COM 03/2016

Beyond the Panama Papers: Leaks Activism and the Struggle for Information Control

Dr. Arne Hintz, Senior Lecturer, Director MA Digital Media and Society, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University


The Panama Papers have brought the powerful role of whistleblowers back into the public conscious- ness. Several years after WikiLeaks’ Cablegate and the Snowden revelations, the next big leak has not only caused the downfall of Iceland’s prime minister (and troubles to other political elites), but has demonstrated that the practice of exposing hidden information is very much alive. The struggle over controlling this kind of information is one of the great conflicts of our times.

WikiLeaks’ publication in 2010 of the Iraq and Afghanistan war diaries and of US diplomatic cables set the stage for recent leaks journalism, and Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about mass surveillance programmes by US and British intelligence services confirmed the important role of the whistleblower in contemporary public debate. In public perception these may appear as rare and singular events. However leaks have become an ongoing phenomenon and, increasingly, a source of much information that was previously hidden.

To start with, WikiLeaks has continued to expose interesting information, including files on Guantanamo Bay operations, secret drafts of the controversial TPP trade negotiations, and more recently a re- cording of an IMF meeting that provides significant insights into current conflicts between the IMF, the EU and the Greek government in their handling of the eurozone crisis. Traditional media organisations have developed processes to deal with anonymous data leaks, too. The New York Times, The Guardian and Al-Jazeera now use secure digital dropboxes for depositing files anonymously. Major publishers have established collaborations to share resources and expertise in order to analyse and make sense of huge amounts of data quickly and maximise international exposure. While WikiLeaks has been moved out of the public spotlight, we have seen the WikiLeaks-ization of mainstream journalism.

Beyond the major news organisations, a culture of “leaks activism” has emerged. Hacktivist groups such as Globaleaks have developed technology for secure and anonymous leaking. Local or thematically-oriented initiatives provide new opportunities for whistleblowers to expose secret information. Citizen Leaks in Spain, for example, acts as an intermediary that accepts leaks, reviews them, and sends them on to partner newspapers. Run by Xnet, an anti-corruption group, Citizen Leaks has helped uncover major cases of corruption in Spain that brought to court leading Spanish politicians such as former minister of the economy and chairman of Spain’s largest bank, Rodrigo Rato.

Crucially, Xnet does not limit its activities to ex- posing malpractice but engages in its prosecution. The group has supported court cases against Rato and others, and regards this as an integral part of its leak activism. It is convinced that the mere exposure of corruption leads to disillusionment and defeatism rather than empowerment as it simply demonstrates the power of elites. Only by acting on the knowledge exposed in leaks to generate social, political or economic change does the emancipatory potential of leak activism unfold. This view puts the wide- spread celebration of the Panama Papers in perspective. Will the Panama Papers kill journalism? asked Greek journalist Costas Efimeros shortly after media coverage of the leaks started. As journalism has to affect society to be relevant, he concludes that the success of the leaks has to be assessed according to its impact on regulatory frameworks, conviction of those responsible, and new rules, rather a short-lived scandal.

To that end, groups like WikiLeaks have demanded the full disclosure of all the data from the Panama Papers whereas the media organisations involved in the publication of the leaks have been highly selective in what they exposed. This has highlighted ongoing controversies over the gatekeeping role of traditional media. While journalists maintain that filtering and processing of the news is essential for responsible news coverage, activists and critics have pointed to the biases inherent in such selection. And indeed, curious choices were made in the publication of the Panama Papers. The coverage started with a focus on Vladimir Putin, even though he was not mentioned in the leaked documents, and thus seemed to respond primarily to geopolitical agendas. Despite the enormous quantity of 11.5 million files of this, supposedly, ‘biggest leak of all times’, media coverage subsided quickly and moved on to other topics.

So the ways leaks are treated differ a lot across the media sphere. This makes it even more significant that a wide range of organisations are now involved with processing and exposing leaks – from the New York Times to WikiLeaks to Citizen Leaks. As intermediaries rather than publishers, many of them re- main invisible to the public, but their role is crucial to expose corruption and other wrongdoings, and they are an important feature of the changing media landscape. Following the WikiLeaks revelations in 2010-11, US scholar Yochai Benkler conceptualized this emerging news environment as a “networked fourth estate”, in which classic news organisations interact with citizen journalists, alternative and com- munity media, online news platforms, and new organisations such as WikiLeaks and Citizen Leaks. In Snowden’s case, he (the whistleblower) worked with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, independent journalist and former lawyer Glenn Greenwald, and The Guardian, a traditional media organisation. Yet as organisations become more vulnerable to leaks in the age of digitized data, those organi- zations put increasing effort in data control. The Insider Threat Program adopted for US public ad- ministrative agencies requires employees to report to their superiors any “suspicious” behaviour by colleagues. Under the Obama administration more whistleblowers have been prosecuted than under all previous Presidents combined. Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and Snowden lives in exile in Russia. So as leaks become more common, the response by states and corporations has become harsher.

Whistleblowers and leaks activists thus occupy a key position in contemporary information society where political and economic power rests, not least, on the strategic use of communication and the control of information. They possess tools to affect world politics but they are also exposed to serious repercussions. They demonstrate the struggle over the control of information at this present historical juncture.