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"We open governments," states the Twitter bio of WikiLeaks, a whistle-blowing website that broke the story of a U.S. helicopter attack in Iraq three years ago. Over a dozen people were killed, including two Reuters journalists, and despite Reuters' best efforts to obtain the military's video of the video using the FOI act, it remained a mystery. Until WikiLeaks posted the video on a website this week.
WikiLeaks was set up three years ago as a site for leaking sensitive information—and its staff are unpaid. Its mere existence has got the world's security agencies rattled. Last year, the German domain owner of WikiLeaks's hosting service, PRQ, had his house raided after an Australian censorship blacklist was released on the site. The Ministry of Defence in the U.K. is also keeping tabs on WikiLeaks, and last week the site claimed that the U.S. government is spying on the organization and its staff.
Its spokesman, Julian Assange, is a peripatetic Aussie who currently lives in East Africa. A former hacker, he is understandably cagey about a lot of matters—not least his age. "I prefer to keep the bastards guessing," he says. He appeared on The Alyona Show on RT to talk about the black-and-white footage of the attack, which it obtained through a military whistleblower. "This video is going to result not simply in the prosecution of those pilots or their immediate commanders, but some higher reform," he told the show's host.
Here's FC's guide to the site and how it survives—legally, financially. When you're done reading this story, either burn it or eat it. It's safer that way.
Stay mysterious: WikiLeaks' host, PRQ, provides "highly secure, no-questions-asked hosting services," as used by torrent site The Pirate Bay, in Sweden. The site has no official headquarters.
Be cagey about your founders: "Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians, and start-up company technologists from the U.S., Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa" are the people behind the launch.
Know your enemy: Anyone in power, basically. Although its aim is to expose oppressive regimes in "Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa," at the moment it is western Governments who are feeling the heat most of all.
Keep your staff count low: There are just five full-time people on the site, although another 800 do occasional work.
Rely on donations from benefactors: A lot of the legal work is done for free by members of the legal profession who support the site's belief. What expenses there are—bureaucracy, and servers—are paid for by donations. A few mainstream journalism outlets have provided moral support, if not donations. "If you want to read the exposés of the future, it’s time to chip in," the U.K.'s Guardian wrote in January.
Find a way to get through the Great Firewall of China: Although the Chinese authorities have banned any URL that contains the word "wikileaks," the site has alternative names that are accessible on the Chinese mainland.
Journalism is everything: "We believe in releasing full source documents to the world together with analysis to put them in context," Assange said this week. "Full source material is what helps keep journalism honest. It's independently checkable in the way that a scientific paper is checkable." He explained to the New York Times: "That’s arguably what spy agencies do — high-tech investigative journalism... It’s time that the media upgraded its capabilities along those lines."
Have friends in high places: After the site was shut down by a Swiss bank in February 2008, a coalition of U.S. media that included the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Gannett, Hearst, the L.A. Times and Associated Press clubbed together to file an amicus curiae brief, forcing the original judge who had granted the injunction for the shutdown to vacate it, citing the First Amendment. The Economist and Amnesty International have both seen fit to give WikiLeaks awards.
If you want to see what the media furor is all about, we have embedded the video below, but it contains graphic scenes that are extremely distressing. Frankly, it's the kind of stuff you should see—but that you also can't un-watch.
[Image via New Media Days on Flickr]