UNESCO Shuns WikiLeaks as Speaker at Conference on Implications of WikiLeaks

… And, that’s not all that doesn’t make sense

unescoThis week, the organizers of a UNESCO conference, “The Media World after WikiLeaks and News of the World,” refused to let a WikiLeaks representative participate as a speaker. In so doing, they deprived the world of a full and balanced discussion of issues critical to protecting human rights.  Neither UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) nor the conference organizer, the USA-based World Press Freedom Committee, are apologizing, and traditional news media (with one exception) looked the other way.

As the central player in information-sharing partnerships that changed journalism, WikiLeaks unquestionably has important insights to share on conference topics such as the relationship between new and traditional journalism. But, only half of that partnership, WikiLeaks points out, was invited to speak at the UNESCO conference—and a bias was evident even in the questions selected for debate.

[One of] the key questions in the opening debate is; "What is the fallout from WikiLeaks´ decision to release all the materials without its original redaction of sensitive sources". It is well known that this release was caused by a breach of contract by one of our original media partner The Guardian. Do you seriously expect that Alan Rusbridger, the papers editor will have an impartial answer to this question? Not to mention the fact that it was an agreement signed by himself that was breached. At the urge the Guardian, Le Monde and New York Times teamed up against WikiLeaks in a common statement against the organization. Do you seriously deem it proper to have representatives from those two other papers, sharing a panel with the Guardian editor, discussing this question. [Feb. 15 press release, wikileaks.org]

wikileaksIn defense of excluding WikiLeaks, UNESCO’s Sylvie Coudray wrote that the conference was “*about journalism,* thus defining in advance what journalism is not (WikiLeaks) lest the world’s people try to decide that for themselves—to the horror of oppressors and their media enablers.

WPFC’s spokesman Ron Koven said WikiLeaks was excluded because, "The main focus of this conference is not about WikiLeaks as such but about the implications of its actions for the future of professional journalism." However, the conference website describes a much broader goal… 

The conference “The Media World after WikiLeaks and News of the World” aims to gather leading media representatives, professional and “citizen” journalists and media law experts to exchange views on these issues and to discuss good practices in traditional professional journalism and citizen journalism in the digital era.

The speaker list includes “professional” media organizations like the New York Times, mocked by Greenwald and others for its subservience to government.  Citizen journalists like Lina Ben Mhenni, whose efforts aided democratic uprisings in nations with abusive governments, seem not to have been included.  Their views were left to intermediaries to present despite the tendency of some intermediaries to view them negatively. This, even more than WikiLeaks’ exclusion, undermines the conference’s credibility outside the creaky gates of legacy journalism.

Moreover, it is a fool’s errand to search for the implications of WikiLeaks actions when those selected to do the exploring have faulty memories regarding how they go there. One might as well search for Mount Fuji with a map of Mississippi.  Anyone who doubts that should read Glenn Greenwald’s columns—here, here, here and here—describing how the New York Times, The Guardian and other major papers unfairly maligned Wikileaks with false charges.

The reason I’ve been so repetitively vigilant about pointing out the falsehood that WikiLeaks indiscriminately published 250,000 diplomatic cables is because there is a full-scale government/media campaign to demonize the group through outright fiction of the type that sold the nation on Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and Al Qaeda alliance. The undeniable truth from the start is that, with very few exceptions, WikiLeaks has only been publishing those cables which its newspaper partners first publish (and WikiLeaks thereafter publishes the cables with the redactions applied by those papers. [Glenn Greenwald, January 12, 2011, Salon.com]

assangeAn important clue to conference organizers’ intent is the selection of a key note speaker. Traditionally, the key note speech sets the tone for all that follows. So, it’s illuminating that the person selected to provide the key note speech at this conference authored a tabloid series titled, "The WikiFreak: In a new book one author reveals how she got to know Julian Assange and found him a predatory, narcissistic fantasist.” This was a slap in the face of WikiLeaks’ founder that one would expect to color any discussion of access to government-held information.

Notably, the conference organizers did extend a speaker invitation to lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who previously advised WikiLeaks.  But, Robertson was not attending as a representative of WikiLeaks.  Also, he was assigned to a panel on international law—not to panels where WikiLeaks thought it important to speak.

