Opinion: Tolerating Wikileaks | Opinion | DW | 21.04.2017
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Opinion: Tolerating Wikileaks

Julian Assange's arrest is a priority for the US, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. DW's Matthias von Hein says pursuing charges against the Wikileaks founder would be an attack on press freedom.

Wikileaks is inconvenient. Especially for organizations with a lot of power that like to do their business under the radar, away from the public eye. The US military, the US intelligence agencies, US diplomacy, US politics being just a few examples of this.

Democracy lives on this type of inconvenience because it works best when voters have as much information as possible. Democracies, democratically-legitimized governments must be able to sustain a critical look at their activities. Especially when it makes them look bad.

Read: US preparing charges against Wikileaks, reports say

Pursuing charges would set a dangerous precedent

A perfectly inconvenient example of how this works well is the video "Collateral Murder," which abruptly put Wikileaks on the map in April 2010. The video shows how 11 people in Baghdad - among them two journalists from Reuters news agency - were killed in an air strike by a US helicopter.

Or when Wikileaks made public that the NSA had been spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

By pursuing charges against Wikileaks, US prosecutors would set a dangerous precedent which could open the door for the prosecution of other news organizations. This is exactly the US government's goal.

So, it's not surprising that US Attorney General Jeff Session says Julian Assange's arrest is a US priority. Last week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo dedicated his first public appearance to the ostensible danger of whistleblowers. He even presumed to claim that Wikileaks was a "non-governmental, foreign spy agency."

von Hein Matthias Kommentarbild App

DW's Matthias von Hein

In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Pompeo denied Wikileaks protection under the right of freedom of expression, ending with the unveiled threat: "It ends now."

It's no wonder that the CIA director draws a friendly picture of his agency, which after all is only collecting information about America's enemies. It's also no wonder that CIA operations, such as causing foreign governments to fall, aren't mentioned at all.

What should catch people's attention is the fact that the director of an intelligence agency of all people presumes to define the boundaries of free speech publicly.

An embarrassment for the CIA

Does Pompeo envision media companies being restricted to the distribution of press statements in future? Is investigative research and the publication of inconvenient information now synonymous with "hostile spy activity?"

What about other media companies that have published Wikileaks material, like the New York Times, the Guardian or Der Spiegel?

Wikileaks has made itself extremely unpopular with the CIA, particularly when it published "Vault7."  Not only did Wikileaks reveal that the CIA keeps its own secret hacker troop - in part, in the German financial capital of Frankfurt - but also that the CIA uses weaknesses in smartphones, TVs and other devices to gain access to them.

Read: Assange says 'only 1 percent of CIA material has been published'

But the most embarrassing thing for the intelligence agents was that they're not able to protect their own secrets at the moment. Even before Wikileaks got ahold of the information, the toolbox was already circulating through hacker circles, bringing all users of these devices in danger.

Thus, that particular leak was especially newsworthy. And that's the only thing that should matter when it comes to judging Wikileaks. Is the information correct and is it newsworthy? From this point of view, Wikileaks' track record is first rate.

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