On 3 December 2019, WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson spoke before the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra, Australia on the subject of “The Fate of Journalism & Julian Assange”. Here we present our own version of the transcript of his speech, based upon the original version as published by the “Defend WikiLeaks” website and on our own interpretation of the video presentation captured by the “Consortium News” website. We are also transcribing the entire Q&A session that took place at the end of Mr. Hrafnsson’s speech. Thanks to both “Defend WikiLeaks” and “Consortium News” for their excellent work in making this important speech available to the world.
Thank you for this warm welcome and introduction. It is a great pleasure to be with you at Australia’s National Press Club on Ngunnawal land. I pay my respect to Ngunnawal elders past, present and emerging.
I have come a long way, from Iceland’s wintry darkness, to be here in the homeland of Julian Assange on the anniversary of the Eureka Stockade, which was an important turning point in your democratic history I believe; and an implication for the history of the press in this country as well. But today, Julian Assange is about as far from the sunshine and beauty of this place as it is possible to be. I wish I didn’t have to convey to you what it’s like in Belmarsh prison. It’s a brick and wire hell of sensory deprivation. It is no place for a journalist or a publisher, and it is no place for an Australian who comes from this bright and warm place. After just a few hours of visiting Julian in that place, I find myself very angry and almost stripped of hope.
Julian has been there for 6 months now, mostly alone in a cell for over 20 hours a day – virtually in solitary confinement. I don’t know how much longer he can last. He is a resilient and strong man – and I should know, I have worked with him closely for 10 years – but he is no longer the man I met back then. He has sacrificed everything to publish what whistleblowers have entrusted to WikiLeaks. And every release comes from leaks – WikiLeaks does not hack, it publishes what whistleblowers provide. And we keep on doing so because whistleblowers keep trusting WikiLeaks with material.
Recently whistleblowers entrusted WikiLeaks with documents about bribery, money laundering and corruption – the FishRot Files. Two ministers in Namibia have just been forced to resign; and earlier today they were charged because they were revealed to be corrupt and taking bribes.
Another whistleblower recently provided email communication to then Chief of Cabinet of the OPCW – the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – Bob Fairweather. The email was from someone who was in the inspection team that visited a site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, in Syria, in April 2018. And remember: that this alleged chemical weapons attack saw Syria bombed by the US, France and the UK. The email outright accuses the leadership of OPCW of omitting information and misrepresenting the facts. The emails also show how much pressure the US was bringing to bear on an organization that is supposed to be independent and impartial.
Julian has sacrificed everything so that whistleblowers can shine light on these kinds of serious wrongdoing, so the public can understand truths about our world, and for the principles of press freedom. He should not be tortured, as the UN Torture expert states is occurring. He should not be extradited for publishing. He should not face 175 years in a US jail for publishing information about wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and activities in Guantanamo Bay, which is what he… his charge is related to. He should not face jail for informing Australians, and the rest of the world, about the true nature of the wars we are fighting in. It’s time to bring this Australian citizen home. [no applause – FoWLChi]
What I want to discuss with you today is the fate of journalism and Julian – and I look forward to your questions and thoughts. But before I discuss who or what is a journalist, when government secrecy is legitimate or excessive, let me say some thank yous.
I want to thank Kerry O’Brien, one of your finest journalists, for what he said at the Walkleys [Australian foundation’s annual awards ceremony for excellence in journalism – FoWL] last week. He made an important speech about the fate of journalism. For those of you who weren’t there, this is what he said: “Julian Assange is mouldering in a British prison awaiting extradition to the United States where he may pay for their severe embarrassment with a life in prison. Again, this government could demonstrate its commitment to a free press by using its significant influence with its closest ally to gain his return to Australia.” I want to thank everyone who applauded when he said that, and it was almost all of the Australian journalists there.
I agree also with the leader of the MEAA [the “Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance” – FoWLChi] – the journalists union in this country – of which Julian has been a card carrying member since 2007.
Thank you Paul Murphy, chief executive of the MEAA, for saying at the Walkleys, quote: “Julian Assange may be extradited to the United States to possibly face a lifetime in prison. Among the charges he is accused of: publishing material that could harm the national security of the United States. The scope of these words should alarm every journalist.”
There was loud applause when this was said too. Because Australian journalists get what is at stake, particularly after the raids on the ABC [the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Australia’s state-owned version of the BBC – FoWLChi] and on the journalist’s home in this town; and some have understood this all along. And here I mean journalists and writers like Phillip Adams, Fran Kelly, Andrew Fowler, Bernard Keane, and Guy Rundle. These journalists have made a consistent effort to wade through the complexities of Julian’s case to see the simple truths at stake, principally those about press freedom.
