As a photographer, activist, sporadic blogger, frequent dreamer, lover of expression, relatively happy but lately it seems more often outraged citizen, of a supposed democracy, I sit down to write this. The recent developments here in the US involving the singling out of activists and demands for their personal information currently underway by the Obama administration and the US Dept of Justice, I find deeply disturbing. The issues at stake being our individual freedom of expression, speech and access to information and the right to share that with a broader audience without fear of state recrimination. After all freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of a democracy as well as our inherent right as citizens under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We are witnessing a profound shift in how people and public organizations access and share information. The internet was bound to change how we interacted with one another. It was bound to bring the world into our homes. It was bound to make our world seem more of a global village and give us all easier access to a wealth of data never before possible. However it was not bound to threaten the foundations of the state. Or it was but that's not what the state was planning on.
Wikileaks whether you support them or not has changed that. Julian Assange and his organization provided a place where individuals could leak information that could then be distributed to the public supposedly without trace back to it's source. Journalists could then report on that information and depending on the degree to which that information affected the person in the street really determined how big and how wide the story reached. Well as it turned out most of the information that was leaked exposed the blatant lies, corruption, and conspiracies of covert government plans and actions across the world. Not like most of us didn't know this already. The difference now being it was all out in the open and we hungered for access to it.
Of all those that have reacted none has matched the United States in intensity of vitriol and efforts to shut this process down. Probably because none has as much at stake and none is quite as corrupt, nor quite as guilty. The double standard and the non democracy and in fact totalitarian tendencies of the United States is finally revealing itself whether it likes it or not. Lately the state hasn't had much choice in that matter and actually has seemed quite helpless in the face of a seemingly endless stream of leaked cables. In the same week that the US criticised Tunisia's crackdown on social media outlets it has been revealed that the US justice department has issued subpoenas to seize the Twitter information of the accounts of a number of prominent supporters and advocates of freedom of information. One of these is Birgitta Jonsdottir who not only is a previous volunteer of Wikileaks but a member of the Icelandic parliament, an artist, writer, poet and one of the founders of the Icelandic Media Initiative a proposal to make Iceland a safe haven for investigative journalism. The reactions of certain governments to the Wikicables would suggest that a safe haven for this type of journalism is most definitely needed. The case apparently being built by the US is one that seeks to accuse Assange and possibly others of espionage. Bradley Manning the US army private that apparently leaked the video showing a US army helicopter killing innocents including 2 Reuters journalists in the streets of Bagdhad, is being held in solitary confinement in Virginia under increasingly questionable conditions and reports of torture. A new independent Swedish documentary gives some very interesting background to the short history of Wikileaks and the Bradley Manning case. In other words the real quest now it would seem is that the administration is trying to maintain that somebody else broke the law.
The revelations this week by Wikileaks that the US was negotiating with Japan on a proposal to revoke Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's tax exempt status was another good indication of the threat that governments and corporate entities feel (in this case the Japan whale meat industry) is being posed by activists to their interests. Sea Shepherd is currently trying to quash the illegal slaughter of whales by the Japanese in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and so far this year has managed to prevent the killing of any whales. Each day they're successful in preventing the slaughter of a whale costs the Japanese whaling industry thousands of dollars in lost revenue and negates the commercial viability of their illegal actions. More importantly it helps save yet another species annihilation at the hands of man. However the real point here is the fact that Sea Shepherd's or any conservation group's status as a viable entity is being debated at the highest level of government to protect corporate interest is cause for real concern.
Last month I canceled 2 accounts I had with PayPal over their withdrawal of their services to Wikileaks. This happened because the government put pressure on Paypal and they complied. The point here is not about whether I agree or not with what Wikileaks has done. The real issue for me was that I have the right to do whatever I please with my own cash. Just as the republicans and democrats can harness contributions from Haliburton and any other corporate entity I too should be able to support what I feel are institutions that serve my best interests as an individual. More importantly I have the right to read information, whether it be from Wikileaks, the NY Times ,the Economist, or Democracy Now. I also have the right to share it with others and I certainly have the right in a democracy to voice my dissent without fear of reprisal or censorship. The only entity in the US that I found where I can make a donation to Wikileaks is with XIPWIRE, a startup based in Pennsylvania. Most of the US banks (yes the same ones that received our taxpayer money in a bailout) have refused to process transactions going to Wikileaks. Fine I just take my business elsewhere. Corporate bullying and government malaise only fuels my desire for truth and my support in maintaining channels of information that allow me more of it.
One initiative that I have found promising and that is garnering a lot of attention is Openleaks.org, to be launched later this month and founded by some breakaway former volunteers of Wikileaks. How they differ from Wikileaks and how they see the future of information taking shape can be seen in a video here from a recent conference in Germany. Their idea of maintaining a neutral status between receiving the information and releasing it is I think the key component that sets them apart from Wikileaks. Basically the person providing the information decides , at least initially which newspaper, NGO or other media outlet they want it to go to. If it doesn't get picked up by that entity then it becomes available to all that might be interested.
We have entered a new phase in journalism and activism. Where it goes from here is anyone's guess but one thing is certain going backwards is not an option no matter how hard the power structure of governments and corporations with obvious things to hide would like to steer us in that direction. The playing field is being leveled and finally we the citizens have a fair chance at the game. Meanwhile we the artists, writers, journalists, photographers, activists, readers, you and I, need to support and reclaim our right to freedom of expression and information.