WASHINGTON — Nearly two months after it made public its entire unredacted file of purloined U.S. State Department cables, WikiLeaks announced Monday that it was suspending “publishing operations” to concentrate on raising money to keep the website in business.
The announcement left in doubt the future not just of WikiLeaks but of what had been thought of as a new style of journalism that would allow would-be whistleblowers to leak documents electronically — without the risk of having to reveal their identity to anyone. WikiLeaks’ success engendered at least two copy-cat efforts, but to date neither of those has produced newsworthy releases of information.
“This is an existential threat to WikiLeaks,” WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange told a news conference in London. The news conference was streamed live on the Internet.
In announcing the suspension, WikiLeaks blamed U.S.-based financial institutions, including Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, and Western Union, for refusing since December to process donations destined for the website. The refusal had robbed WikiLeaks of 95 percent of its income, the website said. It said the institutions had acted at the behest of the United States’ government.
“The blockade has cost the organizations tens of millions ... in lost donations at a time of unprecedented operational costs resulting from publishing alliances in over 50 countries,” WikiLeaks said in a press release. “Our scarce resources now must focus on fighting the unlawful banking blockade.”
Assange noted that while the credit card companies had cut off donations to WikiLeaks, they had not cut off donations to the fund that raises money to pay lawyers for his defense against Sweden’s efforts to extradite him for questioning in a sexual misconduct case. He said the difference showed that the financial companies were concerned with WikiLeaks’ publication of documents.
He said the group needed to raise $3.5 million in the next year to continue its operations at its current levels. He said the website currently has 20 staff members and about 800 volunteers.
There was no immediate response from the financial institutions or the U.S. government. Previously, the organizations have denied they canceled WikiLeaks accounts at the instigation of the Obama administration; they said WikiLeaks had violated their service agreements by engaging or encouraging illegal activities — the leaking of classified government documents.
WikiLeaks, which has not been charged with a crime for publishing the leaked documents, warned that if the financial institutions are allowed to continue with what it calls a “blockade,” other controversial advocacy groups could face similar retribution. Assange argued that the credit card companies had become virtual public utilities, given their importance in Internet commerce, and he said their refusal to allow their cardholders to support WikiLeaks amounted to a restriction on the right of free association — something he said had a long and honored history in the United States.
He also argued that newspapers that had published stories based on the WikiLeaks documents could face similar retaliation.
“If publishing the truth about war is enough to warrant such aggressive action by Washington insiders, all newspapers that have published WikiLeaks’ materials are on the verge of having their readers and advertisers blocked from paying for their subscriptions,” the website said in its news release.
That assertion touched on one of the central questions of the WikiLeaks drama, whether the organization is a journalistic one, doing nothing more than what newspapers such as The New York Times or The Washington Post have done for decades, or whether it is something else. Traditional journalists in the United States have been split on the issue. While many have criticized Obama administration investigations into whether WikiLeaks or Assange can be charged with a crime as an affront to First Amendment freedom of the press, there has been less commentary about the canceling its accounts for receiving credit card donations over the Internet.
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There was no such debate in February 2008, when 12 journalism organizations, including the Associated Press and Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, filed a brief on behalf of WikiLeaks and its domain register, Dynadot, in a case brought by a Swiss bank, Bank Julius Baer.
The bank filed the suit after WikiLeaks published hundreds of private documents on a land deal that suggested money laundering and tax evasion. It asked a U.S. district judge in California to enjoin WikiLeaks from publishing the documents and order Dynadot to stop hosting its website.
The judge agreed, but quickly reversed his order after the U.S. journalism organizations weighed in, calling the decision an affront to the First Amendment and WikiLeaks’ right to publish.
The immediate practical impact of WikiLeaks’ announcement Monday was unclear. The last of the State Department cables were made public Sept. 2 and WikiLeaks’ spokesman, Kristinn Hrafnsson, told McClatchy Newspapers last week that the website had not been able to accept new submissions for much of the past year. Statements from WikiLeaks over the summer indicated that much of its unpublished material had been destroyed by disgruntled volunteers.
Hrafnsson blamed “sabotage” from those disgruntled former volunteers, whom he did not name, for the website’s inability to accept submissions, but said the lack of resources had made it impossible to restore WikiLeaks’ submission software. On Monday, however, Assange said the website would unveil a new submission system on Nov. 28 — the anniversary of the beginning of the publication of the State Department cables.
WikiLeaks’ site remained available on the Internet Monday. When WikiLeaks last ran out of money, its website was taken down for more than five months.
In announcing the suspension, WikiLeaks called on its supporters to volunteer to accept donations on WikiLeaks’ behalf. It also publicized the two European bank accounts that accept donations on WikiLeaks’ behalf.
2011 the McClatchy Washington Bureau
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