Press freedom on trial: The DNC lawsuit against WikiLeaks

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The US Democratic Party has recently filed a lawsuit against the Russian government, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and WikiLeaks, charging that they carried out a wide-ranging conspiracy to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

Suing WikiLeaks – a news organisation – for publishing leaked material, when it is hardly the only news outlet to do so, could set a troubling precedent for press freedom.

The US media have remained strangely silent on the implications. Busily obsessing over Russian meddling in the election, the FBI’s Robert Mueller investigation and Trump’s rhetorical war with the media, reporters are taking a pass on the DNC lawsuit story and the legal assault on the fourth estate coming from the other side of the aisle.

“The DNC’s suing WikiLeaks because they’re the central player,” says Eric Boehlert, a senior writer for
Shareblue Media. “If it weren’t for WikiLeaks essentially conspiring with Russian operatives, this wouldn’t have been a story … they marketed these emails. They were reaching out to the reporters.”

The core issue in this story is not what was in those hacked emails – the DNC’s sabotaging of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, its unseemly, cap-in-hand approach to financial donors – but rather how those emails found their way into the media food chain in the first place.

A broad interpretation of the first amendment would cover WikiLeaks … If this is a successful campaign against WikiLeaks, it would have ramifications for other news organisations.

Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics & law, University of Minnesota

Cybersecurity specialists say the hackers who infiltrated the DNC’s servers were Russian. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have stuck to their policy of neither confirming nor denying who their sources are, saying only that the “source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party”.

WikiLeaks acquired the files and started publishing the emails four months before the 2016 election. No major US media outlet ignored the story. It was, for better or worse, considered newsworthy.

“These were stolen conversations, and I don’t think that journalists took proper care to vet them,” says Eric Alterman, a media columnist for The Nation and professor of journalism at City University of New York. “It’s not that they weren’t true, but the motive in releasing them in order to demonise the Democrats when there was no such comparable effort on the part of Republicans – that was not handled well.”

“Journalists just rushed into print without considering the source, without considering what was behind them, without explaining it to their readers. And this had the effect of perverting the political discourse,” Alterman says.

The DNC, which has an ongoing relationship with news networks and papers like the New York Times, has not taken legal issue with any of those organisations over their coverage of the story.

The lawsuit targets the alleged source of the emails, the Russian government, and the middleman WikiLeaks, but spares the news outlets that took what WikiLeaks provided and fed it to American voters.

According to Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, “a broad interpretation of the first amendment would cover WikiLeaks”. She disagrees with those who “would say that this kind of lawsuit against them is perfectly acceptable and has no first amendment ramifications … I would hope that news organisations would focus not on WikiLeaks, but rather on the principles that are at stake.”

“If this is a successful campaign against WikiLeaks it would have ramifications for other news organisations. News organisations should be concerned about that aspect of the case,” says Kirtley.


Ben Norton, reporter, The Real News & Fair Media Watch

Eric Boehlert, senior writer, Shareblue Media

Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics & law, University of Minnesota

Eric Alterman, media columnist, The Nation & professor of journalism, City University of New York

Source: Al Jazeera News

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