I want to thank Scott Ludlam who is here today. For many years one could have been forgiven for thinking only one Australian parliamentarian understood the danger arising from so many national security laws and the significance of the persecution of a publisher for publishing. But now I can also thank Andrew Wilkie MP [Member of the Australian Parliament – FoWLChi] – and George Christensen MP, who co-chair the “Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group”. This group is an eclectic mixture of people from across the spectrum of politics who can all agree that it is time to see Julian Assange arrive back in Australia a free man. So thank you for getting it, Barnaby Joyce, Rebekha Sharkie, Rex Patrick, Julian Hill, Steve Georganas, Richard di Natale, Adam Bandt, Peter Whish-Wilson and Zali Steggal. [no applause]
I also want to thank someone here today who is in court tomorrow – for a peaceful protest climbing onto your parliament with a banner that read: “Free Julian Assange: No US extradition”. I hope the judge you face is similar to the magistrate another protester faced in Melbourne last week for peacefully protesting at the UK consulate. That magistrate stated that some would commend the person for occupying the UK Consulate and did not impose a conviction or a good behaviour bond but a $400 fine instead. [no applause]
I want to thank the doctors who signed a statement of concern about Julian’s health, one of whom is here today. Thank you Dr. Sue Wareham. [no applause]
And how could I not acknowledge and thank Julian’s parents, whose agony it is difficult to imagine. Christine, Julian’s mother, once said that as a mother she wishes Julian had never started WikiLeaks, but as a citizen she was proud of her son and supported WikiLeaks and its aims. That is the kind of person who raised Julian, a person of principle who thinks like a citizen. It becomes clear through knowing his parents how Julian came to be Julian. I am a parent myself, and as a parent, I truly don’t know how they have endured 10 years of their son being mercilessly smeared while watching his deterioration, suffering and isolation.
And for what? For publishing material that, as Kerry O’Brien said, embarrassed the United States. But WikiLeaks wasn’t alone, and very often wasn’t first in publishing documents on Guantanamo, Iraq and Cablegate back in 2010 and 2011. We partnered with some media organizations in this country, and with Der Speigel in Germany, the Guardian in the UK and The New York Times in the United States and many others. And that is also worth a “thank you”. The power of what we collectively made available to the public, about wars and war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, about crimes against humanity at Guantanamo Bay – it was worthwhile, and it changed things; not enough things, but some, for the better. At the time, many agreed and welcomed WikiLeaks, which was awarded the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism in 2011. There are dozens of other awards: Julian has received 3 journalism prizes this year alone. I continue to believe that WikiLeaks and very many media outlets were right to expose what has happened in our names.
The United States is trying to prosecute an Australian citizen, who was not even in the United States but in Europe, a gross overreach into the sovereign territory of other countries and a dangerous precedent. And what precedent does this set? It is a new form of forced rendition: only this time not with a sack over the head and an orange jumpsuit but with the enabling of the UK legal system, with the apparent support of the Australian government. If Russia and China were doing this to an Australian journalist, we’d be hearing a lot more about it, and we will if this precedent is set.
I strongly believe that resolving this issue has important international implications. Prolonging it creates an enabling environment for the deterioration of press freedom standards globally. All around the world, media organizations, prominent individuals and grassroots campaign efforts are growing in expressing concern, by lobbying, and by taking protest action. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Guardian have expressed grave concern about the charges he faces.
UK Special Envoy on Media Freedom Amal Clooney stated at the June Global Conference for Media Freedom, the charges “criminalize common practices in journalism”, which the American Civil Liberties Union has warned, “establish a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets”. The bottom line is that the fate of Julian and journalism around the world are entwined.
Now let me address this issue of whether Julian Assange is a journalist. It’s actually pretty insulting to be honest. I’m recognised as a journalist but I don’t need awards to know what I was doing was journalism for 20 years before I joined WikiLeaks and for the 10 years since I did. And the High Court of the United Kingdom is not confused on this matter. It described Julian as, quote: “…a journalist, well known through his operation of WikiLeaks” unquote, in the opening line of its November 2nd 2011 ruling. And the US Army Counterintelligence Center is similarly not confused. It describes WikiLeaks as, quote: “news organization” unquote; and Assange as “a writer”, “a journalist” that “had shown journalistic responsibility to the newsworthiness or fair use of the classified document”.
Two well-known professional bodies for journalists are not confused either. The MEAA made it clear in 2007 – and the Walkley board in 2011 when Julian got the prestigious award – and the IFJ, the International Federation of Journalists that gave him his international journalist card.
The US indictment documents against Julian describe routine journalistic practices. The first relates to taking measures to protect the identity of a source, and the remaining 17 charges relate to receiving and publishing information. The prosecution is being pursued under the Espionage Act, the first use against a publisher in US history. It is a prosecution in which there is no public interest defense.
Alan Rusbridger, former editor of the Guardian, (who acknowledges Julian as a journalist, and surely is qualified to do so) described the journalistic activities in the charges as “the kind of activity that honorable journalists do all the time”. WikiLeaks has experienced and challenged some journalistic practices; and as Hart Cohen and Antonio Castillo say in the Global Media Journal, it has also “changed the way we think about ‘the rules’”. And how?
