2010-11-14 WikiLeaks and the Australian media

"The basis of democracy is freedom of speech"
- Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung Sun Suu Ki upon release from 15 years of house arrest

A few weeks ago I shrugged off Saturday night plans to meet up with a couple other local media geeks and techheads.

Earlier that day WikiLeaks had published 391,832 leaked U.S. military documents, detailing the deaths of 109,032 people during the Iraq War.

At around 7:50pm the television at our present location was quickly deemed undersized for the magnitude of WikiLeaks' live press conference; and so we embarked on a last minute dash on foot to our tech geek's home, seeking out her uber-sized plasma screen TV that was deemed appropriately large enough to pay homage to the event.

8pm came and went. ABC4 appeared to be playing a repeat of the prior week's QANDA episode.

This was cause for collective concern. The largest leak of military documents in history and we couldn't find the frigging press conference on television - why wasn't the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) broadcasting it live?

We flicked channels - ABC, 7, 9, 10, and SBS - as it dawned on us that the press conference of largest the leak of military information in history - involving documents detailing Australian involvement in the Iraq war - was not going to be broadcast live - anywhere - in Australia on free to air public tv.

It essentially amounted to an effective Australian news media blackout on WikiLeaks' live press conference.

After a few moments of panic, we all collectively reached for our laptops and iPhones and within 30 seconds minutes had a live online news broadcast (thanks CBS!) streaming onto the plasma screen.

We watched as WikiLeaks founder - Australian Julian Assange - and spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson, along with the Pentagon Papers' whistle blower Daniel Ellsberg - and others - addressed a room packed with journalists, cramped with media outlets.

Perhaps a privileged slice of the Australian population - able to afford pay TV in Australia or self-informed enough to follow the live broadcasts online - managed to catch the coverage too.

We yelled, cheered, clapped as Aussie Julian Assange received the Sam Adams Award, awarded for integrity in whistle-blowing. And we sat in sober silence as the tragic details of the documents were summarised: deaths, abuses, corruption - all the horrors of war.

At the end of the broadcast, we switched the tv off and sat silently, flicking through international online news websites in search of more information...

In days to come Australian coverage of the leak ranged from pathetically minimal to almost non-existent.

The documents revealed abuse upon abuse: corruption, despair and a blood bath of deaths of innocent civilians; and yet, even today the average Australian is unlikely to be aware of the significance and contents of the documents. The media simply has not fulfilled its role in informing the public.

I'm ashamed that the Australian media has denied its population fair and comprehensive coverage of WikiLeaks. It is a continuing cause for concern that media reporting on WikiLeaks in Australia remains limited, and is often superficial, incomplete and misleading.

It is revealing that a recent petition indicating journalistic support for WikiLeaks - signed by over 170 journalists from 40 countries - has been signed by only one Australian journalist.

What does this mean for Australian journalism? In the quiet shut-down of freedom of expression, in the un-aired, self-censored avoidance of reporting on issues involving WikiLeaks within Australia we see the symptoms of a blight upon the Fourth Estate and its integral role in providing a measure of transparency to the mechanisms of governmental process within a supposedly democratic country.

To this day, WikiLeaks remains on the Australian Communications and Media Authority's (ACMA) website blacklist.What effect ACMA blacklisting has on Australian journalists' ability - and willingness - to effectively report on WikiLeaks - and the corruption and abuse the website exposes - and the impact upon free speech, public dialogue and democratic transparency has yet to receive extensive investigation.

But somehow, I suspect we are already feeling its impact.

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer