October 27, 2009, 7:10 PM — In early March, two human rights lawyers from Kenya were on their way to give testimony about illegal killings by police when their car was blocked and they were shot dead at close range.
Several months earlier, their investigative work had been instrumental to a report published on Wikileaks.org, "The Cry of Blood," that focused international attention on police abuse in Kenya.
The lawyers' deaths underscored the perils facing those who fight corruption, and also the responsibility that sometimes weighs upon Wikileaks, the Web site that proclaims itself a "strong and independent voice for global justice" and allows sensitive corporate, political and legal documents to be published anonymously.
"The really effective and courageous people have an understanding of what might happen," said Julian Assange, one of Wikileaks' cofounders, in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Wikileaks has published more than 1.3 million documents in the three years since its founding, and over that time the organization has faced its own share of threats and lawsuits.
Assange believes a vanguard of politicians and human rights lawyers sympathetic to its goals can shield the Web site to a certain degree. The group has won all its court cases to date, including several high-profile appearances.
"I think this shows people what happens when they take us on," Assange said. "We will go all the way. We will fight it inside the court and outside the court.
"It's like the aphorism, you should never wrestle with a pig," he said, referring to a remark often credited to the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the idea being that you'll both get dirty but only the pig will enjoy it.
Still, the world is littered with organizations that have been crushed for exposing fraud. India's Tehelka.com did an exposé of government corruption in 2000, at a time when many were looking to the Internet as a bold new channel for press freedom. The public uproar that followed did not prevent police from throwing several Tehelka journalists and investors in jail. The Web site was soon ruined, its staff gone and its office equipment sold off in a bid to stay afloat. It has since returned but in a slightly tamer form.
Wikileaks' rising international profile could help protect it from a similar fate. Its recognition has grown as more news articles appear based on documents leaked on the site, and awards have enhanced its reputation. Amnesty International presented Wikileaks with the 2009 award for New Media for the reports on extrajudicial police killings in Kenya.