Mediastan is a documentary film that follows the journey of a small group of WikiLeaks’ associates in their quest for media outlets to publish secret US diplomatic cables. These young journalists travel through Central Asia and interview editors of local media organizations with the goal of offering cables relevant to their country. WikiLeaks’ press release calls the 94-minute raw film “Operation Cablerun . . . the world’s first truly global media event.” Julian Assange describes the Central Asia region as “the most fascinating geopolitical region in the world. . . . on the top, Russia; on the bottom, China; in the middle, a fight for US influence.” As Assange indicates, the really interesting aspect of the movie is how “what started out as a geopolitical road movie transformed into a tale of comparative censorship.”
WikiLeaks timed the release of the documentary to coincide with the UK opening weekend of the multimillion dollar commercial movie The Fifth Estate. The release of Mediastan is an open challenge to this deeply biased Hollywood misfire – a bloated fiction that is nothing short of a blatant PR campaign against WikiLeaks. The Fifth Estate, produced by DreamWorks, in collaboration with Disney, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks’ founder. This film is portrayed as a dramatic inside look into WikiLeaks. Contrary to such pretension, the film is far divorced from WikiLeaks’ ground operation and especially its true contribution to the massive global shift in the media landscape and empowerment of the commons in these revolutionary times. Director Bill Condon chose to base this film primarily on two negatively biased books by Assange’s former coworker Daniel Domscheit-Berg and The Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding. This one-sided and clearly agenda-driven script was not accidental. DreamWorks crafted its fictional script on those decidedly anti-WikiLeaks books, ignoring many other books and sources that document the organization’s rise with more balanced insight. One of the promotional posters for Condon’s film features an image of Cumberbatch posing as Assange with the caption “traitor” on Cumberbatch’s face. This itself reveals the real motives behind the film – serving as PR for the US government’s propaganda machine.
On October 17, Mediastan was released in the United States and Canada, and producers offered free downloads of the documentary on the opening week of The Fifth Estate in North America. Many critics called this independent film a success on numerous fronts. Meanwhile, it was reported that The Fifth Estate flopped at the box office all around America, making the worst debut for a Hollywood film opening this year, and it was generally panned in initial reviews.
WikiLeaks has undeniably had a huge impact on the world, and unlike The Fifth Estate, this internally produced documentary helps put the history into a more accurate context. Mediastan, directed by journalist Johannes Wahlström and produced by Assange with Sixteen Films, encapsulates the aim of WikiLeaks. Last year, Assange explained the WikiLeaks “manifesto” to l’Espresso; “to collect, publish and defend information about the world that is of significance, that helps people to lead their lives” – noting difficulty in the presence of “many powerful institutions and individuals who derive their power from keeping other people ignorant about their activities.” These efforts can be summed up by his earlier remarks on WikiLeaks’ task as “taking the First Amendment and giving it to the world.”
Boundaries of Free Speech
This WikiLeaks film, described in Assange’s words as, “journalism in extremis,” reveals the state of global media for all to see; its limits and the forces of control and censorship at play under the surface of political facade.
Team members stop first at news agency Asia-Plus in Tajikistan. They conduct the routine of instructing the editors how to responsibly redact the names in the documents of those whom they determined needed to be protected. Later, Assange appears via Skype to give a brief orientation of how the material should be approached. He encourages them to read it in its entirety saying, “If you search for a particular thing, you will bring your prejudice to the material” and urges them to understand the situation in which those docs were made.
The film lets us see barriers to free speech that are similar to boundaries in thought and language and shows how all media is subject to these boundaries. It engages us with the question of where these boundaries are that restrict free thought and the forces behind them.
The WikiLeaks crew travels through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and into US-occupied Afghanistan to engage editors at local news outlets. Their hunt for those willing to publish these classified documents reveals the hidden ties these independent media outlets had at that time with global centralized power, especially covert pressure and influence from Washington. The WikiLeaks representatives have the repeated experience of meeting editors who would initially show interest and then back off after talking with their higher-ups. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, Radio Liberty’s Bishkek chief Sultanbek Joumagolov brags about the independence of his radio station, but defers to his boss in Prague, for a final decision, who in turn declines WikiLeaks’ offer of access to the cables relating to that country. Radio Liberty’s decision-making process documented in the film reveals how the chain of command originates from the US State Department, as it was financed by them.
