The Common Good

'The Fifth Estate:' Is WikiLeaks Good for America?

Am I the only one who finds it deliciously ironic that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange objects stridently to how he is portrayed in the new movie, The Fifth Estate? The film, which hits theaters in wide release today, turns its attention to the organization best known for publicly sharing otherwise confidential information of various governments, including our own.

 via The Fifth Estate Facebook Page: facebook.com/TheFifthEstateMovie
Still from 'The Fifth Estate' via The Fifth Estate Facebook Page: facebook.com/TheFifthEstateMovie

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Assange is clearly a study in eccentricity. From his tow-headed locks to his lock-down work environment, he fascinates as often as he infuriates. To demonstrate their displeasure about the coming film, WikiLeaks actually leaked the screenplay to the public ahead of the movie release and has published numerous corrections they deem necessary to more accurately reflect history. They have also labeled the movie "irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful,” adjectives made that much more poignant, given that similar epithets have been leveled at WikiLeaks for their own work.

But despite this latest round of drama revolving around WikiLeaks and its lightning rod of a front man, the question still remains:

Is WikiLeaks good for America?

Advocates like Wired Magazine’s Evan Hansen say yes, that although the nonprofit organization has its problems, it has a strengthening effect on our democracy, both in forcing greater transparency, and also by more fully exercising the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which grants freedom of expression.

And whereas many criticize the American media for being lapdogs of the political elite, WikiLeaks is purposely based in multiple countries, both to avoid being shut down by governments who would like it to be, but also so that they will remain inherently independent of any single government influence.

In a perfect world, entities like the United Nations and the international tribunal in The Hague would serve such purposes of accountability, but given historic precedent, the chances of that happening are zero to none.

The work of WikiLeaks certainly presents potentially dire consequences, and some would suggest they are motivated from self-aggrandizement more than an altruistic pursuit of global transparency and justice. In a piece on the New Republic website, State Department officer Alex Grossman noted that, “fear of publication will only prevent people from voicing frank and honest opinions, assessments and recommendations.” As such, there is the risk that the short-term benefit of unearthing corruption simply drives it further underground, making it that much harder to ferret out.

Assange and his cohorts have been heavily criticized for not vetting information before they leak it to the public. This, many have argued has done irreparable harm to the reputations of individuals and organizations worldwide if not placing some of those individuals directly in harm's way. Huffington Post blogger Derrick Ashong even suggests express malicious intent at the heart of the organization's mission, writing that “There is a difference between holding government accountable for its decisions and holding government officials hostage to their words.”

Another Wired Magazine writer, Kevin Poulson, revealed that WikiLeaks may have some honesty issues of its own. “… for years” writes Poulson, “WikiLeaks promised would-be leakers that they’d enjoy the protection of strong journalist shield laws in Sweden, where WikiLeaks maintains some of its servers. It wasn’t until August of this year that it emerged that WikiLeaks hadn’t registered as a media outlet in Sweden, and thus wasn’t protected.”

Yes, WikiLeaks has done some things that critics rightly call them to the carpet for, especially when those actions are reckless or even dangerous. But as for the net effect on our world, I prefer to borrow a quote from Thomas Jefferson, who said, “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.”

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

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