Home Government Tech Policy Split between WikiLeaks and former staunch supporter

Split between WikiLeaks and former staunch supporter

Split between WikiLeaks and former staunch supporter Featured

A split has arisen between WikiLeaks and one of its prominent supporters, with four lawyers of the whistle-blower organisation accusing filmmaker Laura Poitras of jeopardising its interests through her recently released film, Risk.

Poitras had access to WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange right from 2011, shortly before he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after the British government sought to extradite him to Sweden to face an investigation into alleged rape charges. She has made a number of other well-known films, like the Oscar-winning Citizenfour (about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden).

Assange has repeatedly said that he has accepted asylum in the embassy because he fears that if he goes to Sweden to answer the charges, he will then be extradited to the US which is looking to prosecute him for leaking files about the Iraq War online.

The accusations against Poitras, published in Newsweek, have been made by Margaret Ratner Kunstler, Deborah Hrbek, Renata Avila and Melinda Taylor, all lawyers for WikiLeaks, who say they have spoken out because the version of Risk released in the US on 5 May could land Assange and other WikiLeaks personnel in legal problems.

Firstly, the four lawyers accused Poitras of editing the film in New York where the footage could have been seized by American authorities, noting that this contravened agreements to edit it only in Berlin where she resides.

They added that this had taken place at a time when the US administration was displaying an increased degree of hostility towards Assange, with the CIA director Michael Pompeo claiming in April that Assange has no First Amendment rights in the US.

Julian Assange.

Secondly, the lawyers say Poitras has violated an "unambiguous promise" to the subjects of the film that they would be able to review it in advance and request changes, and that they could refuse to appear if they, or their legal advisers, felt appearing in Risk would put them in danger.

"When, along with the general public, we were finally able to view Risk, we were dismayed to discover that the film released in theatres is a different version, not only from that which premiered at Cannes the year before, but also from the version screened for Julian Assange and his UK counsel at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London," the lawyers wrote.

"The film viewed in the Embassy just one month prior to its US release was shorn of all narration and omitted numerous new scenes, significantly changing its tenor. That the 'real' film contained these elements was concealed, preventing Assange from exercising his contractual rights.

"Prior to its initial US release, seven of the participants submitted non-consent forms to the producers advising Poitras and her team that they did not want to appear in the film. Regardless, Poitras went ahead and released it."

Poitras has been accused of editing the film in such a way as to make it less a sympathetic portrayal of WikiLeaks' work and the US antipathy to it, and more about what the lawyers describe as "an ill-defined indictment of the 'culture of sexism' online".

The lawyers claim that this issue has become the sole focus of the film, and undermines support for WikiLeaks at a time when it is facing increased threats from the US.

They say that Poitras has chosen to marginalise the work of many female WikiLeaks staffers, including journalist Sarah Harrison, who played a big role in helping Snowden to leave Hong Kong whither he had fled after leaving the US with a big dump of NSA files.

"The reason for the shift seems to be contained in the newly added voiceover, in which Poitras divulges that she was involved in an intimate relationship with one of the film's primary subjects, award-winning journalist Jacob Appelbaum," the lawyers wrote.

"Appelbaum appears prominently in Poitras’ Citizenfour as well as in Risk. Although he does not work for WikiLeaks, Poitras conflates WikiLeaks with the organisation he did work for, Tor, and makes him a central focus of the current version of Risk."

Last year, Appelbaum was forced to quit Tor and also other technology-related projects after he faced multiple accusations of sexual harassment.

"We find it hard to comprehend why Poitras, who played an important role in national security journalism, has chosen to allow a dubious quest for self-discovery to undermine people working courageously to protect press freedoms," the lawyers wrote.

"Risk might win attention for Poitras by pandering to tabloid narratives about its subjects, but it has done a great disservice to her fellow documentarians, and has profoundly betrayed her friends, her colleagues and her journalistic integrity."


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.


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