Anne McClintock, Lewis Friedland, and Steve Paulson present their introductions to the WikiLeaks discussion. Scroll down to the bottom of the article to watch the full discussion.
A University of Wisconsin panel weighed the implications of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks’ controversial role in blurring the division between citizens and governments, a topic which has inspired transnational discourse about morality and media responsibility.
In “WikiLeaks: Where Do You Stand?,” panelists offered opposing views of the ethical and legal implications of Assange’s actions in a discussion at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery that drew nearly 250 attendees and was sponsored by UW Center for the Humanities.
Anne McClintock, a UW English professor, said media portrayals of Assange range from a “cyber terrorist” and a target of the United States government to an anarchist digital publisher and “high tech enemy of states.”
She said while Assange has said publicly he views state secrets as practical devices, his manner of publicizing government cables by cultivating partnerships with traditional “brick and mortar” media outlets further complicates the issue.
“There have been no checks and balances in this free-for-all dump of information,” McClintock said. “But this collaboration has undoubtedly led to putting new information in our hands.”
The significant revelations include the pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s secret drug trials with children in Nigeria and the actual Iraqi civilian casualties total numbering hundreds of thousands higher than reported, she said.
UW journalism professor Lewis Friedland said issues of government conduct are at stake in dealing with Assange, and the legal implications for individuals involved in relaying cables to WikiLeaks are not trivial.
He added regardless of how critics evaluate the morality of WikiLeaks, Assange’s creation has launched international media and governments into a new system.
“We will see more such leak sites. A Pandora’s box has been opened with no way to return to before,” he said. “Working in collaboration with high-quality journalists has played a central part in making these issues a topic of international discussion.”
Friedland also said the imprisonment of U.S. Army Spc. Bradley Manning, who is suspected of supplying nearly 400,000 secret cables to WikiLeaks, raises questions about the citizen’s duty to intervene when he perceives immoral action within the government.
Manning has been imprisoned for nine months outside the rule of law, denied due process and kept in conditions in violation of the Geneva Convention, McClintock said.
Friedland also questioned the inherent danger in allowing any one individual the power to release a trove of documents at any time and said it remains premature to assume no one has been harmed as a direct result of the cables.
Viewing video footage of an American Apache helicopter gunning down civilians and two Reuters journalists was an eye-opening and terrifying experience, Robert Glenn Howard, a UW communication arts professor, said.
Howard said by revealing truths about modern warfare and shattering the blissful innocence of many citizens, Assange will be immortalized as a folk hero and a “computer-wielding, modern day Batman.”
UW sophomore Artem Beer said he was initially shocked an individual could leak such an extensive quantity of secret documents without being criminally prosecuted.
He added individuals in violation of international or U.S. Army laws should not be receive special treatment by the legal system.
“Manning should be given a fair trial, but as people start to leak more information, some citizens may be harmed,” Beer said.