents hosting companies from “choosing the content that is placed online.”

Society of Professional Journalists on WikiLeaks

We wrote Dec. 1 to the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics chair, Kevin Smith, asking for comment about WikiLeaks.  Smith redirected our questions to SPJ’s president Hagit Limor and her Dec. 2 blog. In her blog, Limor wrote that “Whether what we just witnessed defines ‘journalism’ shouldn’t be the question perplexing this Society – or this society.”

The issues for journalists, Limor wrote in her blog post, don’t concern “the content of the information, but rather the process of gathering it.”  Fact-checking and independent verification and other elements from the “tool-gathering skill set of journalism” are what journalists should be focused on.

She blogged, referencing the SPJ’s ethics code: “These are the parts some might quibble with Assange and WikiLeaks: Be accountable. (Harder to do while you’re in hiding.) Question motives, not only of the alleged Army source but of WikiLeaks itself. As the code says: ‘Pursuit of truth is not a license for arrogance.'”

Limor wrote in an e-mail to StinkyJournalism that:

“News outlets should treat WikiLeaks as they would any other source of information. Confirm, seek additional sourcing, and consider the motivation of all parties, both the alleged original leaker and WikiLeaks/Assange. Ethical reporting isn’t difficult. If anyone needs a primer, just use our ethics code as a checklist. http://spj.org/ethicscode.asp Years into my career, when working a long-form project I still refer to this as a final step before publishing.

“As to reporting on the site itself (which obviously is a big part of this story), the internet has made it infinitely easier to learn information even when the person behind the site isn’t available. Links to previous blog postings for example can shed light on motivation.”

See here our September story about journalism ethicist Stephen J.A. Ward and his call for WikiLeaks to have a code of ethics.

Assange’s Warrant

The Washington Post reported that “speculation was growing” that Assange is in Britain because Britain has been “the only country to ask for more information in connection with the European ‘red notice’ for Assange’s detention issued this week.”

iMediaEthics noted that news reports described Sweden as having filled out the arrest warrant. We wrote to Swedish prosecutor’s office communications director Karin Rosander asking about this.

She wrote in an e-mail to iMediaEthics Dec. 2:

“No, we did not fill it out incorrectly. But the British police has requested additional information concerning the maximum penalties for the other crimes, in addition to rape, that Mr. Assange was arrested for.   See information on our web page:  http://www.aklagare.se/In-English/

The Washington Post explained that Sweden provided that information to Britain Dec. 2.  “The original warrant stated only the penalty for rape, the most serious accusation against Assange,” the Post wrote.

The Guardian reported that “The warrant, which is valid in all EU member states, requires the receiving member state to arrest and extradite the suspect within 90 days of arrest, or within 10 days if the arrested person consents to surrender. The warrant can only be issued for offences carrying a maximum penalty of 12 months or more.”

iMediaEthics is writing to Rosander of the Swedish prosecutor’s office to ask what penalty Assange’s charges hold.  We will update with any response.

Further, Assange’s lawyer Mark Stephens claimed, according to the Guardian:

“The police have given us an undertaking that they will contact us if they want to get in touch with Julian. At this point in time nobody has.”

Further, on Dec. 2, “Sweden’s highest court refused Assange permission to appeal against the European arrest order.”

Assange Speaks

Assange participated in a question-and-answer session with readers Dec. 3 on the Guardian’s website.  In the session, Assange criticized the Australian government and denied WikiLeaks has led to trouble for those named in leaked documents.

Assange claimed: “WikiLeaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time there has been no credible allegation, even by organisations like the Pentagon that even a single person has come to harm as a result of our activities.”

In terms of clarifying what his role is within WikiLeaks, Assange described himself as publisher and editor-in-chief.  Assange stated: “Although I still write, research and investigate my role is primarily that of a publisher and editor-in-chief who organises and directs other journalists.”

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Further, he addressed a question about his public figure being more the conversation topic than WikiLeaks.  Assange said: “Someone must be responsible to the public and only a leadership that is willing to be publicly courageous can genuinely suggest that sources take risks for the greater good. In that process, I have become the lightening rod. I get undue attacks on every aspect of my life, but then I also get undue credit as some kind of balancing force.”

See the whole question-and-answer session here.

Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, was recently interviewed about her son’s work.

