Comment: Fifa and Wikileaks reveal the limits of press freedom

From Switzerland to Washington, the leaders of the world are lashing out as technology threatens their rule.

Ian Dunt

If you're of my generation, you were told a happy story about history. The fall of the Berlin wall promoted a narrative about the perpetual improvement of Western societies. We would be more secure, but also richer and freer.

That all turned out to be false. Instead of one international threat, there were now thousands. Our economies exhibited the same boom and bust tendency they always did. Since September 11th - but even before then - Britain, America and Australia imposed draconian curtailments of civil liberties under the guise of national security and counter-terrorism.


But the internet represented something different, something profoundly anarchic and impossible to regulate, something too complex and versatile to be smothered. It seemed like a categorical proof of the assumptions of the era. This week, we saw a massive spasm against its power, with the reaction against Wikileaks' publication of confidential US documents and Fifa's attempt to humiliate England after the press exposed its corruption.

The attack on Wikileaks was extraordinary, perhaps even unprecedented. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton said its decision to publish was "an attack on the world". Sarah Palin, famously a bastion of wisdom, branded Wikileaks founder Julian Assange an "anti-American operative with blood on his hands". The condemnation was international, and not just from politicians. Media commentators got in on the act too.

Then the rape charges, often talked about, suddenly appeared in newspapers again. Sweden's Supreme Court refused to consider his appeal against the arrest warrant. Interpol put him on its 'red notice' wanted list. The UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency flagged it and police moved to arrest him. I have no idea what the veracity of the claims is. I know just the bare minimum about the details. But the timing, it hardly needs saying, is extraordinary.

All the while, in the background, came the cyber threats- a significant new front in the US's battle with the Australian maverick. On Friday morning, it finally appeared to pay off, after Wikileaks went offline and then moved to a Swedish domain name, after its domain name provider finally pulled the plug. It would have been able to rely on Amazon's servers, but it was pulled from there on Wednesday, days after Senate chairman Joe Lieberman called for any organisation helping Wikileaks to "immediately terminate" the relationship.

That demand prompted data visualisation company Tableau Software to pull an image featuring a Wikileaks diplomatic cable. "Our decision to remove the data from our servers came in response to a public request by senator Joe Lieberman," the company said on its blog. Amazon insisted its decision had nothing to do with Lieberman, and was instead because of breaches to its terms of service concerning content ownership. Again, it's funny timing. Amazon made no complaints when previous leaks were published.

Meanwhile, some other powerful men were taking their own stand against press freedom in Zürich, Switzerland, where the headquarters of the world football authority Fifa is based. The world watched to see where the 2018 and 2022 World Cups would be held. England's bid, considered the most technically and economically sound, and which would use pre-existing stadiums, had one fatal flaw: the country also has a free press.

A Sunday Times and BBC expose on Fifa corruption had scuppered the England bid. Media reports suggested Fifa president Sepp Blatter raised the issue of the media allegations at an executive committee meeting on Wednesday, just as Amazon was shutting out Wikileaks. He allegedly handed out cuttings of the negative coverage. Jack Warner, the subject of many of the reports, went against his professed desire to vote for England and backed another bid, taking his voting block with him. The two winning bids - from Russia and Qatar - suffered the greatest allegations of corruption, won the lowest scores in Fifa's technical assessment and enjoyed the largest budgets.

"These countries blame people of corruption, they blame people without any grounds or evidence, it can be seen as putting pressure on Fifa members, and then they put it in their mass media all over the world," Russian president Vladimir Putin said. He should know. This week Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, who was beaten senseless last month by unknown assailants, finally spoke out about his ordeal. It is widely believed that the attack was a result of his investigative work on pro-Kremlin youth groups and plans to run a highway through the Khimki oak forest. The International Press Institute, Reporters without Borders, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have all criticised Russian press regulations, which push news outlets into self-censorship. According to the Wikileaks cables, Russia is a Mafia state - a fairly colourful way of putting what anyone who knows Russia will corroborate: its corruption runs all the way through it - and all the way up to the top.

Qatar, despite being home to the occasionally excellent Al-Jazeera, is not a hotbed of press freedom either. According to the annual World Press Freedom Review, compiled by the International Press Institute, there are few outright threats to journalists. "This is, however, less of a reflection of an open press freedom environment and more the result of widespread self-censorship practiced by journalists who rarely dare to publish criticism of the ruling family or domestic affairs in the mainstream media," it reads. The five leading newspapers are privately owned, but their boards include royal family members and "other notables" who exert considerable influence over content.

These are the kinds of threats, the kind of rooted interests, that strive to disprove that story I grew up with, the one about improvement and the power of technology to liberate. The White House, Fifa and Moscow all feel the icy fear of loss of control - and they're lashing out. This week has seen that battle at its most dramatic.

The way you respond to it defines you as a political animal. The majority of the coverage about Wikileaks and the Fifa result has been profoundly depressing. I've documented the media's response to Wikileaks already, and the response to the World Cup decision is just as abject and pitiful. "My only issue, as you know, with the Sunday Times and the BBC, and more the BBC, was the timing of it," England bid chief executive Andy Anson said, pitifully. "In the last week... Fifa executive committee members were saying to us that our media is killing us." During the bid he had branded the coverage "unpatriotic" - the traditional attack used by those trying to stifle free speech. Former England captain Gary Lineker, who actually works for the BBC, said he was "unsettled" by the timing of the programme as well. Depressingly, this view isn't just one held by professionals. The public seem to have some sympathy as well. The BBC received 5,000 emails in the first hour after the news of the failed bid.

That's one way of reacting. To say, 'if you can't beat them, join them'. To lambast the people who try and bring truth, and accept the rules of the game. But there is another response to the stifling efforts of those who hate a free press, and that is to redouble your efforts.

If this week showed us the variety of enemies fighting press freedom, it also showed us that there is variety among those fighting for press freedom. Whatever happens to Assange now, he has demonstrated the methods required to hold power to account. Similar sites already exist in Asia and Africa. The use of secret back-up servers will be copied to defend against distributed denial of service attacks. The domain problem will have a solution, even if it's just a company which will not back down in the face of scary threats from powerful men. International hosting, combined with mirror sites, will deal with most other legal troubles.

That technical ability, combined with a professional journalistic integrity, will win the day. Back in the UK, it was that old, unfussy desire to cause trouble that prompted the Times and the BBC to again look into Fifa. The British press, despite its many flaws and its despairingly conservative mindset, still has the dignity to expose corruption even when it knows it will be castigated, not least by its own weak-willed political leaders.

There is a disconnect in the West between what we've been told about our society and the reality. When a company pulls an image because a senate chairman told them to, when a media commentator attacks a whistle-blowing website because he has become part of the establishment, when an official condemns a media report because it irritated his hosts - that's when we see the gap between the childhood story and the reality. But the spasm of control leaders tried to exert this week is not proof of their strength, it's proof of their fear.

The World Cup and Wikileaks rows are two sides of the same coin. As authorities note how the internet saps their power, the backlash will become more severe. We're entering a pivotal moment in the history of information freedom and transparency. Its resolution will affect the stories we tell the next generation about their society.

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