What WikiLeaks did when it was first established in 2006 was to provide technological anonymity and untraceability to whistleblowers and sources. This is a bit similar to what the ABC installed last week: “SecureDrop”; and what the Guardian and the New York Times caught up with a few years ago by installing it too. WikiLeaks was out in front in understanding the implication of the internet for journalism, its promise and potential for protecting sources, for realizing new ways a “networked fourth estate” could provide information to the public; and other media outlets are now applying those learnings.
What WikiLeaks specializes in is the analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving international relations, war, spying and corruption. When he could speak for himself, Julian often referred to how an archive, rather than a few selected documents, can shine light on how human institutions actually behave; how they evolve, how power is exercised. And it is the archive being made public, and not a few selected documents, that has been the scale to deal with the problems of corrupt institutions.
Now, is there a time and a place for secrecy? Well of course there is – WikiLeaks uses it extensively, and so do governments, and it is legitimate when there are delicate diplomatic engagements underway; when its about dangerous materials; for all sorts of reasons. But what we have seen so much, and what we have revealed, is how rampant secrecy has become, and how corruption thrives and becomes epidemic under conditions of secrecy. We have also revealed the unreasonable over-classification of documents, when governments should not hide all their actions behind official secrecy while seeking to know more and more about every one of us. To speak of a balance between government secrecy and the public’s right to know is to not acknowledge how serious[ly] out of balance these things have become.
It’s a journalist’s responsibility to publish and inform the public and undo unnecessary secrecy. Just like we journalists must keep our sources secret – we have a necessity to do that – it’s not our responsibility to protect intelligence agencies or protect police if they act in an incompetent or unlawful way, or when a whistleblower has risked everything because something is very wrong and only sunlight can halt the wrongdoing in its tracks.
As Andrew Fowler, a great Australian journalist has observed, “WikiLeaks is an old-fashioned idea about journalism reborn in the age of the Internet”.
Now, did Julian Assange himself seek to redact the war logs and cables? Yes, as Mark Davis recently attested at the Sydney “Politics in the Pub” event, he witnessed Julian stay up night after night to do just that.
The Harvard professor Yochai Benkler who testified in the Manning trial, wrote a fine paper about the importance of “a free and ‘irresponsible’ press”. By “irresponsible” he meant not responsible to one group or another. He meant that it is the responsibility of the press to remain free and to publish that which powerful interests would prefer to be kept secret.
When the ABC launched SecureDrop last week, this comment was made: “It’s a sad commentary on our times that SecureDrop is necessary; we hope one day it isn’t.” Similarly, it’s a sad commentary on our times that WikiLeaks is necessary; we hope one day it isn’t. For now, while whistleblowers keep trusting our platform with information, it is. And we will keep publishing.
The UK-US Extradition Treaty stipulates that if an offense is political, extradition from the UK must not proceed. Well, the extradition of Julian to the US must not proceed. The charges against Julian are political and being used in a political way to deter journalism and publishing.
The US authorities have spied on him, including live webstreaming of his meetings with lawyers and colleagues – including from the Embassy’s toilets – for years. An attempt was made to blackmail WikiLeaks – to extract 3 million Euros (from me, in fact) – in exchange for these surveillance materials collected by Spanish firm “Undercover Global”. This matter is now before the Spanish courts but gives a lot of insight into the lengths the superpower has been prepared to go. The German National Broadcaster has filed a criminal complaint about this firm spying on its journalists visiting the Embassy.
I’ve travelled 10 time zones to be here today because there are things you can do in defense of your colleague and your profession that we can’t do from London or my hometown, Reykjavík.
You are able to ensure that timely and accurate information about the importance of this case reaches a wide Australian audience. You are able to disarm and dismiss the ruthless misinformation campaign that this is somehow about Sweden, or the treatment of his cat; or corruption within the US Democratic Party. In keeping the focus on the indictments for publishing, you keep the focus on the truth.
You can ask him… and you are in the position of facing the Prime Minister and his colleagues day after day, sometimes eye to eye. And you can ask him: what, exactly, he has done to get Julian home; how has he stood up for his fellow citizen? Your government did take steps to secure the freedom of James Ricketson; also of Melinda Taylor; also of Peter Greste. And please be direct. Please be insistent. Ask for details, not platitudes. Please be unrelenting and prepared to back each other when the inevitable evasions occur. You, above all people are able to distinguish between publishing and espionage; a distinction that the US government and its allies seem intent on erasing. And you know as well as I that if they are successful in this, then Julian Assange will not be the last of our colleagues to have his life destroyed in this line of work.
Look around this room today. You each have a role in the political ecosystem that keeps… that helps keep things safe for everyone else. I know you are under a great deal of pressure but this is where we must draw the line. As our friends in the union movement say, “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Please help us get our colleague and our friend safely home.
Australia at the moment is engaged in a debate about secrecy, whistleblowing and journalism, especially around national security. This is a very old debate, because journalism at its core will always be about power – about subjecting the powerful, and the way they use power, to scrutiny, and overcoming their resistance to that and supporting those who want to hold them accountable. What’s changed is that the internet has given journalists and whistleblowers more tools to undertake that process – but also given the powerful more tools to resist, and to attack those who try to subject them to scrutiny.
