Sex, Violence and Wikileaks

Allegations of sexual misconduct against Julian Assange need to be taken seriously. But the manipulative release of a preliminary police report sheds light on the larger furor:  Who gets to leak? Which leaks get published – and why?

The many people in government and journalism who loathe Wikileaks are probably enjoying a moment of holiday-season schadenfreude, with the website’s founder Julian Assange himself now on the receiving end of an unauthorized disclosure: the confidential, preliminary police report on allegations of sexual crimes lodged against Assange by two women in Sweden. 

The charges by the women known as Ms. A and Ms. W – who say that Assange forced unprotected sex on them during otherwise-consensual encounters – need to be treated seriously, not dismissed as an American plot.  If Assange violated Sweden’s sexual-consent laws, he alone would be responsible. He would not be the first public figure damaged by misconduct in his intimate life. And if falsely charged, Assange would not be the first victim of an ambitious prosecutor who recognizes a career opportunity when she sees one.  

What to make of the police report? Here’s my take: Whatever the merit of the charges,  the leaking and publication of this preliminary investigation is a step backward. It is a return to the bad old days when rape cases were tried in tabloid headlines, at once humiliating victims and whipping up public opinion against an accused perpetrator, whether guilty or innocent. 

You’ve got to ask: Who benefits? Leaking confidential investigative material portraying Assange as a predatory creep helps the Swedish prosecutor, who wants to look credible as she tries to extradite Assange for questioning. Publishing it helps media organizations anxious to demonstrate that they stand independently of Wikileaks even while reporting the site’s disclosures.

But it is hard to imagine either Ms. A’s  or Ms. W’s feeling vindicated by having the intimate details of her consensual liaisons with Assange, as well as her allegations, spelled out and debated on the Internet.  Fear of public spectacle that stirs up prurient gender bigotry is one reason many women remain reluctant to pursue sexual assault charges, even in a nation with progressive gender-violence laws like Sweden. And it beggars reason to imagine that leaking this report might have anything to to with strengthening the legal case against Assange.

The problem, as any reporter who has covered a sexual-assault case knows, lies with the fact that preliminary interviews and investigations in rape cases often contain details which victims find agonizing to recount in private, let alone revisit in the press; which may be inaccurate; which may never make their way to indictment or court; which reporters of integrity treat with discretion even when covering testimony in open trial. That is one reason why rape cases are among the most difficult crime stories to cover. 

Leaking preliminary investigative material is an old prosecution trick, but it's also illegal - for good reasons. And the interests of prosecutors and the interests of victims – let alone due process of law – are not necessarily the same. Whichever authorities shopped the preliminary Assange report to The Guardian and the New York Times did exactly what a smart sex-crimes prosecutor is supposed to avoid: forcing the alleged victims and the details of their own sexual choices to the center of the story.

That is why in the Assange case journalists have such a  challenging responsibility: to situate these allegations of sexual assault as a matter for Swedish law and process, in stories that protect the dignity, privacy and identities of the women involved; and which equally present Assange as innocent until proven guilty. Publishing a titillating leaked police report falls far below that standard.

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What about the bigger picture? As a legal (and political) matter, the Swedish sex-crimes investigation of course stands separate from the furor over Wikileaks’ publication of State Department cables. But the manipulative release of this confidential police report reveals an essential question underlying both elements of the story: Who gets to leak? Which leaks get published – and why?

Full disclosure: I am a co-author of a letter from Columbia Journalism School faculty and program leaders  to President Obama and Attorney General Holder opposing criminal prosecution of Assange or other Wikileaks staff for publishing classified documents. I am also a member of London’s Frontline Club, which sheltered Assange before he turned himself in (I was not there during his stay and did not know about it.) And for 10 years I have provided weekly commentary on Late Night Live, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program whose host, Phillip Adams, is on the Wikileaks advisory  board (even if, as Phillip likes to point out, he’s never once been asked for advice).

People in the news business, including many of my colleagues at Columbia, have been waging pitched battles on either side of the Wikileaks war, taking stands on whether Wikileaks is or isn’t journalism. I have sidestepped that particular argument, since it seems to me that journalism itself has been in a constant state of redefinition ever since the technological innovation known as the printing press collided with that political innovation known as free speech.  

But Wikileaks is unquestionably a publisher, and a publisher fulfilling one of the historic missions of investigative reporting: Finding out secrets, making editorial choices about which documents to publish, and putting them before the public in hopes of stirring debate on important issues. 