“Whether you agree with what Julian does or not, living by what you believe in and standing up for something is a good thing,” she is quoted as saying.  “He sees what he’s doing as doing a good thing in the world, fighting baddies, if you like.”

See her interview in the Herald-Sun here.

“Assassinate Assange” Claims

At least two high-profile calls for Assange’s assassination have been made in recent days. One, by Tom Flanagan, “a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper” in Canada, and the other in a Washington Times editorial.  Flanagan later apologized for his comment, calling it “thoughtless” and “glib.”

“I never seriously intended to advocate or propose the assassination of Mr. Assange. But I do think that what he’s doing is very malicious and harmful to diplomacy and endangering people’s lives, and I think it should be stopped,” Flanagan explained, CBC.ca reported.  He had said Nov. 29 in an interview on the program “Power & Politics” that President Obama  “should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something.”

“I think Assange should be assassinated actually,” Flanagan is quoted as saying.

DCist.com criticized The Washington Times’ editorial, written by Times columnist Jeffrey Kuhner, calling it “inappropriate” from an editorial standpoint.

Assange addressed these calls for his assassination in the question-and-answer, saying that: “Mr. Flanagan and the others seriously making these statements should be charged with incitement to commit murder.”

Assange’s involvement with an Icelandic bill that would create strong protections for journalists and whistleblowers in the country has been much reported.  As the Associated Press noted, that initiative could “Become law next year.”

“Such a law could provide protection to a site like WikiLeaks,” which has been battling with server companies and cyberattackers to stay online, the Associated Press reported.

Hosting Problems

But, even if WikiLeaks eventually crashes, the Pandora’s box has been opened.  The AP reported that Nieman Journalism Lab’s director, Joshua Benton, said: “Whatever happens to the domain name and the actual organization, the idea unleashed by WikiLeaks is going to continue.”

During the past week, WikiLeaks has moved its site in light of cyberattacks blocking access to the site.  The site “moved” to Switzerland Dec. 3, the Guardian reported.

Amazon.com hosted WikiLeaks briefly, but amidst criticism from U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, Amazon kicked WikiLeaks off its server. Though Lieberman tried to take credit for the decision, Amazon has since denied that Lieberman’s criticism had anything to do with it. Rather, Amazon said, WikiLeaks violated Amazon’s terms of service.  Amazon.com said in a statement:

“[Amazon Web Services] does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed. WikiLeaks was not following them. There were several parts they were violating. For example, our terms of service state that “you represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content… that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity”. It’s clear that WikiLeaks doesn’t own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content. Further, it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren’t putting innocent people in jeopardy.”

However, the Guardian reported that “commentators have pointed out” that Amazon’s position on not letting sites publish information “that isn’t rightfully theirs” doesn’t add up as Amazon “previously hosted the ‘war logs’ from WikiLeaks.”

The BBC noted that WikiLeaks has created a “list of mirror sites, which WikiLeaks hopes will provide constant access to the site.”

While France’s Industry Minister Eric Besson reportedly asked that French servers ban WikiLeaks, “one of the mirror sites, Wikileaks.ch, is currently hosted on servers in France.”

As iMediaEthics wrote Dec. 2, ComputerWorld reported it traced WikiLeaks’ IP address to a Swedish company Bahnhof Internet AB.  StinkyJournalism wrote to that company asking if it was hosting WikiLeaks and if it had any comment to U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s call for any company hosting WikiLeaks to kick it off its server.

Anna Mossberg, Bahnhof AB’s CEO, wrote in an e-mail to StinkyJournalism:

“Our company hosts two of all the servers Wikileaks have around the world.  They are placed in our Data Hall in central Stockholm.  We are only providing Collocation services to a German legal entity and have no control over the content or the management of the content. Sometimes we have traffic to the servers but sometimes it is no traffic i.e. it moves without us having any control or part in it.”

Mossberg said she had no comment to Lieberman’s comment and added that “we are an ISP” and “a public listed company in Sweden.”

iMediaEthics has been reporting the latest with the WikiLeaks story including:

UPDATE: 12/06/2010 9:57 AM EST: Rosander of the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office responded to StinkyJournalism’s e-mail inquiry asking about what penalties go with the charges against Julian Assange.  Rosander wrote:

“Rape, less serious crime: 4 years,  Sexual molestation: 2 years, Unlawful coercion: 2 years.”

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WikiLeaks Update: Reporters without Borders, Society of Professional Journalists Weigh In

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