Thus we have an old conflict being fought on new battlefields, in new media and on new devices and platforms. But the stakes are perhaps greater than they have ever been before.
[Question and answer session begins]
Moderator Sabra Lane, President of the National Press Club of Australia: Could you give us an idea of just what Julian’s health is like? You’ve said that you’re concerned about his health; the doctors signed… 60 doctors signed a letter last week saying that his health was at risk. What… and I think you last visited him in October, so I’m not sure that you… can you give us an idea of his health?
KH: Yes, I’ve, I… I have been able to visit him about four times since he was arrested in this… despicable manner in April. Of course he came [unintelligible] that place after all those years inside the Ecuadoran embassy, so, uh, being thrown into that, uh, prison, designed to intimidate and… and actually the fact is his conditions are worse – and I’ve said, I’ve had that from lawyers who have represented terrorists who are serving time in Belmarsh prison. They get actually a better environment to cope with their situation than Julian has. [Here at ~26:06 in the video the microphone is moved and the audio becomes much more difficult to hear]. He is mostly in isolation… for twenty hours a day – maybe a little more. [Unintelligible] An example of how he is treated there: he is always the… when I go to visit him, he is always either the first or the last to enter the visitation room. And that’s because they empty the hallways when he goes from his cell… leaves for the visitation room. And for what reason? One doesn’t understand. And I have seen him grow thinner; he has lost probably 10-15 kilos in these few months; he’s pale, and [distraught ?]; he has a hard time to think; he’s constantly wearing earplugs because of the noise. And I basically see life fading out of his eyes. And I’m… I am really concerned about his health. This is just a… no place for a journalist of his stature , no place for a journalist; no place for an Australian citizen who has done nothing wrong but expose the truth.
Moderator: [unintelligible] how is that received by officials [?]
KH: If you are referring to the officials in the UK I have not heard of any reaction to date other than they’re becoming masters of dismissing anything that [has been] reported by [unintelligible]. Unbelievably, they have dismissed the finding of a very important human rights tribunal, the [UN’s – FoWL] “Working Group on Arbitrary Detention” that found that when he was in the Embassy he was being arbitrarily detained. And that panel in Geneva basically ordered the United Kingdom and Sweden to resolve the situation. It was dismissed as nonsense. The politicians there said “they are misunderstanding; they don’t understand the laws here.” And when this was presented as a mitigating evidence to the court this spring in order for him to at least get the usual sentence or a fine for breaching bail, the judge said – and I was present there – “the United Nations rulings would not have any bearings in my courtroom”. And that was after she had snarled at Julian and called him “a narcissist” – even though she was seeing him for the first time behind a room full of bullet-proof glass; and he had only said his name and date of birth.
So I don’t think that… unless organizations and individuals start pushing against the authorities in the United Kingdom… and, I hope, politicians on this side start picking up the phone and putting pressure on the system in the United Kingdom that things will change. Because he must get out of there. I mean, it’s absolutely impossible to think that an individual who is preparing for a case – the most important case of his life – he’s fighting for his life in February – that he has… no [unintelligible] to prepare his case. It’s only three weeks ago that he actually got the papers to read on his own defense case. I mean, that’s totally unacceptable. How can this happen in a civilized country?
So… this has to change, and I’m hoping that pressure will come from this side of the world for it to change.
Moderator: Well, when we spoke this morning – about six hours ago – you hadn’t an appointment with the [Australian – FoWLChi] foreign minister Marise Payne… has that changed?
KH: [Long sigh]. [Audience laughter] No. Not yet.
Moderator: Are you hopeful?
KH: I am always hopeful. You have to be hopeful. I have been heartened just in a few days… I know I sound gloomy here and that I’m drawing a dark picture… but since I arrived here I’ve met a lot of journalists here and a lot of supporters, and I’ve found that there is a growing sense of knowledge of the importance of fighting this case, fighting for… to bring home Julian; and that [leads me to hope?]; and I think there’s a momentum coming which around the world people are understanding the importance of this – not just for Julian but for all journalists; not just in this country but around the world, and for the public, because we’re talking about the foundation of our democracy here. This is the [unintelligible]. So let it be the push-back against the two decades of absurd deterioration of our human rights – and I’m hoping the freedom of Julian will be the first step in the right direction, because we have certainly been in the wrong direction for twenty years.
[Audience members now begin to ask questions]
Moderator: [calling name of first audience member for Q&A] Katherine Murphy. [Ms. Murphy is the Director of the National Press Club of Australia – FoWLChi]
Q: Thank you for coming all the way to Canberra – for making this speech here today. I have two questions: the first sort of picks up from Sabra’s question to you about the ministers… or meeting with the foreign minister and so forth. Obviously – particularly over the last couple of months – WikiLeaks has had [more purchase?] in politics; this group has been formed, a cross-party group in order to raise awareness about Assange and the extradition; but then how do you deepen it into… engage part of the Government that will be… because the Government is showing us absolutely no sign of rallying to this cause? That’s the first question. The second to you is: in your capacity as the Editor of WikiLeaks and it applies to the US election. Julian Assange issued a statement in… I think it was – let me check the date, sorry – November, 2016 – just about the disclosure of the Clinton material; he said that the intention was not to influence the result of the US election. Now, journalists face these dilemmas all the time – what are the consequences of disclosures? But the fact of the matter is, I’m sure that those disclosures about the Clinton material did impact the election result in the US. Has the WikiLeaks organization had any cause, post- the election of Donald Trump to regret the fact that no material was published about the Trump campaign or any other candidates in that election given his own behavior; given what has been disclosed during the course of his bitterly contested Presidency?
