“We Will Continue Working Even if Julian Assange Is in Jail”
Natalia Viana, Independent Collaborator of WikiLeaks in Brazil, Speaks on the Organization’s Ability to Transform the Core Principles of Journalism
By Tadeu Breda
Class of 2011, School of Authentic Journalism
May 22, 2011
November 2010. While leading secret meetings in the interior of England, a few weeks before circulating the diplomatic cables that shook the world, Julian Assange had an idea. Meanwhile, faraway in Brazil Natalia Viana was working hard on one of her news stories, following the daily routine she began to lead five years ago when she started working as an independent journalist. Little did they know that they would soon be working together to leak the greatest amount of classified documents in history.
Five journalists were handpicked by WikiLeaks to exclusively review the content of these cables: an English reporter from The Guardian, a North American from The New York Times, a German from Der Spiegel, a Frenchman from Le Monde and a Spanish reporter from El País. Publicity for WikiLeaks was guaranteed but what was not certain was that the organization would meet its main objective: to give as much visibility as possible to the information that they were about to leak.
Natalia Viana at the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism. DR 2011 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
Julian Assange is certain that the optimal way to successfully circulate the American secret documents is to resort to the mainstream media’s ability to reach a wide array of audiences worldwide. However, he is aware that providing these sources with exclusive access to this material may betray the core philosophy of his organization: to reveal to people around the world how their governments are run behind the scenes.
As a result, Assange asked one of his collaborators to call Natalia Viana, as well as other independent journalists in Latin America, Oceania, Sweden and Western Europe, inviting them to contribute to the circulation of these cables. This was a way of breaking the exclusive contract that tied them to the five most important mediums of communication in the world and, at the same time, increasing the circulation of secret documents about countries that were isolated from their geopolitical center of power.
Natalia was not aware when she answered the phone, that she was being invited to join WikiLeaks. In fact, she only found out that she was going to be a part of Julian Assange’s team when she landed in London. Up until then, all she knew was that she would be collaborating on a project in England that would impact the entire world.
The key figure who convinced Natalia Viana to part take in one of the most spectacular moments in international political history was Gavin McFadyen, who currently directs the Center for Investigative Journalism in England’s capital. It was there that Gavin and Natalia first met and began to work together on a few projects.
At this point in time it was public knowledge that Gavin worked with WikiLeaks. The British journalist was openly collaborating with leaking these secret documents, which in July and September of 2010 had already distributed secret information about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq to The Guardian and The New York Times. It was also common knowledge that McFadyen had hosted Julian Assange at his house when the WikiLeaks founder was being persecuted by the police.
After joining the WikiLeaks team, Natalia’s mission would be to work with the diplomatic cables related to Brazil. After all, no one is better equipped than a Brazilian journalist to understand and interpret these sources. Thus, she was the first to read that the United States embassy chose Brazil’s minister of defense, Nelson Jobim, as Washington’s main ally within Lula’s government; she would obtain brand new information about negotiations within the armed forces for the purchase of new military fighter jets, and she would be the first to find out that the United States had evaluated Lula’s transactions in negotiations regarding climate change.
Not only did she read and write about what she discovered, Natalia was also awarded the mission of negotiating the circulation of these cables in Brazil. To achieve this she decided to associate herself with media outlets of high circulation. “In mid November of 2010, I received messages via email and Facebook. The journalist Natalia Viana wanted to make contact,” says Fernando Rodrigues, one of the main members of the daily newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, the largest in the country. “She spoke about the need to keep things quiet but in one of her messages she disclosed that this was regarding the ‘people’ from London and Gavin McFayden. I understood immediately.”
Like Natalia, Fernando Rodrigues knew the British journalist, also for professional reasons: Fernando is a member of the Brazilian Journalism Asociation, and since 2003 he met regularly with McFayden to create the Global Investigative Network. “Gavin had already told me that he was friends with Julian Assange, the creator of WikiLeaks, and the international mediums of communication were full of information on the leaks that would follow,” Fernando remembers. “The points began to connect.”
Natalia introduces herself during the inaugural dinner at the school. DR 2011 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
Once the newspaper accepted working for WikiLeaks it began a constant exchange of emails and phone calls that inflicted a lot of tension upon the rope that tied the Folha de São Paulo to the diplomatic cables. As it is common in main stream media outlets, Fernando Rodrigues wanted to circulate documents exclusively in Brazil. He also wanted to meet with Julian Assange, to establish a direct connection with the source of the leaks.
Nevertheless, “Natalia is a person in whom Julian and the other collaborators of WikiLeaks have demonstrated that they have great respect and confidence for,” explains Lino Ito Bocchini, editor of Trip magazine in Brazil who recently interviewed the founder of WikiLeaks thanks to Natalia. “This became very clear to me when I was there, but I was already suspicious when they trusted her with all the Brazilian documents and allowed her to conduct negotiations with all the newspapers in the country.”
