Wikileaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson has savaged The Guardian and New York Times for attempting to rush the publication of WikiLeaks material, suggesting the issue contributed to the falling-out between the online whistleblower site and the doyens of the progressive mainstream media.

The Guardian and The New York Times were the key English-language vehicles for the release of both the Iraq and Afghanistan “war logs” and the initial tranche of diplomatic cables WikiLeaks continues to release via over 50 outlets around the world. However, relations between the newspapers and WikiLeaks soured and both outlets and their senior staff have since launched stories highly critical of Julian Assange. The New York Times has also been revealed to have allowed the State Department to veto and censor WikiLeaks material.

Hrafnsson told Crikey the relationship between WikiLeaks and the newspapers had been going sour from before the release of the Iraq War logs in October 2010. “[The Guardian] said they’d been promised exclusivity; Julian said, ‘no — that was only for the print media.'”

According to Hrafnsson, who is currently in Sydney to participate in tonight’s IQ2 debate, “Is Wikileaks a force for good?”, WikiLeaks had wanted to put back the release of Iraq material for a couple of weeks to finalise the redacting of documents. “We needed to postpone the release. That was met with great resistance and attempts to politically manoeuvre us. The Guardian was trying to claim that the New York Times would break ranks and go early and would not accept the postponement. It wasn’t true. We called their bluff.”

This is a significant revelation, because a standard criticism of WikiLeaks from its enemies within governments and the foreign policy establishment, and indeed from the mainstream media itself, is that the site was too eager to release material that may have placed people identified in the documents in danger.

The contrast has regularly been made with more “responsible” mainstream media, which would have vetted and redacted the material more carefully. The claim has been specifically disproven in relation to a cable that was alleged to have placed Morgan Tsvangirai in danger, but which was revealed to have been released by The Guardian before Wikileaks.

Nonetheless, Hrafnsson says, “no one has been harmed as a result of our releases as far as we know. That has been confirmed by the Pentagon and NATO officials in Afghanistan…Almost a year has passed and we’ve heard of no repercussions. It’s easily forgotten that we withheld one in five field reports from Afghanistan to minimise any harm.”

Hrafnsson noted that the New York Times’s willingness to allow the Obama Administration to control its release of material also applied to the Iraq war logs. “The Times was a little bit too willing to appease the administration with its release of the war logs.” WikiLeaks now does not promise exclusivity to anyone, but still has a “professional and positive” relationship with its German mainstream media partner Der Spiegel, its other original media partner.

“I was never expecting [The Guardian and NYT] to be grateful but they could have been more honourable,” Hrafnsson said. “It was clear to me last fall [that The Guardian] saw themselves as the central unit in all of this and in full control. When they realised we wanted some control over how things were carried out, we saw rising animosity from them, which is rather strange. 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.”

The book by Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, WikiLeaks, was “most interesting in what it leaves out about the saga,” according to Hrafnsson.

Hrafnsson admitted the decision by Paypal, Mastercard and Visa to refuse to process donations for WL “has affected our ability to grow and expand”, and the Bank of America has also banned direct transfers to WL (not surprisingly, as it has long been rumoured Wikileaks holds a cache of damaging Bank of America documents, although this now seems unlikely).

“We are a small robust organisation so we’ve been able to keep going but possibly at a slower pace than we would have wanted. We are not going to allow these powerful financial giants to stop us. We will ask volunteers to go into the street with buckets and collect change if necessary…We are surviving. We have some funds to work from.”

Hrafnsson also rejects claims — usually aired by the foreign policy establishment — that diplomatic cable releases have made governments more secretive. “The sky hasn’t fallen in. People are still interacting — perhaps on a more open and honest basis than before.” He notes Robert Gates’s recent condemnation of European NATO partners for not playing a big enough role in Afghanistan and other conflicts.

Hrafnsson feels it is more rewarding working for WikiLeaks than the mainstream media. “It has changed the way I perceive journalism. I think it’s a terribly important addition to the world of journalism and will strengthen journalism in the long run. The aim of journalism is to unearth a fact and, of course, to have an impact. WikiLeaks has certainly had an impact.”

Peter Fray

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