When, in late 2010, Wikileaks started releasing a trove of US diplomatic cables, lawmakers were dumbfounded. The whistleblowing organisation had previously raised ire within the US government for its release of its " Collateral Murder " video, but until the leak of the classified cables, requital seemed uncertain. Then, unable to take legal action against the site because of First Amendment protections, panicky legislators did the one thing they could: Pressure intermediaries to deny service to Wikileaks.
The strategy was immediately effective. After public calls from Senator Joseph Lieberman, web giant Amazon.com was first to follow, dropping Wikileaks from its servers and creating a domino effect. Recently released evidence shows that both Lieberman and House Representative Peter King privately called Mastercard to demand the same thing. Within a day, more than five companies - including PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard - had all denied service to Wikileaks. Within weeks, that list included several more, including Bank of America and Swiss postal bank.
"Despite committing no crime, and publishing the same information the New York Times and other newspapers were publishing," says Trevor Timm, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and executive director of the new Freedom of the Press Foundation , "WikiLeaks was strangled by financial censorship."
In nearly every case, the company publicly claimed that providing services to Wikileaks was against policy. Bank of America, for example, issued a mealy-mouthed statement claiming that Wikileaks was "engaged in activities that are, among other things, inconsistent with our internal policies for processing payments". But as journalist James Ball has pointed out , few payment processing companies are particularly strict when it comes to who they will process transactions for: A quick review of sites belonging to extremist groups - including the Ku Klux Klan, the English Defence League, and Stormfront - shows that none face the type of financial blockade imposed on Wikileaks.
Strangled by politics
So far, efforts to circumvent the blockade have faced challenges. The Wau Holland Foundation, a German organisation established in 2003, found itself cut off from PayPal and its charitable status revoked after raising more than a million dollars for the whistleblower site. Though Wikileaks' website offers a few methods of sending donations, none are as accessible as the online payment systems to which most people have become accustomed. As such, and coupled with fears from potential donors that a donation to Wikileaks will put them at risk, the site has suffered financially.
Enter the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Headed by a combination of independent media enthusiasts, journalists, and free speech activists (and in most cases, probably all of the above), the new organisation launched this past week, taking in over $100,000 before the end of its first week. While the financial blockade placed on Wikileaks initially inspired the organisation, its goals are much broader: The Foundation plans to leverage crowd power to fund a variety of journalism organisations focused on transparency. Selection will focus on organisations that do innovative work but may not receive enough public attention.
Visitors to the site choose the amount they wish to donate, and are presented with sliding bars that can be toggled to decide how much money goes to each of four organisations. In addition to Wikileaks, donors can give to MuckRock News, an organisation that helps citizens easily file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in the United States; The Uptake, a local journalism site focused on government transparency looking to go national; and The National Security Archive, an organisation with the lofty goal of expanding citizen access to government information.
Timm says that they plan to expand to include "a variety of innovative transparency and journalism organisations that tackle the problem of secrecy from different angles", both in the United States and internationally.
"Because we're going to be switching out the groups we support every two months, we want to have 'bundles' with different themes, showing the diversity and many aspects of journalism. We're planning on doing an international bundle in the near future that will highlight the work of the many deserving organisations trying to bring transparency to governments around the world, often in the face of extreme adversity."
Journalism under duress
Timm is right to point out the extreme conditions faced by journalists around the world. A recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) shows that the number of journalists killed in the line of duty "rose sharply" in 2012, with "internet journalists [hit] harder than ever." A staggering 67 journalists have been killed in action so far in 2012, the highest number since CPJ began tracking deaths in 1992. While a large number of those deaths occurred in conflict in Syria, many of those that occurred elsewhere were retaliatory acts.
The murder of Brazilian journalist Décio Sá serves as a chilling reminder of the risks journalists face even in democratic countries. Sá, who covered stories of political corruption for O Estado do Maranhão and on his personal blog, was shot six times in a bar after months of receiving threats.
Josh Stearns, a staffer at Free Press who also serves on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, points out that the rates of murder and imprisonment of journalists are "rising faster than any other sector around the world". Stearns believes that the Foundation will be vital in helping to "fund and support those uncompromising voices who are putting themselves in harms way to shine a light on government abuse and wrongdoing everywhere".
The potential impact is huge: Not only do journalists the world over face threats to their safety; many face significant financial challenges as well. In countries where "journalist" is defined by who can acquire a state-issued license, those dedicated to unearthing and publishing the truth are often left to do so on their own time, and on blogs and websites that are subject to censorship and cyberattacks.
While a crop of "crowdfunding" sites have certainly helped such journalists support their livelihood, even those can be restrictive. The most popular of those sites, Kickstarter , is limited to individuals in the US and the UK, for example. Indiegogo , another popular site, is global and has far fewer restrictions on the types of projects that it will host. Cairo-based independent media collective Mosireen recently had success raising funds on the site , reaching their goal of $40,000 within about a month thanks to an accompanying social media campaign. The group, which doesn't accept foundation or government funding, also capped donations at $1,000 as part of their effort to remain independent.
Timm recognises these fundraising challenges: "There are a lot of organisations out there - both in the US and international - doing great work, and they just need to some exposure to survive. We want to be the tide that rises all boats."
Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork