Editor expounds on WikiLeaks access

The editor of Oslo-based newspaper Aftenposten was fending off reaction Tuesday to a commentary she wrote on her paper’s access to all of the more than 250,000 diplomatic cables initially leaked to the non-profit organization WikiLeaks. She had called it a “paradox” that WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange reportedly is angry that Aftenposten now can report freely from the leaked cables.

Aftenposten's editor-in-chief, Hilde Haugsgjerd, elaborated on her media company's access to the WikiLeaks documents. PHOTO: www.aftenposten.no

“Paradoxically enough, the chief of one of our times’ biggest leaks is angry because there was a leak from his own leak,” editor-in-chief Hilde Haugsgjerd wrote in her commentary in Monday’s edition of Aftenposten. She wrote that Aftenposten’s own access to the cables, with no strings attached, “destroyed Assange’s own strategy for when and how documents about international conficts and themes should be made public.”

WikiLeaks, Haugsgjerd claimed, had a media plan to “secure themselves the best possible coverage and contribute to the most international debate possible around the leak’s content.” Aftenposten, she noted is not adhering to WikiLeaks’ plan, which she referred to as a “news monopoly” that involved a consortium of international media outlets.

“We have not signed the confidentiality clause that hinders (the media outlets) from publishing stories without an explicit agreement with WikiLeaks,” Haugsgjerd wrote.

That sparked a reaction from journalists at The Guardian in the UK, which has been among the media outlets that secured access to the cables from WikiLeaks. Nick Davies of The Guardian’s editorial staff told the web site for Norway’s journalists’ union, Journalisten, that Assange has had “zero influence” on The Guardian’s editorial decisions regarding its use of the WikiLeaks cables.

Davies claimed that the agreement signed between The Guardian and WikiLeaks determined, in fact, that Assange would not have any influence, and he has not.

‘Completely independent’
David Leigh, another editor at The Guardian, told Journalisten on Tuesday that his paper has all the cables as do the other newspapers in the original agreement with WikiLeaks. Leigh told Journalisten that the papers themselves have decided what they will publish, and when. After writing their stories, he said, edited copies of the relevant cables are sent to WikiLeaks (with some identities deleted, for example, for security reasons) so that WikiLeaks can publish the documents at the same time.

Leigh said the other papers in the so-called “consortium” follow the same practice but they all had their own diverse interests in the documents. The practice was followed from November 29, but the papers otherwise operated as completely independent editorial staffs. He said they always had full and independent control over their own publication decisions.

Haugsgjerd told Journalisten on Tuesday that she didn’t mean to criticize The Guardian or other papers involved in the WikiLeaks agreement. “My intention was to simply explain to our readers how we are handling this material (the diplomatic cables) and describe our involvement with the leak from WikiLeaks,” she told Journalisten. “I stand for what I wrote.”

She conceded that she had indicated the other newspapers were bound by more restrictions than is Aftenposten, “but I don’t know whether they have broken the agreement or if it still applies.” Asked whether she had read the agreement between the papers and WikiLeaks, she said “no, but we have good sources and are sure of our position. Some things I don’t know, some things I don’t want to say. I can’t tell  you more.” Aftenposten officials haven’t revealed how they obtained their own access to the cables, and theories are flourishing in Oslo.

Basis for coverage
Haugsgjerd defended her newspaper’s decision to report on the contents of the cables, even though “we probably are dealing with stolen property” and even though the information is “one-sided” and doesn’t give “the full, true picture.”

It is a “strength” for society, she wrote, also internationally, when those in charge and those with the most power can’t assume that “their secrets will never be known.” She noted that the US has become a target of much criticism, perhaps unfairly, because that’s where the leaks came from. “The biggest human rights violations,” she wrote, and “the most corruption” likely occurs in powerful nations other than the US.

But as the world’s only “superpower,” the US needs to be watched closely, she wrote, and its cables “offer considerable insight into the world’s conflicts, wars and diplomacy.” The nature of the Internet, she added, suggests media outlets like Aftenposten will face more “journalistic challenges” in the years to come.

(EDITORIAL NOTE: The editor and publisher of “Views and News from Norway” helped build up and worked for Aftenposten’s English news service from 1999 until it was shut down in a cost-cutting move in November 2008.)

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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