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Concerns about press freedom protections after WikiLeaks and phone-hacking

Concerns about press freedom protections after WikiLeaks and phone-hacking

Legal experts and human rights advocates have raised questions about the state of international laws protecting journalists and their sources in the wake of the News of the World phone hacking scandal and the fallout from WikiLeaks publication of classified documents

Speaking at the UNESCO conference The Media World after WikiLeaks and News of the World, Jane Kirtley, director at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, stated that she was "very nervous" about a number of cases in the United States, which she saw as laying a ground work for greater limits being placed on freedom.

Among the factors that caused her concern were the lack of a federal shield law to protect journalistic sources in the United States, and the recent seizure of the Mega Uploads domain name, despite the fact that it was outside of US jurisdiction.

Agnès Callamard, executive director of Article 19, likewise criticised the US government's reaction to the embassy cable leaks, calling some of the initial reactions reminiscent of the "McCarthy era".

However, in Callamard's view, WikiLeaks did not raise significant new legal issues, but rather tested existing laws. Callamard noted that, as yet, no one has succeeded in building a successful case against WikiLeaks the organisation, only against the source of many of the leaks, Bradley Manning.

But like Kirtley, Callamard expressed concern about current international law protecting whistleblowers, nothing that their protection "is a very weak link in our freedom of expression work".

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, author of the standard text, "Media Law", was also concerned about the protection of journalist's sources, both in the context of the investigation into News International phone hacking and of WikiLeaks.

He called News International's Management Standards Committee's decision to hand over large amounts on information to an open-ended police investigation an act that "breaches the most fundamental duty of the journalist, namely to protect the sources to which he or she has promised anonymity".

Robertson, who criticised the MSC's decision to hand over material to police without giving journalists the chance to explain what happened for themselves, cited a judgement in the UK, stating that, "protections of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom."

Robertson, who has also served as legal council for Julian Assange, was critical of the pressure that the US government has put on WikiLeaks after the release of the embassy cables, citing the government's pressure on Amazon to stop hosting the site and on Mastercard and Paypall to stop facilitating donations to it. Robertson also questioned the way the government targeted the source of the embassy cables Bradley Manning, initially charging him with a capital offence.

According to Robertson, this is despite the fact that WikiLeaks has released large amounts of information in the public interest, including evidence of corruption in Kenya, the dangers of nuclear accident in Iran, "climategate" and the "collateral murder" video.

Robertson argued that the government has the sole responsibility to protect its classified documents and distributors of classified information should not be prosecuted unless it was obtained by bribery or fraud.

Nevertheless, not all the panel members were so pessimistic about the current state of freedom of expression. Panel moderator Richard Winfield, who serves as chairman of World Press Freedom Committee, spoke about the "anaemic response" of governments around the world to WikiLeaks. He noted that the status of WikiLeaks as an "amaorphous", decentralised international organisation made it hard to prosecute. What's more, Winfield stated that it would be very difficult for the US government to indict an organisation like WikiLeaks without also indicting traditional journalistic institutions like The New York Times, and that the first amendment would not allow that.

Michael Camilleri, senior legal advisor to the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Organization of American States spoke about issues relating to freedom of expression in the Americas. He noted that, while challenges to freedom of expression were still remained, over the last twenty years significant progress had been made. Camilleri stated that Cuba was the only formal dictatorship left in the Americas, and that other countries across the continent had democratic laws that could serve as a basis for press freedom.

However, two remaining challenges to free speech posed serious problems: the continued existence of criminal defamation laws in Latin American countries such as Ecuador, and the lack of access to information laws on the continent. But Camilleri noted that, at least on the second point, the continent had taken strides forward: he stated that over 50% of Latin American countries now have access to information laws.

Several panel members acknowledged that international freedom of expression issues were changing fast as the media landscape evolved. Callamard noted that one growing issue was about striking the balance between freedom of expression and intellectual property rights. Callamard stated that these growing issues, which fuel the debates over laws such as SOPA and PIPA, were a major concern for Article 19.

The increasing ease of sharing information is also changing the situation for media and whistleblowers. Robertson stated that the evolution of the media landscape has created a "situation where information will no only leak - it will go viral".


Hannah Vinter


2012-02-16 18:11

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