journalist Stefania Maurizi has worked with WikiLeaks for nine years on the
Podesta emails and other revelations. Here’s an insider’s view of the
publisher, which has incensed rulers around the world, desperate to hide their
in Rome Special to Consortium
and cut off from the outside world, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been
confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the last six years with no
access to sunlight, fresh air, or proper medical treatment. Furthermore, last
March President Lenin Moreno’s Ecuadorian government cut his access to the
internet, phone calls and even visitors and journalists. For a man who has
already been confined to the embassy for so long, these restrictions are
working as one of WikiLeaks’ media partners in 2009, before Assange and
WikiLeaks published such bombshells as the “Collateral Murder” video. Over the
last nine years, I have partnered with WikiLeaks on behalf of my newspaper, the
Italian daily La Repubblica to work on the Podesta emails and
many of its other secret files, except for those that WikiLeaks released
without media partners: the DNC emails, the Saudi Cables, Turkey’s ruling party
emails, the Hacking Team documents, the Collateral Murder video and the Brennan
work or not, WikiLeaks is an independent media organization that doesn’t have
to rely on traditional media to publish its scoops. Indeed it was founded to
bypass the legal qualms traditional media may have about publishing classified
5.5 million followers on Twitter, WikiLeaks has a huge social media presence
that gives its work immediate impact. But WikiLeaks has published most of its
revelations in collaboration with a number of media partners.
instance, I was a partner in the publication of the emails of John Podesta,
Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, which were published by WikiLeaks
shortly after the infamous Access Hollywood video revealed
candidate Donald Trump making rude remarks about women.
outlets continue to report that the Podesta emails were released only minutes
after the Access Hollywood video aired, hinting at some sort
of coordination between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. In a indictment
issued last Friday, Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating
the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, charged 12
officers of the Russian military intelligence service, GRU, for having
allegedly hacked both the DNC and Podesta emails and allegedly passed them on
to WikiLeaks for publication.
I have no
idea who WikiLeaks’ sources were for the Podesta emails: the whole concept of
WikiLeaks is based on the submission of secret or otherwise restricted
documents by anonymous sources. Assange said numerous times that his source for
the Clinton emails was not the Russian government nor a state party.
worked on the Podesta emails, I do know that their publication was not a
last-second decision. I had been alerted the day before, and their staggered
release was a choice WikiLeaks made after the organization was harshly
criticized by mainstream media for publishing the DNC documents all at
once. This time the emails would trickle out to make them easier for the public
to digest. But that was criticized too by the U.S. media and the Democrats as
an attempt to leave Clinton bleeding a few weeks before the elections.
Release Trump Documents
I was also
a witness when WikiLeaks received four documents about Trump’s business at a
certain point during the campaign and media partners were asked to help verify
the documents to determine if they should be published. The WikiLeaks team had
already prepared a placeholder graphic for a possible release on Trump: a
caricature of Trump and his characteristic hairstyle. Unfortunately, we found
that the documents had already been made public.
last nine years of my work in partnership with WikiLeaks on behalf of first the
Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso and then La Repubblica,
I have spent many hours talking to Assange and his staff, maintaining weekly
contact with them. Looking back, I realize that in all those years, I only met
Assange as a free man once. That was in September 2010: he had just left Sweden
to meet me and other journalists in Berlin after the publication of the Afghan
War Logs. At that time, I didn’t realize so many years would pass without
seeing him free again.
He is one
of the most demonized men on the planet. “We are in the business of
crucifixion,” he told me several months ago, before Ecuador cut his social
contacts. Indeed he has been crucified for whatever he has done: he talked to
the press? He is a narcissist. He didn’t talk to the press? He wants to fuel
his image as an international mystery man. He is a complicated human being, but
he is neither a hard man nor the imperious, James Bond-style villain depicted
by newspapers. He can be warm, with a sharp sense of humor, and he is
definitely brilliant and bold enough to publish exceptionally risky documents.
Force of the State
is rather unique from many standpoints. As a media organization publishing
exclusively secret or otherwise restricted documents on “invisible powers,”
such as intelligence agencies, which citizens do not normally perceive as
directly relevant to their lives, there is little doubt that WikiLeaks has the
full force of the State against it. It is probably the only Western media
organization to have been under continuous investigation by the U.S.
authorities – and probably others—since 2010, and it is definitely the only one
whose editor is arbitrarily detained in the heart of Europe.
No way out?
say that Assange is the only editor arbitrarily detained in Europe, some object
that he isn’t detained, or that he isn’t an editor at all. But that he is
arbitrarily detained is the opinion of the United
Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, whose decisions are considered
authoritative by the European Court of Human Rights. The UK government has
always rejected the UN body’s decision on Assange, and even tried to appeal it.
