With founder Julian Assange facing a rape trial in Sweden, funding crippled by a “financial blockade” and dwindling support from fellow hactivists, can WikiLeaks survive? Channel 4 News investigates.
What a difference a year makes. 12 months ago, the scorch marks of WikiLeaks were still smouldering. A campaign of increasingly bold and carefully orchestrated leaks of secret military and diplomatic data had left the world’s most powerful nations shifting nervously, and angrily.
Secret arms deals and nuclear weapons sites were allegedly exposed, and among the revelations, reported by Channel 4 News last November, the documents appeared to show Arab leaders privately plotting an airstrike on Iran.
And the man at the centre of this string of international bombshells? Julian Assange, hacker turned political activist turned news celebrity.
Today the 40-year-old stands at the foot of another legal mountain as he fights extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations, many of his WikiLeaks comrades have melted away, and the whistleblower site itself is struggling to stay afloat in the face of a “financial blockade” by firms including PayPal, Visa and Mastercard.
So have the wheels come off WikiLeaks?
Former UK employee of WikiLeaks, James Ball, told Channel 4 News the group “certainly has some serious organisational and financial problems”.
“It’s not impossible the organisation could go under,” he explained.
“WikiLeaks [has] spent so much time this year fighting Assange’s battles, it only last week remembered to fight its own: the banking blockade.
“After strings of desertions and defections, there are very few in WikiLeaks left who can disagree with Assange or countermand any of his decisions – which effectively makes it a one-man operation.”
“But it’s worth remembering it has – relatively speaking – astonishingly low operating costs, and it only took one source to provide all the material in the Guantanamo files, Iraq and Afghan war logs, collateral murder video and embassy cables, so in theory at least WikiLeaks could bounce back more easily than some might hope.”
Many claim the sex allegations and the gradual disrobing of Assange as an “outsider hero” are part of a campaign to prevent him working – and to eventually kill WikiLeaks.
Last December his supporters launched Operation Payback – a cyber-strike on the companies which cut financial channels to his document-leaking operation. But where are his cyber defenders now?
“I think Assange has damaged the organisation’s reputation,” he said.
“[Hacktivist group] Anonymous are perfectly poised to take the ‘leaks’ spotlight from what has become a seeming ‘one person organisation’ by its very nature.”
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Assange, who denies the allegations made against him by two women, has always maintained the case is “politically motivated”.
Brian Palmer, a social anthropologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, told Channel 4 News: “It would be easier for the US to demand to receive Assange from Sweden than from the UK.”
But he added: “It would surprise me if the Swedish prosecutors’ demand for Assange’s extradition to Sweden were due to American pressure; my guess is that they acted independently.”
Swedish journalist Ann Helena Rudberg doubts there is a complex conspiracy aimed at crushing WikiLeaks.
She said: “Sweden has nothing to gain in my opinion in terms of US relations. WikiLeaks is already much less important because the banks do not give them any access to money.”
Instead, she told Channel 4 News Assange’s year-long extradition tussle is underpinned by a “bad legal system”.
“We just have a bad legal system that has given the women too much power to put a guy behind bars.
“I was myself a feminist in the 1970s, but now when every politician calls themselves feminists it has gone too far. We don’t have equal rights between men and women in Sweden. The women have more rights than men.
We don’t have equal rights between men and women in Sweden. The women have more rights than men. Ann Helena Rudberg
And if Assange, as his supporters fear, is sent from Sweden to the US, what then?
Brian Palmer believes he could face the same fate as Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of passing classified data to WikiLeaks.
He said: “Manning has been isolated and mistreated in a series of US prisons, and he is sure to spend the rest of his life behind bars. The same could be the case for Assange.”
And Palmer said the fading powers of WikiLeaks, its funding crisis and Assange’s legal battle cannot be viewed separately.
“There is continuous communication and cooperation between the authorities and the firms.
“So I assume that the authorities were not shy to take up the matter of WikiLeaks, and that the firms were by and large happy to oblige.”