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Group Launches to Encourage Transparency & Aggressive Journalism, Help WikiLeaks Survive Blockade

(update 1 & 2 below)

A foundation dedicated to promoting and funding aggressive journalism and media organizations that push for transparency and accountability in government is launching on Monday.

Called the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), it hopes to help organizations like WikiLeaks combat censorship and even prevent the watering down of coverage because of corporate or government pressures.

The organization is co-founded by Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead who co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Rainey Reitman, a founder and steering committee member for the Bradley Manning Support Network, and Trevor Timm, who is a writer and activist for EFF.

Also on the Board of Directors is writer Glenn Greenwald, actor John Cusack, Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director at Free Press, Josh Stearns, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, and Xeni Jardin, founding partner and co-editor of Boing Boing.

Reitman shared how the idea had come from something that had been discussed for months. There was a “real sense that the blockade on WikiLeaks was censorship of not just of WikiLeaks but actually of the people who wanted to express their opinions by making donations.” It was a suppression of “their rights to free speech,” as well.

FPF decided to do something that would empower people to do something that could keep WikiLeaks operational while also inspiring a new generation of WikiLeaks-like organizations that would be resistant to government and corporate pressures.

The way FPF intends to encourage and help foster aggressive and independent journalism is by “bundling” organizations that people can support through donations. A person can split their donation however they want among the four organizations. A new set of organizations (or sometimes individuals) will be chosen every two months.

For the first months of operation, FPF intends to urge people to donate to WikiLeaks, MuckRock, an organization that makes it easy for individuals and organizations to submit FOIA requests, the National Security Archive, an investigative journalism center that maintains a library of declassified government documents, and The Uptake, a media group that encourages democracy and transparency.

The criteria for choosing, according to FPF, will be based upon a “record of engaging in transparency journalism or supporting it in a material way,” including supporting whistleblowers; whether the organization has a “public interest agenda”; whether the organization or individual is under attack for “engaging in transparency journalism”; or whether the organization or individual needs support because of obstacles they are experiencing, which are preventing them from gaining support on their own.

Timm said FPF wants to be a “Red Cross for journalism.” If someone’s in trouble, we want to be able to come save them.

While the members of the Board of Directors are dedicated to keeping WikiLeaks alive and functioning, FPF is not being started to solely support WikiLeaks. In fact, FPF is being launched because those involved recognize the need for more organizations like WikiLeaks to be functioning in the world.

“We want to encourage other developers to start working on WikiLeaks-like submission systems,” Timm declared.

Classification and secrecy is at an all-time high. Whistleblowers need to be protected. The right to publish has come under attack and needs to be preserved. As Timm stated, the foundation hopes to demonstrate “journalism and publishing information, whether public information, is American as apple pie.”

Stearns explained he got involved in this project because he sees it being focused on how “support structures” can be built for independent and nonprofit journalism.

It aims to focus on “supporting the way news happens right now.” Sometimes supporting independent journalism or critical transparency journalism will mean supporting more than just “straight up journalism organizations.” Sometimes it will require encouraging the funding of organizations committed to legal defense, analyzing government data, promoting transparency in government or supporting whistleblowers.

“There is a range of threats facing journalism in the digital age whether it be threats to sources or whistleblowers, threats to journalists on the frontlines of protests or threats from the IRS trying to block journalist organizations from getting their nonprofit status and making them wait a year or two years,” explained Stearns.

Not being able to get nonprofit status is a “kind of financial blockade” in and of itself. It means being blocked from applying for grants and not being able to accept tax-deductible donations. (For more wisdom from Stearns, go here for his post on problems FPF can address.)

The foundation overwhelmingly recognizes that “transparency journalism—from the publishing of the Pentagon Papers and exposing Watergate, to uncovering the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program and CIA secret prisons” takes investment in organizations or groups that will focus their attention and doggedly report on these key stories. It also understands that national security journalism is threatened in many ways and there needs to be a group that steps up to push back against this climate of fear in Washington that is chilling potential sources from speaking out because they are afraid of prosecution or retaliation or, in the case of journalists, worried access to power will be lost.