KH: Let me start from the end. Do I have any regrets? Regrets about not publishing anything about Donald Trump? Well, the regrets would then be not receiving anything of importance that we could authenticate and publish. It is perceived… us… as we were… we do not pick [unintelligible] in that sense; we [unintelligible] new information. And if we’d had information that was [unintelligible] and in the public interest to publish it – and if we could authenticate it – we would have. So maybe the regret is that no whistleblower, no sources gave information of that sort to us.
But the question about influencing the outcome of an election and how journalists should somehow or other, in many people’s minds, stay away from politics prior to an election is mind-boggling – to say the least. I thought that the role of journalism in our society was to unearth secrets and influence – and educate the public so they could go to the voting booth as an informed citizen. So, exposing the politicians prior to an election is part of what we are supposed to be doing. And I’ve been told “do you regret that WikiLeaks did publish this information prior to the 2016 election; and I – and I said this to Julian as well: I said if that had been withheld it’d have been a journalistic crime; I would have left the organization if I had heard of… that that would happen. And… and that is my belief. We should, of course – especially prior to election – educate the public about what the qualities are about…
Let’s talk about our revelation in Namibia, about the bribes to the Minister of Fisheries there. Two of them are in jail and – the Minister of Fisheries and the Minister of Justice. That revelation came out three weeks before the election. There was nobody saying in Namibia that this was an interference into the electoral process, or an attempt to influence the outcome of the SWAPO Party who actually went from getting 97% of the votes down to 57 in the Presidential race, which is an outcome that partly may be the result of this revelation. But in my mind, to have not published it until after the election would have been such a betrayal that… it would be a journalistic crime not to do so. So that is my general sort of approach to this debate. And why should there be any different approach to things in Namibia or the United States? In many ways the United States thinks that they are above principles and that a different set of rules should apply.
Now you also asked about the politicians here; I’m hoping to meet with polities and I am delighted of course on that support group in this city and in this country. You know the lay of the land better than I do; but I have been heartened to see that [forty?] politicians of prominence have been coming out – even a foreign minister at the time as these uncomfortable truths were exposed – and speaking on Julian Assange’s behalf. And I think that is a spillover, there’s a… growing concerns in the community… and there will be a cross-party unity on fighting for Julian Assange coming back to this country.
Moderator: “Sarah Ison.”
“SI”: Sarah Ison from The West Australian; thank you so much for speaking. I want to know if you could articulate a bit more your response to the action or inaction of the Australian government; and also from traveling so much internationally if you can tell me what the perception of that inaction is on the international stage.
KH: Well I was in the Bundestag in Germany just two days before boarding a plane to come to this side; and I got a lot of questions from German politicians; and I didn’t have the answers and they were puzzled why the Australian government hadn’t done more throughout the years. I did not have the answer; I could point out the strategic alliance and the [historical] alliance… this is just something that everybody knows about. But it is a puzzle to many on that side. I do not have the answers but I do have recognized that there is a question and, uh… disbelief that more has not been done.
Moderator: “Tim Shaw”.
TS: Tim Shaw, member of the National Press Club Board. In June of 2012 I interviewed Julian live from London and he said to me “I was trying to play a very precarious game with the United States and I had 251,000 US diplomatic cables in my pocket.” I asked him if he was a “technology terrorist” or a “titan of transparency”. And he referred to then-US Vice-President Joe Biden (who’s now a Democratic candidate in the 2020 elections) and Vice-President Biden referred to him as a “high-tech terrorist”. Today, if you had 251,000 cables delivered to you – you know your responsibilities and your methodologies – would you do anything different to what Julian and WikiLeaks did back then?
KH: Oh well, we of course learn from experience; but in the essence this was the right approach; and remember this was not dumped on the Internet all at once (even though that is sometimes the feeling I get when I see the constant accusation of irresponsible… “they are dumping without any filtering or any sort of curating” – which is nonsense). All these releases that are now the basis of these indictments – the Afghan War documents, the Iraq War documents and the diplomatic cables – they were curated of some… in some way. I mean the… one-third of the Afghan War documents were withheld in the summer of 2010; all the Iraq documents were redacted in a systematic manner; and the diplomatic cables were drip-fed out over ten months; and you could only start that sort of process in coordination and cooperation with almost a hundred news organizations all around the world who put their expertise in, in analyzing and producing stories on the basis of these documents. So it was all but irresponsibly thrown out – on the contrary. It was – this redacting method has become a model for others. International media alliances like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism who produced the Panama Papers; it and other organizations on a more local level like in Eastern Europe; even now there’s an African one. So this is the model for cross-border cooperation and… but this method that we used over this ten months – and it was only because of rather irresponsible behavior of The Guardian [UK – FoWLChi] journalist who published even passwords to [pirates?] online that the entire thing was released.