After uncovering many complex threads of censorship, patronage and the far-reaching power of US national and corporate interests through insidious intervention into foreign media, the journey eventually leads to two powerful corporate media institutions, the London Guardian and The New York Times. In an interview with The Guardian‘s editor, Alan Rusbridger, Assange confronts him about the newspaper’s significant removal and reduced publication of US diplomatic cables. Assange gives examples of cables about Uzbekistan in Tashkent that showed connections between the powerful Karimou family and the mafia, Kazakhstan cables that exposed the corruption of an Italian energy company operating in the country and another one that revealed the Bulgarian mafia’s penetration of the Bulgarian state. Then Assange asks why The Guardian protects the identity of these organized crime figures which, in effect, serves to conceal and further perpetuate the corruption. Rusbridger describes how the news company fears wealthy power brokers who would use the UK’s Libel Court against them, revealing how legal considerations operate in Britain as a form of systemic censorship.
In another telling scene toward the end of the film, former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller lounges comfortably in his posh office, talking about the newspaper’s decision to sit on material that exposed warrantless wiretapping in deference to the Bush Administration. He also reveals the news company’s nearly daily conversations with the US government, indicating this influential corporate newspaper’s cozy relationship with the military and the CIA. This shows the crucial role corporate media plays in sustaining global networks of patronage and power.
This film sheds important light on the forces that lay siege to the spirit and law enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Back in 2010, WikiLeaks blazed onto the world stage with the release of the Collateral Murder video that documented war crimes from an Apache helicopter gun-sight. The 18-minute video opened with the words of George Orwell: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The organization helped lift the curtain of deception by revealing the broken rule of law and the true state of modern imperial warfare. Now three years later, through assisting Edward Snowden and continuing to operate as a major force in the global media, WikiLeaks still fights for the public’s right to know what is being done in its name.
Force Behind the Veil of Secrecy
Mediastan brings out in the open the hidden governing forces that mobilize the interests of those in power behind the veil of secrecy and the facade of democracy. Inner City Press, a public interest organization, best known for its investigation of the banking industry’s treatment of low-income communities of color, in its review of the film, notes how the global scale of imperial US power exposed in the film is not limited to Central Asia and that it is “on graphic display inside the UN in New York.” The assault on Free Speech continues to emanate from corporate forces controlling Washington. No one can deny the global impact of this assault.
For most Westerners, the classic idea of media censorship is what happens in countries like China and Egypt, where democracy is overtly opposed. Recently, a new measure was taken by the Chinese government to maintain control of the media. According to a BBC News article, on October 11, all reporters in Chinese media institutions are now required to get job training – advertised as “improving their professional practice” – and they will be required to pass a test for credentials. This is just another trend of overt control by the Chinese government over the media and the message.
What most people don’t know is that something very similar is occurring in the United States, a country that claims to champion freedom of the press. This September, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed legislation called the Media Shield law that was portrayed as protecting journalists from having to reveal confidential sources. The debate surrounding its approval revolved mostly around the definition of who “covered journalists” would be. Some Senators called for a narrower definition, extending First Amendment protection only to those employed by major news organizations. A particular section of the Justice Department’s review notes a “WikiLeaks Exception,” removing protections for WikiLeaks and organizations like it.
The official reasoning for this shield law was portrayed as providing protections for “professional reporters,” yet this move brings up the larger issue of who has authority to define who is a journalist. What is not being discussed is how the government having this power infringes on the First Amendment to the point of absurdity.