Since losing this appeal, the UK authorities have continued to ignore the
decision and apparently no one else has anything to say about it.
that Assange is not detained, but rather is in a state of “self-imposed exile,”
since he could leave the embassy at any time. He could, if he wanted to, walk
out and be arrested by the UK authorities, on now flimsy skipping bail conditions after Swedendropped its investigation
against him, and he’d face the risk of extradition to the United States. Last
year the former head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, attacked him and his organization
ferociously, calling WikiLeaks a
“non-state hostile intelligence service.” The current Attorney General, Jeff
Sessions, has declared that arresting him is
lawyers believe a grand jury in the state of Virginia has likely rendered a sealed indictment
against him. Theoretically he is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S.
constitution, which protects publication of stolen documents, something that
major media does routinely. However, through the last years we have seen many
attempts by the U.S. authorities to claim WikiLeaks and Assange
have no First Amendment righrts.
those critics who insist he is in a form of self-imposed exile or confinement
seem to forget that Assange has attempted all sorts of legal routes to
challenge his detention. I have never heard of someone imposing exile on
himself while at the same time attempting various legal means to put an end to
latest appeal to the Westminster Magistrates’ Court was dismissed last February
by the British judge Emma Arbuthnot, in a ruling indicating that for UK Justice
it is perfectly fine for an individual to remain confined to a tiny building
for almost six years with no access to sunlight, fresh air or proper medical
treatment. “I do not find that Mr. Assange’s stay in the Embassy is
inappropriate, unjust, unpredictable, unreasonable, unnecessary or
disproportionate”, concluded Arbuthnot with no British irony.
As far as
the concept of “editor” goes, I can refer to my own experience, describing what
I have seen on my end: Assange has always been the person coordinating
WikiLeaks publication activities, making the editorial choices, deciding how to
present the revelations to the public—just like any editor of traditional
media. He and his organization are far from perfect: they have made mistakes
and questionable choices, but it is a matter of fact that they have revealed
very important information in the public interest.
WikiLeaks, it has been possible to reveal the true face of the U.S. wars in
Afghanistan and in Iraq (Afghan War Logs, Iraq War Logs Filesand Collateral Murder), the identities of
Guantanamo detainees (Gitmo Files), the scandals and embarrassing diplomatic deals
contained in 251,287 U.S. diplomacy cables, such as pressure from the U.S. to
neutralize Italian prosecutors investigating the extraordinary rendition of the
Milan cleric, Abu Omar (Cablegate).
Protests fueled by WikiLeaks sparked Arab Spring.
been possible to reveal the inner workings of the U.S. private intelligence
firm Stratfor (GIFiles) and the National Security
Agency intercepts on German, French, Italian and Japanese leaders, including
intercepts of the controversial, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi (NSA World Spying Files). WikiLeaks also revealed
EU operations to stop migrants and refugees (EU Military Ops Against Refugee Flow Files), and the CIA cyber
weapons (Vault 7 Files). ItsTunisia Files contributed to the
uprising there that set off the so-called Arab
Spring. WikiLeaks has also released a cache of Spy Files from Russia.
valuable information has been made available to the world by WikiLeaks
completely free of charge, so that once in the public domain, journalists,
activists, scholars and citizens can access it directly worldwide, without
needing media organizations or journalists to access the original files and
make informed choices.
publication strategy has worked: the exiled Islanders from the Chagos
Archipelago for example have been using the U.S. diplomacy cables in court to
support their struggle to return to the Chagos Islands, while a German citizen,
Khaled el-Masri, used the cables to support his case at the
European Court of Human Rights against his extraordinary rendition.
WikiLeaks sees it, publishing information in the public interest is an act that
involves journalism, but also goes beyond journalism. That is why after
partnering with media organizations, WikiLeaks makes the files publicly
available so that everyone can access and use them.
and his team pioneered a model so effective that it has been copied by many.
They started a platform for anonymous submission of secret or otherwise
restricted documents, a concept which has since been adopted by almost all
major media outlets. They also established cross-jurisdictional collaborative
reporting, now a model for major organizations like the Consortium of
Investigative Journalists, which published notable revelations like the Panama
the last nine years, I have seen Assange and his staff take enormous risks.
“They run towards the risks everyone else runs away from,” Edward Snowden
once told me in an interview. That means
they take risks corporate media won’t take. At the end of the day corporate
media are corporations: many decide they can afford only limited legal risks.
As for the extralegal risks, few traditional editors and journalists are eager
to end up confined to an embassy for six years.