I remember the first weeks of the Cablegate project the constantly being hammered by the fact that we were dripping this out to the world! “Why are you holding this back?” you know… so the opposite was true. We were harshly criticized for not dumping everything so of course the other journalists could all dive in and write stories on it. So it’s hard to please; but this was all… but no, it was not an irresponsible thing; and I think that in essence I would have done it in the same way… the same way, and… it had a great impact. At the time some… Latin America wasn’t a bit in my experience, probably because I’m the only person within WikiLeaks who does not speak Spanish – but it’s the way things go; and you could see how much effect it had. We’re dealing with both big mainstream media organizations and often with smaller grassroots media organizations (three- or four-people editorial, really fighting against different social circumstances) and it was very important to take that and… maybe I can mention a little… little anecdote here about how people perceived WikiLeaks at the time because you’re absolutely true: you had screaming individuals – politicians and commentators in the United States at that time who were calling for the killing, the assassination, the droning of WikiLeaks. The daughter of Dick Cheney actually wanted the Pentagon to send a drone to Reykyavik because he thought that my home city was the headquarters of WikiLeaks at the time. It was absurd! I mean, the madness that were going on; and you had actually the Joint Chiefs of Staff live from the Pentagon talking about “the blood on their hands” thing, you know? “They might have already had blood on their hands”; and I was watching that Pentagon thinking: “My God! This man – representing the US military – talking about anybody having blood on their hands!” What an absurd thing, you know? Almost in tears.
And ever since – could we just address this issue because I know it’s probably going to come up – “has any harm come because of these millions of documents that WikiLeaks has released over the years – and especially these documents from 2010?
Well, in the [Chelsea] Manning trial the Pentagon was forced to come before the military court and admit that no physical harm had occurred because of this release; and to this day we have not heard of any… any such incident.
So… it is astonishing – and Orwellian, and Kafkaesque as well – if I can start throwing out cliches – that the head of the US military is accusing Julian Assange and also WikiLeaks to “have blood on their hands” – after we exposed all those things – the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan… that’s… that’s absurd.
Moderator: “[National Press] Club’s Patron Ken Randall.”
KR: I’d like to ask you this: although the Julian Assange case is far from over – or it seems to be far from over – it has raised awareness and discussion of all the issues that you’ve raised today. Do you think it’s advancing [unintelligible] by [protecting other journalists and journalism?]
KH: Are you referring to… that the case of Julian has affected other journalists in journalism in general? Or their position… security-wise or…? Well I mean, if I understood the question correctly I am sure that already the process that he’s in – even though he hasn’t been extradited or sentenced, I have a feeling… of course I can’t say that for certain – that the raids here in Australia this summer – in June [Australian Govt police raids on the Australian Broadcasting Company and individual journalists’ homes this past June – FoWLChi] – would not have happened if he hadn’t been dragged out of the Embassy in April. It seems that the incidence of these aggressive attacks against journalists escalated in the last few months. So it seems that the precedent that I talked about – the specific question of extraterritorial reach that the US takes – has also… has an effect on other actions there… it enables governments to take more bolder steps. So I think it’s already having an effect today.
Moderator: [“Meredith Keyes”? (ph)]
Questioner: Thank you. Kristinn: when you joined WikiLeaks in 2010 you were Iceland’s most highly- acclaimed journalist. You’ve been there a decade (as have, indeed, many of the core members of the WikiLeaks group). That doesn’t happen unless you all believed in the objectives of the organization of course; but also you all have respect for editor Julian Assange, who has been much maligned. I have two questions for you: firstly, what concerns do you have for your own freedom and safety and that of your staff; and secondly, if you could reflect for us please your estimation of him as a human being.
KH: We came from totally different sides of… in our line of thought. He was from the [early?] hacking days from Melbourne… from the time when hacking had… did not have a necessarily negative connotation; and I from this square mainstream media environment, mostly in broadcasting for 20 years; and… but probably considered somewhat radical in my approach and not an easy person to deal with… I guess… if one takes into account the time that I had to storm out of my working place, which was… I think [unintelligible] as often as I would. But we found a common ground, and we had long discussions and they were always inspiring… we had disagreements about certain things, but we found common grounds. And he listens well… and he doesn’t dismiss anything you say; so he’s a good man to talk to; a kind person with a good sense of humor… he is anything but the strange character that has been sort of portrayed in the mainstream media on some levels, which is the result of this slandering campaign which has been going on for ten years. I don’t know that person; that person doesn’t exist in reality. This is what Nils Melzer [UN human rights investigator – FoWLChi] was referring to when he said that media… media was complicit as well in this… public mobbing… of which he said, after his twenty years as a special rapporteur for torture, he’d never seen anything like itbefore in a western country. So we got on well.
