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Home > Publications > Quill > Ten with Kristinn Hrafnsson



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Thursday, October 4, 2012
Ten with Kristinn Hrafnsson

By Whitney Evans

WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson has seen the organization through its most turbulent times: the site crash after being hacked in a Distributed Denial of Service attack, the banking blockade joined by many financial companies, and the negative fallout after WikiLeaks’ admission of playing a role in a fake New York Times-Bill Keller editorial, a move criticized as having delegitimized the authenticity of future leaks. Formerly an award-winning Icelandic journalist, Hrafnsson has been WikiLeaks’ spokesman since 2010, when founder Julian Assange began facing legal trouble and sexual assault allegations. WikiLeaks has made headlines over the years with its high-profile releases of anonymously leaked documents, including United States government cables.

What is WikiLeaks doing to preserve the place of freedom of speech and access to information as an internationally declared fundamental human right?

(The banking blockade) has wiped out 95 percent of our revenues. It has impeded our work, and we are putting great emphasis on fighting back because it’s of great importance to freedom of speech to break this blockade. It is for the first time that these financial powers have decided without any judicial process to impose a blockade of this nature on an organization that is basically doing journalism to fight for transparency and freedom of speech, so it’s a bigger, wider issue that pertains to WikiLeaks. So a lot of our effort has been going into that fight, and I think that might be one of the answers to your question. But as well, throughout we have been working on new releases that have been not as high profile as, for example, the embassy cable release starting in December 2010. I can mention the Guantanamo files of last year, last spring, the spy files of December of last year, the global intelligence files, the Stratfor files of February and now the release of the emails from the Syrian files.

Up until about 2010, WikiLeaks was a media darling. Since then, support for the company has just plummeted. What do you think accounts for that?

Well I don’t agree with the proposition stated in your question. I believe that despite the few setbacks in our cooperation with the mainstream media, we do have a good relation with the mainstream media all over the world. I believe that we have reached probably a cooperation with about 100 media outlets all over the world and have a good, positive, ongoing relation with these media outlets, and that overshadows the few examples of negativity that have come up in relations to the mainstream media. So overall we have a very good and positive experience incorporated with the media despite these few examples of bad relations, which of course have gotten more prominence in the media than the good relations.

What role do media outlets play in WikiLeaks’ success?

At the time of the big releases two years ago, we of course did not have the internal capacity to analyze and distribute and maximize the impact of the releases of the material we had acquired, so we sought out the cooperation of the mainstream media so they would put their effort in analyzing and putting into context and distributing the stories based on that material. I mean we are speaking about first of course the biggest leak in military history and then the diplomatic cables, which in scope can be said to be one of the biggest leaks in history. In cooperating with the mainstream media, we had probably thousands of journalists poring over the material and putting it into context and doing what we are promising our sources to maximize the impact of the leaks.

According to the monthly balance sheet on your website, WikiLeaks has a little more than 100,000 euros (as of early August). How will the company continue to function with such limited funds?

Well if there’s not a big change very soon, the organization will have extreme difficulty functioning. As I said earlier, we’ve had to scale down our operation, and a lot of our effort has been put into fighting this blockade for obvious reasons. We’ve had some victories in that fight. Recently a court decision in the Reykjavik District Court ordered the formerly Visa Iceland to open up the gateways that were closed last year. We are awaiting an outcome of a complaint that we made to the European Commission citing that the card companies in Europe violated anti-trust provisions of the European Union. We should get an outcome of that within a few weeks. And other court cases are pending — one in Denmark this fall, and we’ve been in the pre-litigation state in various jurisdictions as well.

What advice would you give to investigative journalists who may be frustrated with trying to get information from secretive government bodies or corporate entities?

Well their frustration is understandable because the secrecy within these entities of course has increased dramatically over the last decade at least. I believe that 9/11 was a turning point there. Since then we’ve seen an increased tendency toward secrecy by governments and corporations as well. And at the same time the mainstream media and investigative journalists of course had to face cuts and diminishing resources in actually getting a hold of information. And in that context of course, WikiLeaks filled an important vacuum and was a very important addition to this journalist community. There have been attempts by others to copy the idea that WikiLeaks is based on with mixed success, and we’ve always stated that we have hoped that this idea would catch on, on a larger scale.

What’s WikiLeaks’ view on governments withholding documents for the sake of national security? Is there a place for governments to withhold this information?

Well as we’ve always stated, the idea of total transparency is an ideal. It is of course quite utopian in nature, but when it comes to government secrecy, we have acknowledged that there is a place for secrecy on some level. The reality that we’re facing today is a far cry from that line, with escalating secrecy by governments. We can see that, for example, numerically in the other states where year by year you see an escalation in the amount of documents that are branded secret and kept from the public eye.

There has been criticism that WikiLeaks has been irresponsible in its release of unredacted documents. How would you respond to that?

My response to that is that this criticism has not been founded by any evidence of harm being suffered by individuals as a result of our big releases, which is quite extraordinary when you think about the scope of the material and putting it into the context of the huge impact that it has had all over the world: playing a cataclysmic role in the Arab Spring, for example, having a big impact in politics in Latin America, etc. When you put that into context of the fact that there has been no harm to individuals as a result of releases, that should answer your question. But we have in the past taken careful steps in protecting individuals. We did that in the Afghan war release in the summer of 2010 by withholding one-sixth of the entire field reports that were released. With the Iraq war logs that fall in October 2010 there was an automatic or electronic redaction of places and names out of all the material; and in the release of the diplomatic cables, we trusted our media partners in defining or redacting materials which were sensitive, which we of course then looked over and monitored, and that was the release pattern for 10 months until we were forced to release the entire package because of a mistake made by the Guardian. So if you look at the history way back, the allegation or accusation of irresponsibility is unfounded in my view.

WikiLeaks talks a lot about “principled leaks.” What measures do you take to ensure leaks are principled? What factors go into whether or not to release, or leak, a document?

This is an evaluation that is based pretty much on the evaluation that every editor has to face when they are confronted with material. They have to decide whether it is of public interest, is this of historical value? Is it important for the discussion of the day?

How else has your career in investigative journalism prepared you for your current role at WikiLeaks?

I believe that it did prepare me in the work, and I have to admit that I didn’t ever feel that I was crossing any line as I’ve said before. What I do within WikiLeaks is a continuation of my work as a journalist. Our basic role and our duty as journalists is to unearth information that should be in the public eye, and that is exactly what Wiki is doing in a different form. But the essence of the work is the same as for any investigative journalist.

What do you see as WikiLeaks’ role in the future of investigative journalism?

I believe that WikiLeaks has introduced some very exciting ideals to the world of investigative journalism. (WikiLeaks offers) a safe platform for whistle-blowers to anonymously leak information to the public with or without the intermediary of the mainstream media, and I hope that this is in many ways strengthening the dedication of investigative journalists to continue their work. What we are seeing now is that those old powers are getting quite scared with the new tendency, and you can’t see, for example, the horrible crackdown on whistle-blowers in the United States under the Obama administration in any other light than of power holders getting quite scared that whistleblowing is becoming a trend. So this is a fight of course by the powerless against those in power.

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