WikiLeaks vs. Sweden

WikiLeaks vs. Sweden

by Christian Christensen

(Note that this essay was originally written for print publication, and thus there are no links.)

It was a match made in heaven: the radical whistleblowing site with hundreds of thousands of documents – many containing evidence of possible war crimes committed by the US military – and the tech-savvy, social-democratic country with some of the oldest freedom of information laws in the world. The relationship forged between the WikiLeaks organization and Sweden appeared to be one of mutual respect, with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s admiration for Swedish democratic principles and whistleblower protection, and Sweden’s support for greater global political transparency. The relationship would begin to disintegrate, however, following the much-reported allegations made against Assange by two women in August of 2010.

The nadir came on February 22, 2012, when WikiLeaks announced that it has obtained documents showing that the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, starting as far back as back in 1973, had acted as a US informant. In the story, broken by the Swedish tabloid newspaper Expressen, an unnamed source who reportedly had seen the documents was quoted as saying that Bildt would have to resign once the they became public, and that his political career would be over. The story received generous media attention in Sweden, but this was not the first time that the allegations regarding Bildt had been made public. In a January 2012 interview in Rolling Stone, Julian Assange himself was quoted as saying that Bildt, “became a U.S. Embassy informant in 1973” when, during an early visit to Washington to attend “a conservative leadership program,” the Foreign Minster first made contact with Karl Rove. The Rove relationship, it turned out, would be an unexpected thread running through the WikiLeaks-Sweden case.

In recent months, WikiLeaks (primarily via Twitter) has presented a steady stream of articles, blog postings and opinion pieces indicating the close relationship between Karl Rove and  the current conservative coalition government in Sweden. Rove had been invited to Sweden as a consultant prior to the 2010 elections (a fact covered by the tabloid press), but Twitter messages from WikiLeaks (and WikiLeaks supports) raised the question of whether or not the Rove-Sweden relationship had influenced the accusations against Assange, as well as if Rove could sway any future decision regarding an Assange extradition from Sweden to the United States.

Bildt claimed that his friendship with Rove was hardly news, and that the allegations against him were without merit and part of a “smear campaign.” Expressen, in turn, reported that they had obtained internal WikiLeaks documents showing that the organization had a coordinated information campaign in place regarding Swedish interests should Assange be sent from the United Kingdom to Sweden for questioning. The unnamed Expressen source noted that Assange’s advisers were convinced that a deal between Sweden and the United States had already been struck and that, once in Sweden, would then be extradited to the US. The material held by WikiLeaks, in this case, would be used as leverage to stop this from happening.

The story was good news fodder, with the substantial caveat that none of the information discussed in either the Expressen article or Assange interview had been verified (the leaked documents on Bildt or the internal WikiLeaks memos), nor had the anonymous source who had analysed the WikiLeaks material for Expressen been identified. However, the suggestion on the part of the WikiLeaks organization that it had damaging information regarding Bildt was not the first, but the latest in a line of attacks made against not only the current Swedish administration, but against broader socio-political structures within Sweden.

As a researcher, the increasingly antagonistic WikiLeaks-Sweden relationship is interesting for a variety of reasons. Naturally, one could examine the many legal and political ramifications of the case against Julian Assange, of a possible extradition to Sweden, or of his eventually standing trial in the United States. The same type of analysis could be done in relation to the sensational allegations made against Bildt by WikiLeaks itself. However, the events of the past 18 months have raised a series of more far-reaching questions regarding technology, citizenship, the media and the role of WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks-related organizations.

In two earlier articles for Le Monde Diplomatique I argued that the WikiLeaks phenomenon had forced us to rethink a number of core democratic relationships: the one between citizens and the state (impacted by WikiLeaks providing access to sensitive intelligence previously hidden from view); the one between citizens and the media (impacted by WikiLeaks exposure of the shortcomings of an uncritical commercial media system); and, the one between media and governments (impacted by WikiLeaks challenging the mantle of “watchdog” proudly trumpeted by major mainstream news outlets). This is not to say that these relationships altered dramatically post-WikiLeaks, but rather that WikiLeaks, through a unflinching determination to challenge global hegemonies (particularly the one held by the United States), threw down the gauntlet in front of those in power. This was, in many ways, a first step.