This has all come about in the wake of the WikiLeaks and Snowden revelations and the ensuing accusations of treason and espionage. It seems ironic that the Senate and the Obama administration pretend to protect journalists, while in reality this administration hammers whistle-blowers and journalists as never before in US history. It seems that the president supports this legislation to gain even more leverage to prosecute journalists for revealing what the government is doing. In China, only communist writers who agree to government terms are allowed to be journalists. In the United States, it is becoming more and more clear that only journalists who maintain the corporate party and national security state lines are welcomed into the ranks. The line dividing the United States and countries like Russia and China with respect to press freedom seems to blur more each day. With the recent Snowden asylum saga, Vladimir Putin gained global attention by appearing to stand up for freedom of speech in contrast to the actions of the Obama administration, which revoked Snowden’s passport and threatened other countries if they were to offer him safe passage. The hypocrisy reached new heights when the United States accused Russia of providing a “propaganda platform” for NSA whistle-blower Snowden, as he held a meeting with human rights campaigners in a press conference at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, where he invoked the Nuremberg conventions in defending his actions.
Of course, no one should be under the illusion that Putin’s Russia is a bastion of free speech. Putin himself has been notorious for a brutal pattern of silencing voices of dissenters, even assassinating and jailing journalists and artists who are vocal about their grievances against authority. But recent revelations of the US government’s persecution of truth-tellers and the insane level of NSA surveillance shows the world how low the standards for basic human rights have fallen in America. As NSA revelations continue to further reveal the agency’s pervasive surveillance in both Germany and France, NSA Director General Keith Alexander is reported to be demanding that all news companies around the world halt reporting on the NSA’s spying operations.
The recent death of Michael Hastings calls for a closer look at the level of possible abuse and retribution the US government is willing to engage in. Hastings, an investigative reporter for Rolling Stone, died in a violent car explosion and the actual cause of this fatal crash remains a mystery. Yet, foul play seems very possible considering the circumstances and an email from private security firm Stratfor released to the public by WikiLeaks in February last year that revealed how CIA director John Brennan was behind crackdowns on investigative journalists. The short life of a talented journalist like Hastings, who successfully wrote truth to power, may certainly unsettle those who care about freedom of the press and the rule of law in this society.
The First Amendment of The Bill of Rights is a pillar for all other rights that supposedly set the US apart from other countries. So, why has the United States moved in the direction of countries such as China and Russia in this regard?
Those in Washington conceal these facts from the eyes of the general public through Orwellian doublespeak, with careful manipulation of words that say one thing and mean another. This deception was perfected with Obama’s performance as the quintessential liar-in-chief. Kevin Gosztola of FireDogLake sheds light on the gaping chasm between Obama’s rhetoric and his actions by investigating the administration’s sophisticated use of the state media as well as social media in a strategy to control public perception about the government. Gosztola reports how on the first day of Obama’s presidency, he was acting as if he was following his campaign promises of transparency in urging government agencies to speed up processing of Freedom of Information Act requests and launching the so-called “Open Government Initiative” web sites that provide information about government activities and data. In truth, these efforts turned out to be part of a strategy advanced during his presidential campaign to use the internet to provide only what the government wants the public to know.
Citing former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno, Gosztola describes how social media such as blog posts by Obama and photos of the president could be out there to foster dialogue with the public, but “. . . if used for propaganda and to avoid contact with journalists, it’s a slippery slope.” Gosztola notes, “The dictionary definition of propaganda is ‘information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.’ If Russian or Chinese officials did what the Obama administration was doing, it would be regarded as propaganda.”
Mediastan, A State of Mind
The film Mediastan exposes the systematic covert control emanating from Washington and shows how it extends far beyond its territory in an insidious infiltration of foreign states. The film also reveals how this force of control is affecting the hearts and minds of journalists themselves. “Mediastan is not so much a physical place as it is a state of mind among many of the journalists and editors who form our perceptions of the world” says director Johannes Wahlström.
Crew members walk into the offices of the Kazakh Telegraph Agency in Kazakhstan. Right away they are met with strong skepticism for their mission. Wahlström soon asks the head of foreign news service KazTAG for his personal views on the goals of WikiLeaks. The newswire chief acknowledges that “information is a weapon and WikiLeaks is a tool.” He goes on to say that this tool can be used for good or harm depending on who uses it. He says “If an unskilled man gets access to this compromising data, it will lead to anarchy!” suggesting that most people are not equipped to handle this kind of information. He shares his stance of being against democracy, which seems to have informed his views on WikiLeaks. He relates how he does not believe in the one man-one vote idea. After laying out his efforts and accomplishments, such as going to law school, learning various languages and serving in the army, he argues how he is better and more worthy of being in a position of authority and accessing information than a person who didn’t try to improve himself, expressing his sense of earned entitlement. Later in the meeting, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, The Expert Kazakhstan, chimes in, saying that the WikiLeaks team is wasting their time and that these efforts are totally useless and will change nothing in the world.
