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Jul 6, 2012

WikiLeaks partners a motley crew on Syria

WikiLeaks has now teamed with a bankrupt Spanish publisher, a French web upstart and a newspaper accused of bias towards the Assad regime as media partners for the release of 2.4 million Syrian government emails.

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Forget storied newspapers like The New York Times and The Guardian. WikiLeaks has now teamed with a bankrupt Spanish publisher, a French web upstart and a newspaper accused of bias towards the Assad regime as media partners for the release of 2.4 million Syrian government emails.

US wire agency Associated Press was originally listed on the WikiLeaks website as one of seven “collaborators” on the so-called Syria Files, but this was swiftly removed yesterday following complaints from AP. The agency has had advance access to the files, but does not consider its relationship with the whistleblowing website to be a partnership.

This leaves WikiLeaks without an English language media partner for its biggest data dump since the release of US diplomatic cables of November 2010.

The media groups still listed as collaborators are Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, the Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm, Italian weekly news magazine L’Espresso, German public broadcasters NDR and ARD, French data-journalism website Owni and Spanish site Publico.es.

L’Espresso hit the ground running yesterday with its scoop that Italian defence technology group Finmeccanica sold sophisticated communications equipment to the Syrian police as recently as February.

Most of WikiLeaks’ current collaborators lack the high profile and reporting heft of the The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel or El Pais — the publications WikiLeaks teamed with to investigate the US diplomatic cables. The Guardian also shared its “cablegate” files with The New York Times.

This suggests there will be plenty of juicy stories for rival news outlets — and, indeed, citizen journalists — to uncover when WikiLeaks releases the full suite of emails. The Syria Files are estimated to be 10 times bigger than the “cablegate” data dump and includes tens of thousands of emails written in Arabic and Russian.

The most controversial of WikiLeaks’ current collaborators is Al Akhbar, which is widely seen as supportive of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s regime. Journalist Max Blumenthal stopped writing for Al Akhbar last month, complaining that “the apologia for Assad and his crimes has reached unbearable levels”.

In a piece explaining the partnership, Al-Akhbar’s editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin says the emails will help “to sort out what is real and what is fabricated”.

“One thing is obvious, though, the hypocrisy of global politics has reached a new high when dealing with Syria,” he said.

The choice of Spanish website publico.es is a curious one. Publisher Mediapubli closed down printed paper El Publico earlier this year after filing for bankruptcy. Before it was shuttered in February, the strident left-wing tabloid was the ninth-largest general-interest newspaper in Spain with a circulation of 87,000.

The Owni website was set up in 2009 as part of a grassroots movement hostile to the Hadopi law that attempted to regulate internet access in France. The site aggregates and translates content from blogs and websites, as well as running crowdsourcing and data journalism projects. During the recent French elections, the site ran a “fact-checking” project with the help of its readers on statements made by presidential candidates.

Germany’s ARD, which runs a national television network and more than 50 radio stations, is the world’s second-largest public broadcaster behind the BBC.

Egypt’s Al Masry Al Youm has been noted for its liberal tendencies and willingness to publish hard-hitting stories since it was launched in June 2004.

WikiLeaks has long a track record of developing fractious relationships with its media partners. Relations between WikiLeaks, The Guardian and The New York Times soured after both outlets launched stories highly critical of Julian Assange. WikiLeaks also did not approve of The Times‘ decision to allow the State Department to veto and censor WikiLeaks material.

In an interview with Crikey last year, WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson said the storied papers should have been “more honourable” in their dealings with WikiLeaks.

“When they realised we wanted some control over how things were carried out, we saw rising animosity from them, which is rather strange,” Hrafnsson said. “We considered them media partners on an equal footing. The Guardian and The New York Times decided to see us as a source, primarily, and I’ve always thought that was odd because, in my opinion as a journalist, you have a duty to your sources and you have to respect and protect your source. They certainly weren’t doing that.”

Matthew Knot —

Matthew Knot

Crikey media editor

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