In early March, two human rights lawyers from Kenya were on their way to give testimony about illegal killings by police when their car was blocked and they were shot dead at close range.
Several months earlier, their investigative work had been instrumental to a report published on Wikileaks.org, “The Cry of Blood,” that focused international attention on police abuse in Kenya.
The lawyers’ deaths underscored the perils facing those who fight corruption, and also the responsibility that sometimes weighs upon Wikileaks, the Web site that proclaims itself a “strong and independent voice for global justice” and allows sensitive corporate, political and legal documents to be published anonymously.
“The really effective and courageous people have an understanding of what might happen,” said Julian Assange, one of Wikileaks’ cofounders, in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Wikileaks has published more than 1.3 million documents in the three years since its founding, and over that time the organization has faced its own share of threats and lawsuits.
Assange believes a vanguard of politicians and human rights lawyers sympathetic to its goals can shield the Web site to a certain degree. The group has won all its court cases to date, including several high-profile appearances.
“I think this shows people what happens when they take us on,” Assange said. “We will go all the way. We will fight it inside the court and outside the court.
“It’s like the aphorism, you should never wrestle with a pig,” he said, referring to a remark often credited to the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the idea being that you’ll both get dirty but only the pig will enjoy it.
Still, the world is littered with organizations that have been crushed for exposing fraud. India’s Tehelka.com did an exposé of government corruption in 2000, at a time when many were looking to the Internet as a bold new channel for press freedom. The public uproar that followed did not prevent police from throwing several Tehelka journalists and investors in jail. The Web site was soon ruined, its staff gone and its office equipment sold off in a bid to stay afloat. It has since returned but in a slightly tamer form.
Wikileaks’ rising international profile could help protect it from a similar fate. Its recognition has grown as more news articles appear based on documents leaked on the site, and awards have enhanced its reputation. Amnesty International presented Wikileaks with the 2009 award for New Media for the reports on extrajudicial police killings in Kenya.
According to Gavin MacFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism at City University London, Wikileaks plays a sorely needed role in protecting the public interest. “Their site is a valuable read for us and for most investigative reporters in the U.K.,” he said. “It has provided extraordinary material and prompted a number of investigations.”
Critics raise ethical concerns about the site’s anonymity and some of the documents it releases, and complain it can be used to “leak” fake documents. Its decision last year to publish a list of banned Web sites in Australia, which included links to child pornography sites, was seen by some as misguided.
“When you start to argue for free speech by disseminating child pornography, you know your argument has lost legitimacy,” the U.K magazine Bad Idea wrote at the time.
Assange argues that censorship in any form is wrong. Politicians use child pornography as a blunt stick to ban any content they disapprove of, he said, because the topic stirs such high emotions.
Publishing the Australian blacklist earned Wikileaks a police raid in Germany, which was just finalizing some of the first national Web censorship laws to be adopted by a Western country. Police raided the home of the owner of Wikileaks’ German URL, though no formal charges have been filed. Assange said Wikileaks is ready to publish Germany’s Internet blacklist as soon as it’s available.
The Wikileaks leader has had trouble of his own with police over a very different matter — the publication of a document on government corruption in Kenya known as the Kroll report.
“I actually had six armed men break into my compound after sending someone in the previous day to disarm the electric fence,” he said. “They had a fight with my guards, everyone woke up, then they ran away. I don’t think it was a threat on my life, I think they just wanted to intimidate me a little bit.”
A journalist by training, Assange seemed to treat the invasion as a badge of honor, a sign that Wikileaks is getting the attention it wants. It’s easy to believe that he and the rest of the Wikileaks team enjoy wrestling in the mud. Most of them left paying jobs to join the site, which is a long way from paying for itself.
“The people involved, who are committed to it, spend their inheritance and that’s how it’s financed,” he said. “There are some online donations but they only cover about 5 percent of expenses. We keep getting approached by people who want to contribute but they ask for a lot of bureaucracy in order to do that and right now we’re a very lean organization. … If grant writers would like to step forward, we’d be delighted.”
The site’s ability to function also depends on its wiki format, which allows people around the world to contribute to its upkeep and content. Always seeking new documents, Assange used his speech during the Hack In The Box conference in Malaysia to ask the crowd of hackers and security researchers to help find documents on its Most Wanted Leaks of 2009 list.
“You have your game of capture the flag. There are a lot of flags; go capture them,” he said. “Get it to us, no questions asked. You will help change history.”