Now, you talk about our security and our staff: we all have been under threat; and this is the reason why we try to limit the exposure that they are under. We try not to advertise their names; we have to try to secure [their interests?] in any way that we can. The three people that have been on the surface and working for WikiLeaks throughout this time – meaning Sarah Harrison and Joseph Farrell – we have all been a [subject?] of the same investigation… that have been… since 2013 we learned that social media organizations had all been – in the US – had all been demanded to hand over all information about us. We only knew because one of that… one of that organization group actually took to the courts and demanded the right to tell the customers – us – that they had… had been forced by court order to hand over all the information they had on us. Of course it was rather… it was Gmails, for example; the content of our [unintelligible] interests (at least in my case); but the metadata which… which they were forced to hand over as well, which basically is, uh… tracking information which has… is now used often in court cases against individuals. And it seems to be going on. We don’t know about everything that’s going on but, unfortunately, only this morning, I heard that Somerset Bean, an artist that has worked with… with WikiLeaks, or for WikiLeaks or assisted WikiLeaks with campaign… with posters and … graphic design, et cetera – that he had learned of a similar court order to Google to hand over information about him. So among even artists that are associated with the organization aren’t safe – which is astounding.
Moderator: “Tony Melville.” [Treasurer of the Nat’l Press Club of Australia]
TM: Tony Melville, Kristinn. Australian; I’m a director of the National Press Club. But some… there’s a lot of serious stuff, obviously, in WikiLeaks; but one of my favorite cables was the [unintelligible] cable, the US ambassador from the Chechen wedding (I don’t know if you know that one; you can find it on the Guardian website) where the President came in with a gold-plated revolver in his jeans and [sharing?] dances with $100 bills. So it just revealed some of this classic stuff that is quite interesting to look at that you don’t really see anywhere and none of us see. My question is about the “whistleblower” word that you’ve used many times. There are many whistleblower protection laws around the world, including in Australia, and, no doubt, the US: what would you like to see about those laws that could be changed, perhaps, to protect publishers like yourself?
KH: It has been my impression that, uh… in traveling around and seeing the variations of whistleblower protection acts in several countries, that they are deeply flawed. They’re deeply flawed in many, many, many ways: primarily because they demand a certain procedure you have to comply with before you can get any protection as a whistleblower; and the most absurd demand is actually to expose yourself to your superior, to the head of your organization before you can actually go to the media. So… but my main concern… and these are usually, you know, of course, acts written by government officials and passed by politicians who somehow put the media – journalists – outside the framework. So we know many examples where a whistleblower had to… have actually had… including the NSA [US National Security Agency – FoWLChi] – have gone to their superiors and raised concern about a certain issue. This happened in the NSA way before Edward Snowden. And the individuals, they suffered as a result of it: they are demoted; they are set aside; because they are troublemakers just for raising concerns. And then if something surfaces in the media they’re the first person that they go to; so they are exposing themselves to trouble. This is just one example. So I worry that in many cases the whistleblower protection laws have basically the opposite effect: they’re actually stifling the whistleblowers; it’s an attempt to actually stop them from blowing the whistle and getting the information out.
I don’t necessarily know how to amend it. This is just a word of caution; because originally I was much for it, but I don’t know how to get around this [restraint?] of this protection; but this is one of the flaws there are of the existing laws in many countries I’ve seen in all of the world – in Germany… my own country [Iceland – FoWLChi] where [unintelligible – legislation is now before the Parliament?]. So it’s of concern.
Member of audience: [Name unintelligible – Lisa Bailey?] and I’m representing myself as a concerned citizen. Noting those who refer to Julian Assange as a “technology terrorist” generally have corrupt and nefarious acts which they would like to cover up, how do the truth-in-media platforms get the message out to all the major mockingbird media platforms that are owned by the deep-state satanic bloodlines and the various elements of the intelligence agencies; especially when the body count of “suicided” whistleblowers is staggering (especially around the Clinton and Bush dynasties?
KH: How do we deal with this environment that you were describing? Well I may have to get a little translation… on the fact that how do we deal with this reality? We are talking about of course a very sad situation in the mainstream media world; I mean journalism is under attack. And it’s very hard to see this happening in country after country.
Of course there are economic concerns: you have giants – I’ve mentioned Google before – two online giants are sucking 70, 80% of all advertising revenue… sucking the life out of the mainstream media; and I’ve talked… of course, taking a huge toll. This is happening at the same time as there’s an attack on the state broadcaster (and I was just made aware of that a couple of days ago; the same thing is happening here in this country against ABC and as we are seeing in other European countries. They are under attack. It’s done by cutting the blood flow, cutting the budgets; the same things are happening in other countries with other state broadcasters. And it creates an environment that is unhealthy… on top of that, of course, it’s all the legal… changes that are made and have been made post-9/11 which are of grave concern: basically eating away our press freedom and our liberties. Somebody told me that there were over 70 such legislation in this country over the two decades… it’s alarming.