UNESCO erroneously conflated the two things in a tweet that read:

UNESCO @unescoNOW 15 Feb
FACT: @wikileaks IS invited: Geoffrey Robertson, J. Assange's legal counsel, to speak at 2:30pm tomorrow #OccupyUNESCOj.mp/zY3tW3

UNESCO also tweeted:

UNESCO @unescoNOW 15 Feb
For the record, in regard to #OccupyUNESCO: @wikileaks organization was in fact invited to attend the event. Our invitation still stands.

Since WikiLeaks wanted to speak, not simply attend the event, UNESCO’s invitation was not responsive although its tweet gave that impression. UNESCO’s release of its email correspondence with WikiLeaks as “our UNESCOleaks” trivialized WikiLeaks’ contributions by comparing those with a self-serving effort to evade public scorn.

UNESCO @unescoNOW 15 Feb
@wikileaks Check out our UNESCOleaks of email inviting @Wikileaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafsson, #OccupyUNESCOj.mp/zLO9Ak

A UNESCO tweet on the second day of the conference suggested that Robertson had been presumed to be a WikiLeaks representative. UNESCO apologizes to Robertson—but not to Wikileaks.

UNESCO @unescoNOW 16 Feb
CORRECTION: Mr Robertson QC is not representing Wikileaks. Previous tweet in error. Apologies to Mr Robertson

Subsequently, UNESCO sent out a tweet inviting WikiLeaks to be a participant—but not a panelist.

UNESCO @unescoNOW 16 Feb
FOR THE RECORD: Kristinn Hrafsson, Wikileaks spokesperson, was invited to attend, take part in debate & distribute materials #MediaFuture

This, we know, is not what WikiLeaks had requested, probably feeling that, even with an opportunity to speak from the audience, it put WikiLeaks in a “one down” position relative to its critics. Perhaps, WikiLeaks should have given it a go, anyway.  But, it’s never certain that someone in the audience who raises a hand will be tapped to speak. In any case, it probably was too late by then for a WikiLeaks representative to get to Paris before the close of the conference.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks was tweeting this troubling development…

WikiLeaks @wikileaks 16 Feb
UNESCO live stream audio stopped as Geoffery Robertson QC is about to speak. http://mms://stream.unesco.org/live/room_4_en.wmv #OccupyUNESCO

The #OccupyUNESCO hashtag in the above tweet refers to WikiLeak’s February 15 press release quoting Julian Assange, who made this statement:

’UNESCO has made itself an international human rights joke. To use "freedom of expression" to censor WikiLeaks from a conference about WikiLeaks is an Orwellian absurdity beyond words. This is an intolerable abuse of UNESCO’s Constitution. It’s time to occupy UNESCO.’

Whether or not one considers UNESCO’s behavior intolerable will likely depend  on how one views WikiLeaks. Some consider WikiLeaks intolerable. But, love or loathe the organization, it was a key witness to events that have had, and continue to have, major impacts on the world. Keeping WikiLeaks out of the witness box prevented a full understanding of a landmark case in journalism, and undermined the conference’s goal of assessing implications for future journalists.  

Unquestionably, conference organizers were within their rights to decide who should speak. But, they should not assume there will be no consequences. Doubt has been cast on the credibility of their organizations to which the public looks for help in getting important information. The debacle in Paris may ultimately convince more people to conclude that their only recourse for getting unfiltered truth is an organization like WikiLeaks. How ironic is that?

But, most hurtful to the credibility of this conference and its organizers was the short shrift given to “citizen journalists.” Plotting the future of journalism without healthy participation from the people who are using technology to communicate in new ways is like trying to build a modern spaceship without computer engineers. It will never fly.

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Linda Lewis is a policy analyst with degrees in emergency management and geosciences.  Her experience includes 13 years as a policy analyst and planner for the U.S. government.  During that time, she brought attention to serious deficiencies in government preparedness prior to the disasters that confirmed her analyses.  Those included emergency communications (9/11 terrorist attacks), federal assistance (hurricane Katrina) and decision making (Columbia shuttle disaster).


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