Financial blockades: The new censorship?


”]A recent spate of high-profile news such as the killing of Muammar Gadhafi, the Michael Jackson death trial, and debates among Republican presidential hopefuls has overshadowed a troubling item concerning the anti-secrecy outfit known as WikiLeaks.

And to hear its founder Julian Assange tell it in various reports [see links below to stories by the Associated Press and CNN], the organization may not be much longer for this earth – all because the online donations that serve as its life’s blood are being choked off by financial institutions such as Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union.

“If WikiLeaks does not find a way to remove this blockade we will simply not be able to continue by the turn of the new year,” Assange told journalists Monday in London.

By now, most folks are aware of the events that brought notoriety to WikiLeaks, an organization whose online nature defies national boundaries, though its central server is believed to be in Sweden.

Last year, using material it is suspected of obtaining from now-incarcerated U.S. Army private Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks publicized footage of a U.S. attack helicopter gunning down two Reuters journalists in Iraq. Months later, it released more than 250,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables that date as far back as 1966 – a move that U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates said jeopardized the lives of foreign nationals who have aided past U.S. efforts abroad.

Debates about just how serious such security breaches have been continue to persist. And the specter of newly leaked secrets – including papers said to be in WikiLeaks’ possession that outline alleged corruption within Bank of America – loom as well. Yet in response to WikiLeaks actions, online money portals have stopped processing donations to the organization – a move that eliminated about 95 percent of WikiLeaks’ revenue, Assange said.

For the past 11 months, the organization has operated on cash reverses that have all but run out, he said. To focus on “aggressive fundraising” – WikiLeaks reportedly needs $3.5 million per year to operate – Assange announced Monday it would halt further disclosures of confidential documents for now.

–   –   –

Regardless of one’s opinion on the rightness or wrongness of WikiLeaks actions, the actions of financial organizations against WikiLeaks should send a shiver up the spine of any journalist or commentator who aspires to exercise their freedom of speech or expression in an online forum. Although the stakes in this particular case are extreme, it demonstrates how vulnerable an internet-based news organization can potentially be to corporate interests that disapprove of their message.

Think of it this way. Could you imagine a newspaper such The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal – or the news operations of a network such as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, or Fox News – having its expense account shut down by a financial institution such as J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, or Wells Fargo because it broke an investigative story that details massive loan fraud or a trading scam within the company? Or a story that shines a disturbing light on U.S. policies and actions in a nation in which one of these institutions also holds a critical financial stake? Also bear in mind that the four aforementioned banks received bailout loans from the U.S. government totaling $90 billion back in 2008 [also see link below – at least two of the banks have since repaid their loans]. Regardless of whether they have since repaid the loans or not, reckon they owe Uncle Sam a favor or two?

While such a premise may initially sound preposterous, an almost identical situation is what WikiLeaks faces at the moment. If Assange is to be believed, such efforts may ultimately silence one of the world’s most prolific – if not notorious – whistleblower sites.

If such efforts succeed – and corporate strategists are emboldened by such efforts — one can only wonder who may be next, what level of whistleblowing attempts might trigger such a campaign, and what – if anything – U.S. financial regulators are willing to do about it.

Even if such efforts are not in the offing, the potential exists that a campaign such as the one that’s targeting WikiLeaks may have a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers who otherwise might attempt to put a stop to nefarious corporate or government activities.

Some food for thought, to be sure.

— Bill W. Hornaday

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