Snowden: Saved by WikiLeaks.
seen what happened to Snowden when he was abandoned in Hong Kong: it took Assange’s
close adviser, Wikileaks journalist Sarah Harrison, and the WikiLeaks’ staff to
help him seek asylum. Although the newspapers that had obtained the Snowden
files could have exerted enormous contractual power if they had wanted to
broker an agreement with the U.S. government to protect Snowden, none of them
did. As the American science fiction author Bruce Sterling put it: “It’s
incredible to me that, among the eight zillion civil society groups on the
planet that hate and fear spooks and police spies, not one of them could offer
Snowden one shred of practical help, except for Wikileaks.”
very beginning, I have witnessed the virulent attacks against Assange and his
staff and the dramatic failure of mainstream and non-mainstream journalists to
seek factual information on the Swedish case by means of FOIA or other
investigative tools. In the course of these last seven years, no media has
tried to access the full file on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
It took an
Italian journalist to litigate a FOIA in Sweden and in the UK because no
international or local journalist had done so. While my FOIA litigation
unearthed some suspicious facts (like the deletion of many crucial emails
written and received by the British lawyer who had handled the Assange case for
the Crown Prosecution Service – a deletion for which the UK authorities have
provided no explanation) there has been no follow-up by any international or
Kremlin’s Useful Idiots?
Guardian said, “Assange has a longstanding relationship with Russia
Today. He has regularly appeared in interviews with the Russian broadcaster and
hosted a program on RT in 2012.” In reality the broadcasting license for that
program, known as “The World Tomorrow”, was acquired by my newsgroup as well,
which publishes La Repubblica and l’Espresso. As far
as I know, that program was not the product of any unique collaboration between
WikiLeaks and RT.
is true that Assange and his staff have appeared on the Russian channel
numerous times, I have only heard of one instance in which RT was a partner
with WikiLeaks in the publication of secret files: the “Spy Files”, a series
about brochures on private companies selling surveillance technologies. When
WikiLeaks partners with traditional media, the partners know each other, they
share the findings and the workload. Based on what I have observed, RT has
never been part of this process, though it is true that RT quickly jumps on
whatever WikiLeaks publishes, running articles on WikiLeaks publications based
on the organization’s press releases and reporting on everything on the
perceives Assange as a sort of Western dissident. The country definitely loves
the idea of “Western dissidents” and is happy to stick a finger in the eyes of
the West by assuring wide coverage for Assange and his organization. Russia
media highlights the contradictions in Western democracies which, while
preaching aggressive journalism and the protection of journalistic sources, have
instead put Chelsea Manning in prison, charged Snowden, investigated WikiLeaks
for the last eight years and has kept its editor arbitrarily detained with no
end in sight.
has been accused of being the Kremlin’s useful idiot or its laundromat, or even
a front for Russian intelligence. These kinds of allegations have been spread
by the media with no solid evidence, always quoting anonymous intelligence
officials who have an obvious interest in destroying WikiLeaks’ reputation. To
protect himself and his organization, Assange has always avoided revealing the
inner workings of WikiLeaks so as to not expose its resources and
vulnerabilities to powerful entities like the CIA, which perceive WikiLeaks as
an existential threat to themselves.
approach has helped project an allure of mystery and menace which has been used
by many media outlets to fuel a vitriolic campaign against Assange and
WikiLeaks as James Bond-style villains with something dark to hide. Had Assange
and his team ever lifted the veil and allowed the public to see the inner
workings of WikiLeaks, public opinion would have perceived what is really
behind it: a willingness to take the heat even in the face of very powerful
No one can
say how it will end for Assange and his team: if they end up in jail in the
United States, it will be the first time that an editor and a media
organization are imprisoned in the U.S. for their work, at least not since John Peter Zenger in
Colonial America. As the icon of whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, put it:
“Under Trump, he may well be the first journalist in this country to be
indicted.” There is a deafening silence on the impact of such a scenario on the
freedom of the press and on the human rights of Assange and his staff.
Maurizi works for the Italian daily La Repubblica as an investigative
journalist, after ten years working for the Italian newsmagazine l’Espresso.
She has worked on all WikiLeaks releases of secret documents, and partnered
with Glenn Greenwald to reveal the Snowden files about Italy. She has also
interviewed A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb, revealed the
condolence payment agreement between the US government and the family of the
Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto killed in a US drone strike, and
investigated the harsh working conditions of Pakistani workers in a major
Italian garment factory in Karachi. She has started a multi-jurisdictional FOIA
litigation effort to defend the right of the press to access the full set of
documents on the Julian Assange and WikiLeaks case. She authored two
books: Dossier WikiLeaks. Segreti Italiani and Una
Bomba, Dieci Storie, the latter translated into Japanese. She can be reached
At midday on Friday 5 February, 2016 Julian Assange, John Jones QC, Melinda Taylor, Jennifer Robinson and Baltasar Garzon will be speaking at a press conference at the Frontline Club on the decision made by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on the Assange case.