However, in a recent article the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times, Bill Keller, argued that, contrary to popular opinion, WikiLeaks had not contributed to the expansion of digital transparency, but rather to an increase in the volume of surveillance and security exercised by the United States government. In other words: that WikiLeaks had not actually changed any relationships, but rather simply reinforced ones that already existed. An alternative reading of the impact of WikiLeaks from the one that Keller presents, however, is that increased surveillance and security is not evidence of the solidification of old relationships, but rather a by-product of changing relationships, or at least the fear of changing relationships. Why would the US increase both surveillance and security, one could ask, if it did not feel that WikiLeaks was in some way a legitimate threat to their power?

Where does the Swedish case fit into this? Following the allegations made against Assange, and the rapid deterioration of the relationship between WikiLeaks and their former partners in the mainstream media (such as the New York, Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel), the organization has taken what appears to be a far more aggressive role. Rather than discussing relationships between media and governments, and citizens and governments, it is now necessary to address the direct relationship between WikiLeaks and these groups.  In particular, WikiLeaks has made use of Twitter (the organization has over one million followers) as a platform for the spread of information and opinion regarding a wide variety of issues. Via the use of this technology, WikiLeaks has expanded its brand beyond the collection and dissemination of leaked documents, to what appears to be a more direct advocacy-oriented strategy, with the organization mounting a campaign against perceived bias with the Swedish justice system in general, and those involved in the Assange case in particular.

The WikiLeaks twitter feed has challenged a wide variety of elements within Swedish society, including the Swedish legal system, prisons, policing, government and, somewhat surprisingly, Swedish feminism. In response to the Assange case, the Twitter “hashtag” #prataomdet (“#talkaboutit”) was created by Finnish writer/critic Johanna Koljonen, intended as a space where women could discuss the “grey zones” surrounding sexual assault  (one of the issues raised in the accusations leveled against Assange). The hashtag proved to be enormously popular, so much so that in 2011 Koljonen was awarded a major journalism prize for her creation of the campaign.

The response from WikiLeaks (and WikiLeaks supporters, often “re-tweeted” by the official WikiLeaks feed) via Twitter was to question the neutrality of Koljonen, suggesting that she was a friend of one of the accusers, and that the campaign was nothing more than an attempt to shape public opinion against Assange. Similarly, a vitriolic article published in the Guardian by the Swedish journalist Karin Olsson (“Julian Assange: From Hero to Zero”) in which the WikiLeaks founder was portrayed as little more than a hollow figure who had long-since disappeared in “antisemetic and antifeminist slime” was met with suspicion by WikiLeaks and its supporters, who noted that Olsson wrote for Expressen, a newspaper owned by Sweden’s largest media company, Bonnier: the same company that sponsored the journalism prize given to Koljonen.

Lost in this battle, however, are the leaks themselves: the WikiLeaks raison d’être. As Bosse Lindquist, a Swedish documentary filmmaker who made what was widely considered to be the definitive film about WikiLeaks and Assange, noted in a recent interview on Swedish Television (SVT), WikiLeaks continues to release documents pertaining to a wide variety of countries, not just Sweden. Lindquist reasoned that it was therefore impossible to conclude that WikiLeaks is running a planned campaign against Sweden in particular. Yet this analysis still sees WikiLeaks as what it was a couple of years ago: an organization dedicated solely to the dissemination of classified material obtained by courageous whistleblowers. What is clear from the Swedish case is that WikiLeaks has become something more than this: it has become an organization that is willing to confront not only governments, but also media outlets and even individuals via a variety of digital tools, not simply via leaked documents. What remains to be seen is if this new version of WikiLeaks, with new relationships and multiple modes of publicity, can maintain the momentum it built using a far more focused agenda.

About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

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