What can be done? Well to keep WikiLeaks alive at least; and as a part of that to get Julian Assange out of prison and get him on a platform and to start a worldwide campaign for the reversal of this situation.
Moderator: “Wendy Bacon.” [investigative journalist, formerly professor of Journalism at Australian Centre for Independent Journalism; now board member of Pacific Media Centre]
WB: I’m from the Pacific Media Centre. Kristinn: you have already spoken about how WikiLeaks has provided a contribution to journalism, innovated in journalism; you come from a mainstream background, as you said. I wonder if you could just add a little bit more, talk a little bit more about how the basic principles of journalism are applied in WikiLeaks; in particular maybe around context, verification of documents and considering what is in the public interest. How does your… being as a journalist been applied in WikiLeaks?
KH: Well in essence it’s not very much different from any editorial process: there of course is a discussion; we would seek out expertise, expert opinions on material because it’s also complicated… I can mention, for example, when we were… we got material on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations that were actually stopped after we released the drafts of that agreement. We sought out and got assistance and contextualization from labor unions; from experts in various fields who wrote excellent pieces about context of the entire thing because it was of very broad scope there – it was about copyright, it was about so many, so many issues that are [involved in freedom?], that pertain to individuals. It’s no different from normal editorial. And of course the verification process can often be difficult; but with an extremely… we used the same expert… and we have access to a large group of experts who know these documents and know how to verify them.
And I consider myself very lucky and I think that WikiLeaks has been extremely lucky in that over all these years there’s not a single… single document that has been called out as a fabricated one or inauthentic. Everything is authentic; millions of documents. So there has not been a mistake so far. I’m not saying that it can not happen at one time; but as a track record I think that’s pretty good. So… I mean, in essence [not too much different?]. Of course we were working in a different environment; we could use encrypted computation… you know, communication. I think I got into the thing about security. You don’t have the loud editorial newsrooms, you know, [as all of us have been used to before?] . Not that I say I miss it; that was twenty years ago, I’ve had enough of that. But it’s… it’s the essence is the same thing although the technology on the platform is a bit different it’s the same principle.
Moderator: “Andrew Shaw.” [Australian journalist, editor]
AS: Thanks very much for your excellent talk, Kristinn. It’s really illuminating. Even for those of us who haven’t spent a lot of time investigating and looking at WikiLeaks. You rightly point out that there has been a shift in sentiment among journalists; they now increasingly support Julian Assange. To what extent has that support grown as a result of journalists realizing that they could be next; that they could suffer the long reach of the American Department of Justice and the administration [of that country?]? To what extent is it that or that they really have caught on to the fact that WikiLeaks is a fantastically positive force for journalism?
KH: It’s a trick question, Andrew. [Laughter from audience] You’re basically asking whether journalists are acting out of self-interest or for high moral values. [More laughter] I’m not going to be tricked into that one! [Laughter] It’s probably a mixture of both. And I think we both know that of course there is self-interest there, but… and I… let’s hope it’s also a concern… for the acknowledgment that this is an attack on their… their livelihood and their platform and their security. And so it’s not just self-interest because part of that self-interest is acknowledging that – well let’s hope they think that – the platform they’re standing on and the duties that they have are a sacred value and are, above all, are extremely important in our society. So: a mix.
Moderator: “Cheryl [unintelligible].”
“Cheryl”: Thanks very much Sabra. It’s a long time since I’ve been a journalist; but as a journalist I’ve been taking notes; and one of the challenges as a journalist is to question why you’re being given information (and I used to get lots of leaks, but I would ask why was I being given that information). With regard to the Clinton emails: did you ever consider that you might be being played by the Trump campaign?
KH: Well let me answer this question this way: the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Company] is opening up a “dropbox” which basically means that they are doing the same thing as we do and have been doing for a decade or more – more than a decade. I think that not knowing where the information comes from is the best sort of security you can give to a source. How will the ABC deal with the fact that they have no idea where the information is coming from? Will it affect the evaluation of the documents that come there? I doubt it, because I believe if this was of a concern constantly, it would be a… no need to put up these kind of… you would have to know where it comes from… where the… what is the source.
What is the motivation? And is the motivation… should it apply… [to play?] when you decide whether to publish or what not? In my opinion it basically is a question of evaluating the information you have in front of you… individually… and deciding on the basis of what is there whether it’s in the public interest to publish it or not.
As you all know… and throughout… I mean, even when I was working in mainstream media we all knew that when somebody was, you know, passing you a brown envelope underneath the door – before the Internet came on – I mean… of course there’s some motivation behind it; but in essence it doesn’t really matter; in essence the material you are seeing – if it’s authentic – you just have to decide whether it’s in the public interest to publish it or not.
Moderator: Everybody please join me in thanking Kristinn Hrafnsson.
[There’s still a bit of cleaning up to do – I’ve never had such a difficult time doing a transcript before! The accents! I’m not familiar with either the Aussie- or the Icelandic- accented English; and going from one to the other was really surprisingly quite difficult – mainly due to the poor sound quality I think. – FoWLChi]