The talk was co-hosted by the JMSC, Centre for Comparative and Public Law (CCPL) and The Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA). Doreen Weisenhaus, Associate Professor at the JMSC and Director of the Media Law Project, introduced Stephens.
Weisenhaus pointed out that if you google ‘Wikileaks‘ you get 16 million results and if you google ‘Julian Assange’ you get 22 million results. This shows the phenomenal interest in both the man and the company.
Mark Stephens is a high-profile London-based media and human rights lawyer who has been involved in some of the biggest media law cases over the past few years in the U.K., Europe and Asia. He has represented the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Bloomberg and many others, as well as Julian Assange. In 2008, the Times of London called Stephens “one of the best advocates for freedom of expression”.
Wikileaks was launched in 2006 as an international, non-profit organisation that publishes submissions of private, secret, classified documents from anonymous sources as a way to facilitate the publication of these documents.
Wikileaks burst onto the public consciousness in April last year when it published footage of a 2007 Baghdad airstrike in which, among others, several journalists were killed by an Apache helicopter. In July, 2010, Wikileaks released 70,000 documents relating to the war in Afghanistan; in October 2010, it released 400,000 documents related to logs from the war in Iraq. Late last year, it released hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables from sources all over the world in what’s been dubbed ‘Cablegate’.
Mark Stephens explained how when he first met Assange they had a heated debate about digital journalism. Not long afterwards, Assange contacted him and asked Stephens to represent him.
“The genius of Julian Assange was really to identify that in the modern digital era journalists don’t any longer get a couple of dog-eared photocopies as their source documentation,” said Stephens.
“What they get are CDs crammed full of material as more and more material is pushed onto the computing systems of various organisations. People who supply that information invariably do so in digital form. What he realised was more than just having it as an electronic anonymous drop-box. For years, every newspaper on the planet has had a place where you can go and put an anonymous brown envelope and deliver those dog-eared documents. But, they haven’t had the electronic anonymous drop-box and so what he did was come up with Wikileaks.”
“The idea was that you could send an e-mail to Wikileaks and before the data which was attached to your e-mail arrived, it would shred the e-mail,” Stephens continued. “But it wouldn’t just shred the e-mail at Wikileaks, it would shred it at all the servers going back up the chain, so there’s no electronic signature or trace of who sent the material, and so it is truly anonymous.”
Stephens stated that he thought that this type of journalism is going to be one of the key sources of information in the future: “Increasingly, as digital journalism comes to the fore, we’re going to see that this kind of journalist is the go-to person for people to be able to interrogate data.”
Simon Young, the Director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at HKU, asked Assange about the legality of Wikileaks both getting hold of ‘secret’ material and also putting it on the internet.
Stephens discussed the obligation of a journalist to not identify his source, but also the responsibility of the source to understand exactly what he is revealing and its implications on both himself and also in a wider context.
He stated that journalists have “an absolute obligation, almost unfettered, to publish.” Stephens felt that it’s up to journalists to be the fourth estate watching over the state and making sure that there aren’t too many secrets being kept, though he did add the caveat that this was so long as no life was going to be put in danger by their actions.
Stephens discussed whether any benefit caused by Wikileaks outweighed the damage done. He said that the damage had been minimal and the benefit great: “There are always going to be differences of opinion about the nuances of what should or should not be published.”
He added that he felt that governments keep far too many secrets when it’s not in the public interest to do so, and that they keep them for far too long. “There is an exponential growth in secrecy that needs to be questioned,” he said.
He felt that governments abuse freedom of information laws to prevent transparency and that a greater level of engagement with citizens, in terms of journalism, could only be a good thing. Stephens foresaw a future in which specialist whistle-blowing websites will exist for particular sectors, though whether they will be as effective as Wikileaks, he could not predict.
Despite talking for a full hour and a half about his work and the work of Wikileaks in particular, Stephens was pessimistic about the state of media law, saying that increasingly, traditional media lacks the resources to defend such cases. He said the baton may well be passed onto NGOs and volunteers.
However, Doreen Weisenhaus remained more optimistic, pointing out that in Asia in particular, there are organisations set up to fund and train young lawyers interested in pursuing media law.