Here, WikiLeaks meets the greatest enemies of free speech; namely, cynicism and apathy. In an interview with Jeremy Paxman of BBC, comedian and actor Russell Brand defined apathy as really something coming from politicians and those in power, “The apathy doesn’t come from us, the people. The apathy comes from the politicians. They are apathetic to our needs. They are only interested in servicing the needs of the corporations.”
In a Q & A with the makers of Mediastan, which was screened at the 21st Raindance Film Festival, Wahlström reflected on that pivotal Kazakhstan conversation in the film and notes how that moment struck him, in that it revealed the idea and perception of some news companies toward their audience as basically being fools that need to be protected from important information. Wahlström speaks of how it exposed a bigger problem, a particular state of mind, “an assumption that mankind is a sheep.”
This is a hallmark rationale of the privileged, elite class; that they have a right to rule through keeping people ignorant. This mindset is incompatible with interest in, and respect for, their fellow man. Journalists themselves internalize this mentality, and it seems to have created a sense of subtle defeatism. On one occasion, the film rolls a scene where a web editor of the news service Neutral Turkmenistan speaks of how it is not the journalist’s role to criticize the government. He recalled how in Soviet days when he was younger, he lived for journalism. Now, showing pictures of beautiful canyons, he says that he settled down and nature satisfies him.
It is this systemic apathy permeating journalism and the general populace that WikiLeaks is working to transform. Dan Mathews, one of the founding members of WikiLeaks once asserted that “the people of this world are treated like mushrooms: Kept in the dark, and fed shit” and that WikiLeaks was “an anti-mushroom organization” in its role to “be a force for the empowerment of the people of the world to use facts, to use understanding, to use science to build a better world.”
Defeatism is infectious, and journalists who are affected by it never challenge the elite mentality backed up a sense of entitlement. In his article “The Perfect Epitaph for Establishment Journalism,” journalist Glenn Greenwald addresses the issue of “the lethal power-subservient pathologies plaguing establishment journalism in the West.” He points out how former editor of The Independent Chris Blackhurst’s headline concerning the reporting of Snowden’s NSA stories encapsulates the epidemic of duplicity within established journalists: “Edward Snowden’s secrets may be dangerous. I would not have published them. If MI5 warns that this is not in the public interest, who am I to disbelieve them?” Greenwald characterizes this mentality of journalists as “subservient, obsequious” and says the suspension of independent judgment and bowing before authority is a shared disease among many mainstream journalists.
The more one censors oneself, the more one loses one’s true sense of self. This compromised and adjusted identity can become permanent, along with shifty professional ethics. Here we find a loss of moral compass for the sake of a steady paycheck or access to power.
Character Assassination of the Fifth Estate
This adversarial force opposing civil liberties also enlists the entertainment industry in its shaping of public perception. Bill Condon’s Fifth Estate is a prime example of propaganda used to undermine free speech. It is a product that should have a “Buyer Beware” warning label on the package. The film title “Fifth Estate” in relationship to WikiLeaks suggests support for the vital role it has played in shaping the new global Fifth Estate, yet the reality of the film does the opposite.
Traditionally, the term Fourth Estate has referred to the ideal of a press providing checks and balance to the working of the three branches of government. Its role was clearly understood as a watchdog for the weak and vulnerable, to guard ordinary citizens from government abuse of power. In recent years, with increasing corporate power and collusion in the hijacking of politics, the balance of power has broken down, and the Fourth Estate has reached a point of irrelevance. As the media degrades into entertainment and titillation provided by outlets like DreamWorks and The New York Times, what is emerging from the ashes of the Fourth Estate is a redemptive force in the growing independent global media powered by ethernet connections, conscience and the courage of ordinary people, whistle-blowers and publishers like WikiLeaks.