The success of FPF will be determined by how they are able to foster and grow an array of organizations that promote transparency and aggressive journalism. It will depend on the proliferation of other organizations like WikiLeaks—or like the National Security Archive, Muck Rock or The Uptake.

The world has seen what has happened to WikiLeaks as it has been targeted by the United States government, as its editor-in-chief Julian Assange and staff have come under a wide investigation by the Justice Department, as has been unable to accept donations because payment providers will not process the donations, as it has faced the obstacle of rebuilding trust in the organization so potential sources will submit information for publishing and as it has struggled to rebuild a submissions system that can guarantee those who submit information protection. An organization like WikiLeaks cannot experience this and expect to be sustainable, but if there are more organizations out there trying to do what WikiLeaks tries to do, it may make the kind of transparency and aggressive journalism WikiLeaks promotes harder for the US government to suppress.


An additional note: Reitman mentioned FPF intends to “protect the privacy of the people who are donating” by not keeping any records that show what individuals donated to WikiLeaks in the past.

“There are limits to what we can do because when you make a payment, your payment provider is going to have record,” she said. In FPF’s privacy policy, they outline how they intend to “limit how much data” is collected on a person. When a person makes a donation, they will note the donation was made and add it to their records of how much money is going to WikiLeaks, but the records will obscure who donated so if someone from the government comes asking for any reason they will not have that information to give out. This should give individuals wanting to donate to WikiLeaks some privacy and security in knowing that they are unlikely to become a target for supporting WikiLeaks. (And this will be the protocol for donations to all organizations FPF encourages people to help fund.)


WikiLeaks’ statement on the launch of the Freedom of the Press Foundation:

…Over the last two years the blockade has stopped 95 per cent of contributions to WikiLeaks, running primary cash reserves down from more than a million dollars in 2010 to under a thousand dollars, as of December 2012. Only an aggressive attack against the blockade will permit WikiLeaks to continue publishing through 2013.

The new initiative, combined with a recent victory in Germany, means contributions to WikiLeaks now have tax-deductible status throughout the United States and Europe.

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ publisher, said: “We’ve fought this immoral blockade for two long years. We smashed it in the courts. We smashed it in the Treasury. We smashed it in France. We smashed it in Germany. And now, with strong and generous friends who still believe in First Amendment rights, we’re going to smash it in the United States as well.”…

…John Perry Barlow, a board member of the new Foundation, says the initiative aims to achieve more than just crowd-sourced fundraising: “We hope it makes a moral argument against these sorts of actions. But it could also be the basis of a legal challenge. We now have private organizations with the ability to stifle free expression. These companies have no bill of rights that applies to their action – they only have terms of service.”

The WikiLeaks banking blockade showed how devastating such extra-judicial measures can be for not-for-profit investigative journalism and free press organizations. Initiatives such as the Freedom of the Press Foundation are vital to sustain a truly independent free press…

Update 2 

I am seeing chatter in the comments thread of this post about what FPF might do with money donated. What will be the foundation’s expenses?

On a press conference call at 2 pm ET, the co-founders were completely transparent and disclosed details to the media. They intend to operate on a shoestring budget. Both Rainey Reitman and Trevor Timm are taking no salary. They paid Micah Lee, the Chief Technology Officer, to put together the website. Reitman said the foundation spent a few hundred dollars to get the website registered and developed and to properly secure it for donations. They spent money on the mailing list and the payment processor (Stripe). The foundation will pay Lee $10,000 over the next four or five months (that’s money they raised before the launch of the project).

John Perry Barlow said the foundation is taking advantage of an umbrella organization, Foundation for National Progress, so it doesn’t have to go to trouble of gaining 501(c)3 status. They will be a small part of the administrative costs of operating.

As of 2 pm EST, over $32,000 had been donated to FPF. Just over two and a half thousand of that automatically went toward operating costs. Most of the money was directed by people donating to go to WikiLeaks while about a third was directed to National Security Archive, MuckRock and The Uptake.

Daniel Ellsberg made clear none of this money is going to pay for Julian Assange’s legal fees.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."