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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Don’t base free press arguments on Assange

As I have been warning, we need to separate our support for publishing the cable secrets from our support for one person, Julian Assange. This doesn’t mean that we support government attempts to bring him up on charges of espionage or to shut down WikiLeaks. It means not basing our support on the public profile of one person — a person whom we may come to personally dislike; a person whose methods we may come to question. We need to avoid acting as Assange’s cheerleaders and base our arguments on the public role (and right) of journalism in a free society to reveal secrets, so long as journalists do so in a responsible manner.

We need this separation because that we do not know how Assange will act in the future. More and more, questions are being raised even among supporters of WikiLeaks.

I am not talking about his Swedish sex charges.

I am talking about his increasingly arrogant and questionable actions, such as attacking the press who write independently about him. For example, he apparently cut the New York Times off the list of newspapers that would receive the diplomatic cables because the Times ran a tough profile of him. The Guardian newspaper in London apparently gave the Times the cables. More recently, the Times of London reported that Assange is angry at the Guardian for delving into the sex charges against him, using leaked documents! Meanwhile, stay tuned for Assange’s autobiography next year.

The battle to protect the publication of confidential documents needs to be extended far beyond the power of one man — Assange — because, frankly, I see a “train wreck” coming down the line. Happily, other sites are being established, and coalitions are being formed globally, to carry on the effort to report what governments are doing below the surface of the daily news.

As ethicist Peter Singer has argued, maybe the WikiLeaks sage, for all its twists and turns, will push — or force? — governments toward more open diplomacy.

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