The DreamWorks film title seems to indicate at least a tacit understanding of the vital role WikiLeaks played in this regard, yet is deceptive as the film itself focuses on petty one-sided caricatures of Assange’s personality and revolves around the oversimplified question; “Is Julian Assange a hero or traitor?” The film seems to be more interested in portraying Assange as a megalomaniac monster than exploring the vital role that WikiLeaks has played as a legitimate media organization and the many positive changes in the world that would not have happened without Assange’s commitment to the goals of WikiLeaks.
The film The Fifth Estate is a symptom of a larger illness in society, a trend toward character assassination for those who speak truth to power. It follows a shop-worn formula of oppression; smear, discredit, marginalize and then starve out through financial blockade to silence voices of dissent. In this fictionalized version of the WikiLeaks story, the good WikiLeaks has done for the world is trivialized or ignored. It amounts to not only one more smearing of Assange, but also more importantly, a degrading of the organization’s legitimacy. In this sense, the film goes beyond character assassination of an individual. It attempts to assassinate the burgeoning global Fifth Estate itself by trivializing its vital beginnings.
The First Amendment; Between the Stones and Stars
One could ask: Why are those in power so afraid of freedom of speech? What are the reasons for these attacks? These questions fundamentally lead us to a deeper question: Why is it important for us to be able to speak freely? For this, we must look at the reason the founding fathers of the United States placed free speech as the most fundamental cornerstone of the Constitution. The First Amendment is composed of several clauses, among them: freedom of religion and association, freedom of speech and press, and most vitally, the right to redress of grievances against one’s government.
The key to understanding the genius of this is to see how the elements of the First Amendment are interconnected like a fine tapestry. They are all in the same clause, and it is the First Amendment for a reason. Redress of grievances against government is the key idea to both freedom of speech and the press. Countering illegitimate authority with the adjoining freedom of speech and the pen is the pivotal right from which all others flow. If governments and corporations are able to determine who is allowed to speak, then there is no freedom.
Mario Savio, spokesperson for the Free Speech Movement in the ’60s once said:
“Freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is . . . That’s what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely. It is almost impossible for me to describe. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”
Freedom of Speech is a truly liberational force in the world. It allows us to challenge, and if necessary, reject or dismantle official narratives and structures. It frees thoughts and feelings from the governance of state and corporate power. Unless we are able to speak independently of any outer form of authority, we cannot participate in creating the discourse for our own future. “Those who control the present, control the past, and those who control the past, control the future,” said George Orwell in his novel 1984. Those in power always tend to hide their crimes. By concealing their control and abuse in secrecy with propaganda, they alter the past and steal the future.
Political force and form without freedom of speech leads to totalitarianism. A society based on untruthfulness and manipulation will always fail, as it brings people down to a level of beasts and barbarians. Instead of dialogue, too often we resort to violence.
Freedom of speech lifts us up to the level of Savio’s words, to a position just below the angels, as a humanity who communicates, who dialogues to solve problems, who relates to conflicts with compassion and love. This force that prevents us from speaking freely cuts us off from what makes us truly human. It keeps us ignorant and asleep and makes us react out of instinctual impulse and primordial fear and desire. The rights enshrined in the Constitution are the steps reaching toward the stars. When subverted by destructive forces, both foreign and domestic, we forget our heritage as humans, our intrinsic connections and the will to relate to each other with kindness and compassion.
This is the battle that WikiLeaks has engaged in. It is a fight for free speech in a political sense, but is also deeply based on an inherent right to self-determination. It brings up the question of who we really are and who we want to become. It is ultimately a fight to remain human, out of free will to create history and claim personal responsibility in the world.
Despite our differences, people from separate nations are realizing that they share much more in common than their leaders would have them think. History has shown that the desire for liberty is found everywhere, regardless of race, nationality and country of origin. At the onset of the American Revolution, Patrick Henry proclaimed “Give me liberty or give me death.” During the Tiananmen Square revolt, the same spirit was reignited. Decades later, the conscience of young private Chelsea Manning became a spark breaking a long silence of political apathy, “I want people to see the truth . . . regardless of who they are . . . because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” From the uprisings in Tunisia and the Arab Revolution, ordinary people have begun to have their own thoughts that have been so long forbidden by their own governments and are awakening to feeling that this is uniquely their own.
