Citizen Journalism We Need

No sooner had British Petroleum put a cap (for now) on its blown-out gulf oil well than another leak was in the news. On Sunday three prominent publications – the Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel – published stories based on thousands of pages of classified U.S. military documents on the war in Afghanistan.

The material came from WikiLeaks, a three-year-old, volunteer-run website whose mission is to provide a safe way for whistleblowers to make information public that someone in power didn’t want us to see.

We hear lots these days about citizen journalism. With times so tough in journalism, paid journalists may understandably feel as if that’s just a euphemism for getting unpaid amateurs to do our jobs. But this is the kind of citizen journalism we need.

WikiLeaks has helped many secrets see the light of day. Some notable examples:  the infamous collection of e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (simultaneously posted elsewhere as well), a military operating procedures manual from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, and a report on a toxic-dumping incident in Ivory Coast that was commissioned by the commodities company Trafigura, which then managed to stop the British media not only from reporting on the report’s contents but from reporting on a question in the House of Commons about the report.  (These examples come from a longer list on Wikipedia.)

Of course the usual national security concerns have been raised about this latest WikiLeaks post. And predictably, look at the comments following news stories on the leak and you will find message after message accusing WikiLeaks of political bias, suppressing information and the like. Apparently putting “citizen” before “journalist” buys you no immunity from that.

Leaks are not new. The Department of Defense study commonly known as the Pentagon Papers, which revealed more shocking facts about the Vietnam war than today’s war logs do about Afghanistan, was leaked to The New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who had helped write the study.
Amateur video of newsworthy events – another powerful form of citizen journalism – also isn’t new. Think of the amateur video of the police beating of Rodney King nearly 20 years ago in Los Angeles – or even of the Zapruder film.

The great Canadian example of the past few years is the video that Paul Pritchard shot of RCMP officers fatally tasering Robert Dziekanski in the Vancouver airport on Oct. 14, 2007. Without the video, the recently-concluded investigation into the incident probably wouldn’t have taken place. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression gave Pritchard its first Citizen Journalism Award for that video.

Pritchard, who voluntarily gave his video to the RCMP on the night Dziekanski died on the understanding that they would return it within 48 hours, had to hire a lawyer to get it back after the force decided to hold onto it for two years. In the U.S., some states are now using the smokescreen of privacy to prevent people recording audio or video of police activities in public.
And Julian Assange, the public face of WikiLeaks, has been avoiding the United States since the site posted video of U.S. soldiers shooting into a crowd that included two Reuters journalists, killing them and others, because U.S. authorities reportedly want to question him about that leak. The Guardian also reports the U.S. government has asked for Assange’s assistance in stopping leaks  – naturally, he has refused. And one of the leaks posted on WikiLeaks is in fact about a Defense Department plan to discredit the leaks site by tracking down and firing employees who leaked to it.

As always, when faced with leaked information that makes them look bad, the authorities’ priority is stopping the leaks, not fixing the problems they reveal.

Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union was infamous for pressuring citizens to spy on each other on behalf of the state. Maybe one ingredient of a free society is for citizens to spy on the state on behalf of each other.