In the end, Natalia put up with the pressure inflicted by Fernando Rodrigues and chose another newspaper to collectively publish the secret information: the daily O Globo, in Rio de Janeiro. “We conducted a meeting in São Paulo where I delivered a pen drive containing the nearly 3 thousand cables that had to do with Brasil.” At the same time, Natalia created a blog on the internet to publish her version of the stories being told about the documents. “Everyday Folha de S. Paulo, O Globo and I published articles about the same themes. I had no obligation to do this, but I decided to follow a common agenda to show readers how the same document and the same subject matter can be interpreted in a variety of ways.”
The diagnosis turned out to be accurate. As Julian Assange and his colleagues at WikiLeaks suspected, the distribution of the cables to a selected number of trustworthy independent journalists earned the majority of the documents great publicity. If they had simply left the documents in the hands of the traditional press, much of what was revealed about the conservative politicians in Brazil, for example, would have never been made public. The majority of the journalists chose to write about themes that had to do with their political position, and didn’t disclose any information that contradicted this view. Natalia’s independence allowed her to make sure that this information did not remain forgotten inside the drawer of private interests.
“Being invited to collaborate with WikiLeaks is a great accomplishment in the life of an independent journalist,” said Bill Conroy, a journalist for Narco News. “It means that others recognize that you have done great work and that you will be remembered. It also means earning respect and credibility.”
For the Cause
Natalia’s work with the group led by Julian Assange was completely voluntary. The journalist did not receive a single dollar in her bank account during the time that she was locked away in the Ellingham Hall mansion, in the interior of England, where the WikiLeaks team was concentrated on preparing the cables for publication. Neither did they pay her when she went back to Brazil and dedicated her time to the secret documents. She did it for the cause. And she explains why.
“WikiLeaks breaks with the age-old logic of a journalism that is based on various media outlets competing against each other to make profits. When they find an interesting story, the traditional newspapers keep it a secret. WikiLeaks does the exact opposite: they want to distribute information so that it may be read by the largest number of people possible.”
Natalia remembers one of Julian Assange’s most widely circulated mottos that says: the objective of WikiLeaks is that justice can be made; transparency is our method. “Julian believes that the revelations made by WikiLeaks provoked and continue to provoke transformations around the world, like protests and the fall of governments,” Natalia says. On the other hand, Natalia confesses that her goal is to do journalism and she prefers to leave justice to those dedicated to obtaining it. Nevertheless, she recognized that what is most interesting about the diplomatic cables is the capacity to humanize and demystify the power of the State.
“It’s like a soap opera,” she says. “The embassy documents reveal the details of work transactions that construct international relationships all over the world. It allows people to learn a little bit more about how their countries are being run and it approximates historical facts to the populace, offering them a human face. The role of journalism that I believe in has to have precisely this goal to humanize life.”
Therefore, when she had the diplomatic cables in hand, Natalia spent five sleepless nights because she was so excited to read them all. “It was one of the best moments of my life. I felt like a fly going into an open window of power listening in on everything that was going on.” It was this motivation that led her to read, within five months, around 2,500 of the almost 3 thousand cables about Brazil that were in the possession of WikiLeaks. Around 50 articles were written, on a daily basis, during the first few months that the documents were leaked.
Despite the intensive work, WikiLeaks did not pay Natalia for her services for a very simple reason: despite what a lot of people may think, Natalia is not employed by Julian Assange’s organization. She worked instead as a collaborator. She had access to secret documents in the same way that any other communication outlet had around the world. What distinguished her was that she was not just an outlet for communication but an independent journalist. She decided to send the content to popular newspapers in Brazil for tactical reasons, that is, to give the most visibility possible to the secrets of North American diplomacy.
There were also practical reasons of course. “I could never write quickly about all the documents alone. That would be impossible. The mainstream news sources, however, have the structure and labor force to do so,” she explains. This is part of the answer that she tends to offer to those who critique -her and WikiLeaks- for privileging corporate news outlets when circulating the secret documents regarding American diplomacy.
Nevertheless, Julian Assange’s efforts to associate his organization with the main news outlets in the world were part of a strategy and not a personal preference. The first newspaper to sign an agreement with WikiLeaks was the London daily The Guardian in July of 2010. Up until then, and despite having circulated important information, Julian Assange and his colleagues in WikiLeaks suffered from a scarcity of public and audience.
The situation only changed after the organization circulated, in the beginning of 2010, a viral video called “Collateral Murder,” that reveals how the United States military murdered, from a helicopter, innocent victims from Iraq. The images got 12 million hits on YouTube and called the attention of the press. This provided an opportunity for the organization to stop being anonymous all together.
Nevertheless, the organization never thought about hiding the secret documents from the alternative or independent media sources. “The intention is not to give the information to mainstream news sources solely. Yes, it is necessary to turn to them, but not just them,” Natalia explains. “The intention is to amplify this collaborative network through a series of agreements with news outlets around the world. This was done in Brazil including through the collaboration of blogs, and in other countries, such as Ecuador.”
Natalia has some news for those who believe that WikiLeaks’ moment is over: “Neither me, nor WikiLeaks will stop working even if Julian is in jail.”