Take this latest round of State Department cables. I spent most of the last two weeks in Europe. Follow the Wikileaks story through European eyes and you see, in one nation after another, significant disclosures about human rights and corruption. In Ireland, for instance, Wikileaks’ State Department cables disclosed how the government folded under pressure from the Vatican to block prosecution of priests charged with sexual assault; made fresh allegations about Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ role in an IRA bank robbery; and cast new light on the assassination of Pat Finucane, a legendary Belfast lawyer. In Spain, El Pais reported on Wikileaks’ evidence of collusion between Peru’s drug traffickers and military. In Britain, Wikileaks documented how UK troops have been responsible for training Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, a paramilitary unit widely condemned as a government death squad responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial killings.

All of these stories involve abuse of authority; all are clearly newsworthy, all serve the public interest. All probably should have been leaked before now. 

When the news came that Assange turned himself in to British police, I was in Moscow with colleagues at the Central House of Journalists, discussing how best to train and support Eastern European news professionals working amid corruption, threats, beatings and assassinations. Among the dozen or so Russian reporters and editors with whom I spoke that afternoon, not one asked whether Wikileaks was journalism. There was only one question: Would the United States prosecute Assange for publishing those secret cables? 

And that, it seems to me, is the critical issue. Journalists around the world, who regularly pay the price for practicing a dangerous profession, are watching to see whether the First Amendment really works.

One of the quiet innovations in journalism over the last decade is a global culture of investigative reporting. This generation of stalwart reporters, including my friends in Moscow, believes deeply in the power of journalism to counter abuses of state and corporation with transparency, and the responsiblity of journalists to stand up for victims with storytelling. That is why Russia’s independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, famous as the employer of murdered Anna Politkovskaya, has now signed on with Wikileaks to release documents about corruption in the Putin era. To this generation of reporters and editors, the United States is a constant inspiration, and the Obama administration has encouraged that view by funding journalism training and other free-press initiatives.  Prosecute Assange for conspiracy and a dispirited chill will descend on reporters from Siberia to Santiago.

American journalists should understand this better than anyone. Throughout American history, government overreaction to leaks has done far graver damage than leaks themselves. In 1798 the political journalist Benjamin Bache infuriated President John Adams and his allies by publishing secret correspondence with France; that historic leak helped inspire Congress pass the Sedition Act, leading to the arrest of Bache and other anti-federalist editors. At the end of World War II, an obscure left-leaning journal called Amerasia published an article on China which appeared to be based on a leaked State Department cable. The obsessive pursuit of that leak led to illegal FBI break-ins, warrantless wiretaps, and a failed prosecution; political exploitation of the Amerasia leak case helped create the momentum that became McCarthyism. And look at the Pentagon Papers – not the Supreme Court’s clarion ruling allowing that leaked secret report’s publication, but the Nixon administration’s furious attempt to punish Ellsberg and prevent future leaks by setting up a secret, above-the-law antileak brigade in the White House.  Two years later the Plumbers gave us Watergate.

This time it’s Wikileaks that is driving Washington crazy – and there is real danger that the comic derangement of banning government employees from reading newspapers available to all other citizens, and of CIA Wikileaks team called WTF – could metastasize into something far more toxic.

Wikileaks may be an Internet innovation, but its engine is really old-fashioned outrage at the deceptions and secrecy used to cook up rationalizations for the Iraq War. Some of the latest Wikileaks cables show official secrecy as a cloak for other illegal violence and abuse of authority. Now Assange is charged with violent acts of his own. But here is the difference: unlike the officials behind those cables, Assange will he held accountable, or be vindicated, in the transparent due process of a court.

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A postscript. As I write, grim reports are emerging from Eastern Europe about new attacks on independent journalism. In Belarus, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 20 reporters were rounded up and at least that number beaten while covering last week's elections; Natalya Radina, editor of the pro-opposition news website Charter 97, and Irina Khalip, Minsk correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, now face charges that could bring each woman 15 years in prison. Meanwhile, Hungary’s right-wing parliament has passed a draconian media-regulation law allowing massive fines for “unbalanced” coverage or stories which fail to “respect the institution of marriage and family,”  and putting public broadcasting into the hands of the ruling party.

Independent journalists in Minsk and Budapest badly need the Obama administration to speak up on their behalf. But Washington will lose its credibility as a press-freedom advocate unless it shuts down talk of a Wikileaks prosecution.

Into the Fray is a column of opinion and analysis by Dart Center executive director Bruce Shapiro.