The world’s first stateless media outlet responds to this universal thirst for freedom. More and more people have begun to recognize the role that WikiLeaks played in creating a spark for revolutions in the Arab World and beyond, heralding a change in consciousness regarding illegitimate power. The BBC documentary WikiLeaks: Secret Life of a Superpoweracknowledged how in 2010, US cable leaks that were shared through social networking sites became a powerful force that finally toppled the corrupt Tunisian dictator Ben Ali. WikiLeaks challenged the boundaries of free speech, crossing one artificial border or applying one jurisdiction to another, showing how all boundaries are conventions; are made by social agreement. This simple organization worked to show the world that Freedom of Speech is universal and can transcend boundaries of the nation-state apparatus. Freeing information, especially that which is intentionally concealed, can liberate thoughts and free people from the official scripts, from the propagandized perceptions imprinted by states and corporations.
Courageous Is Contagious
With the rise of WikiLeaks, a new model of social institution has begun to emerge around the world. News recently came out that Glenn Greenwald is leaving The Guardian to help start a new media venture. The team is a coalescing of some of the world’s finest journalists with Greenwald, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill from The Nation, who have been working together on documents from Edward Snowden. They are setting up a new media organization funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Scahill spoke about how this new media group will work with investigative journalists around the world and that colleagueship will be formed horizontally rather than in a top down manner as with corporate media organizations where editors dictate to reporters what to write. When asked by an interviewer if this new venture is a new kind of WikiLeaks, Scahill said, “What WikiLeaks did was incredible; it was extraordinary, and it started a ball in motion that has just picked up in momentum.”
Henry Farrell, associate professor of political science and international affairs, writes on the significance of this new media effort in light of the WikiLeaks phenomenon and the recent Snowden NSA leaks. Farrell argues that there is a large amount of information out there, and it has to be disseminated by media entities. He acknowledges WikiLeaks’ challenge in bringing public attention to the material with their efforts to get established media organizations involved. He points out the crucial role that these outlets play, saying that when a recognized media organization publishes information, “it is legitimated as knowledge – which people are not only more likely to take seriously themselves, but may have to take seriously, because they know that other people are taking it seriously . . .” and that, “When this information became knowledge – when it was published and treated as authoritative by major newspapers – it became impossible to ignore any longer.”
He describes how WikiLeaks knew about this early on and partnered with major media organizations such as The Guardian and The New York Times. They had difficulty working together because of the structures that restrict those news organizations, including deep political allegiance to governments and financial interests. This has taught the world about the importance of a truly independent media, not just individual journalists doing their work, but the importance of building new infrastructure that can allow reporters to truly live the spirit of the free press. Farrell sees this pioneering work of new media as a strong effort to carry out this mission.
Mediastan is a powerful film that reveals the global corruption of the media. This film, described as a “Fifth Estate Challenger” performs a check and balance on consumer fraud by providing a kind of protection against the malpractice of this fictionalized Hollywood movie narrative. While the DreamWorks $28 million budget engages in thriller fiction, Mediastan on a shoestring budget successfully invites the viewer to participate in the unfolding of the actual Fifth Estate.
WikiLeaks’ film brings out the hope that lies in the ideals of young journalists who are committed to freedom of speech. When each person finds the courage within themselves to defend this right and extend it to where it is most needed, they will find a courage so contagious that it can connect one person with another across boundaries through this newly created alliance. Freedom expands and can go far beyond convention and illicit propriety.
Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “Who if I shouted, among the hierarchy of Angels would hear me?” There comes a day when people around the world can truly be heard. Only then will we be able to understand human freedom. No matter how ignorant or unrefined we are, each person has the free will to create history and find their unique place in the world through trial and error.
Perhaps this film is showing that the Fifth Estate is not a territory found on a map, nor owned by a group of people or institutions, but is to be found in each person’s heart when the spirit of free speech is ignited and kept alive. WikiLeaks’ Mediastan gives a glimpse of a journey into a new state where someday freedom of speech can be understood as everyone’s inherent birthright. The journey toward a just society continues, and we make the road by walking it.