Home Government Tech Policy Documentary makers accuse Assange of censorship

Documentary makers accuse Assange of censorship

The people behind a documentary on WikiLeaks, which was released in the US earlier this year, have accused the whistle-blower group's publisher Julian Assange of trying to shut down distribution of the film.

In an article published by Newsweek, Brenda Coughlin, Yoni Golijov and Laura Poitras claimed that WikiLeaks and Assange had sent cease and desist letters to the distributors of Risk.

The letters reportedly said: "We therefore demand that you immediately cease the use and distribution of all images of the Named Participants and that you desist from this or any other infringement of the rights of the Named Participants in the future."

Poitras had access to Assange 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 also made the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, which is 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 alleged charges, he will then be extradited to the US which is looking to prosecute him for leaking files about the Iraq War online. Sweden recently dropped the probe into Assange's activities there.

Last month, lawyers for WikiLeaks accused Poitras of jeopardising the interests of WikiLeaks by editing the film in the US, violated promises to people in the film that they would be able to review their footage.

The lawyers also accused Poitras of changing the focus of the film by making it less a sympathetic portrayal of WikiLeaks' work and the US antipathy to it, and more about what was described as "an ill-defined indictment of the 'culture of sexism' online".

The filmmakers said that Assange and his lawyers had asked for changes in the film from 2016 onwards, demanding the removal of scenes "in which Assange speaks about the two women who made sexual assault allegations against him in 2010 and Sweden’s investigation which has since been discontinued".

They said that the requests by WikiLeaks were mostly about image management. These reportedly included "demands to remove scenes from the film where Assange discusses sexual assault allegations against him; requests to remove images of alcohol bottles in the embassy because Ecuador is a Catholic country and it looks bad; requests to include mentions of WikiLeaks in the 2016 US presidential debates; and, requests to add more scenes with attorney Amal Clooney because she makes WikiLeaks look good".

The trio said WikiLeaks had been aware since 2015 that footage of the film was being edited in New York, contrary to claims.

"All the participants in Risk agreed for years to be in the film. We have no obligation to seek WikiLeaks’ or Assange’s authorisation to release the film. In fact, our rights under the First Amendment are protected precisely because we are engaging in independent journalism. Assange himself has criticised the media for seeking permission from public figures before releasing stories," the three filmmakers said.

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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.