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Wikileaks: Who, what, why?


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Wikileaks has found itself back on the front pages this week with its enigmatic founder Julian Assange still in the centre of a political and legal storm. Amidst all the column inches written about the organisation, the simple truths behind Wikileaks are often overlooked, so we’ve compiled everything you need to know about the whistle-blowing website.

The not-for-profit organisation was set up in 2006 by Julian Assange, former computer hacker and self-described “editor-in-chief” of Wikileaks. He has been described as both “internet’s freedom fighter” and “the most dangerous man in the world”, so it’s difficult to find anyone with a relatively objective view of him and his organisation.

Wikileaks’ goal, according to its website, is "to bring important news and information to the public”, publishing original source material to show “evidence of the truth”. This pretty much equates to sourcing classified or otherwise embarrassing information about institutions and governments, and publishing it for the entire world to see.

Its first big splash in the UK came in 2009 when it released what it purported to be a list of British National Party (BNP) members, which included several doctors and army personnel. The BNP called it a “malicious forgery” but the damage had been done and Wikileaks found itself thrown under the spotlight of the media.

The site is notorious in the US. Wikileaks’ made headline news around the world in 2010 when it released a video entitled Collateral Murder. In the footage, which went viral, a US military strike on Baghdad kills twelve people - including Iraqi civilians and two journalists. The leak was covered by a host of mainstream media organisations and prompted the US Defense department to change its strategy from containing and playing down leaks to confronting the whistle-blowers head on.

Wikileaks’ material comes from its own journalists as well as anonymous leaks – anyone can upload documents to the site without revealing their identity. It is funded by “human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the public”, although receiving donations has been made significantly harder for Wikileaks since major companies like Visa, Mastercard and PayPal refused to process payments to the site. The site claims it has had a “banking blockade” in place against it since December 2010.

Companies are quick to disassociate themselves with Wikileaks for two reasons. Undoubtedly there has been government pressure on corporations (such as Amazon) not to promote or provide services to Wikileaks. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called the release of diplomatic cables “an attack on the international community” and one congressman pushed for Wikileaks to be branded a terrorist organisation.

But it is the behaviour of Assange, the main man behind the organisation, that has alienated much of its support, particularly amongst grass-roots followers. In late 2010 he was arrested over allegations of rape and sexual coercion. Assange has stringently denied the accusations, claiming that in both cases sex was consensual, and argued that he is being targeted as part of a smear campaign.

Whether or not Assange is guilty, his reputation has certainly been tainted. This week he found refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London as he was threatened with extradition to Sweden to be put on trial. Once a hero to internet activists and investigative journalists, the media now paints him as an eccentric criminal on the run from the authorities.

Despite all this, Wikileaks is still online, and still publishing leaked documents. Despite hundreds of legal threats to be taken offline, a financial blockade by major banking institutions, and the ongoing court battle with Assange, Wikileaks survives.

It has fought hard to publish information that it believes - rightly or wrongly - should be accessible by anyone. Even if Wikileaks is eventually beaten and taken down, the impact it has made will not be forgotten. It has already left a legacy of whistle-blowing and freedom of information that terrifies governments and corporations throughout the world as much now as it did in 2006.

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