Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks spokesperson (photo: David Jackmanson)

(update 1 & 2 below)

The media organization WikiLeaks reports a conference to be held at the headquarters of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris has not invited any speakers affiliated with WikiLeaks to speak at the event that is scheduled to take place February 16 and 17.

A statement on WikiLeaks’ website says the organization “denounces” UNESCO for holding a “large two-day conference” that “US organizers have stacked” with “WikiLeaks opponents.” The statement condemns the conference organizers for “blocking all speakers from WikiLeaks and stating it chose not to invite anyone associated or affiliated with WikiLeaks because they have the “right to give voice to speakers” that they want speaking at the event.

The organization’s founder, Julian Assange, reacted to the planned conference.

UNESCO has made itself an international human rights joke. To use “freedom of expression” to censor WikiLeaks from a conference about WikiLeaks is an Orwellian absurdity beyond words. This is an intolerable abuse of UNESCO’s Constitution. It’s time to occupy UNESCO.

Assange called for an investigation, suggesting the US had engaged in a “cold-war style power-play” that made the conference illegitimate.

Spokesperson for the organization, Kristinn Hrafnsson, who would have likely been the one to attend and represent WikiLeaks at the conference if WikiLeaks had been invited to participate, declared, “UNESCO has a duty to assure that fairness and balance is secured in important discussions carried out under the banner of the organization. It is obvious that this will hardly be the case, given the selection of speakers. This is both a disgrace to UNESCO and potentially harmful to WikiLeaks.”

There is certainly validity to WikiLeaks’ criticism. How can an organization hold a serious conference about the impact an organization has had on journalism, international law, government-media relations and internet freedom when it will not invite someone from the organization to participate? Doesn’t a refusal to grant a representative a speaking slot suggest the conference could be highly critical of the organization?  Doesn’t it say that to avoid confrontation, organizers would prefer someone who would obviously stand up for the organization not be there?

The roster of speakers does include Geoffrey Robertson, QC, a legal counsel for Julian Assange and a UK media lawyer. Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, is also on the roster. These two speakers are listed as people media can contact for comment on WikiLeaks.

The opening panel is the session on which someone like Hrafnsson probably would have participated:

9:45-11:15 a.m. Panel 1: How Professional Media Deal with the Digital Environment

Description: WikiLeaks claims access to some 250,000 US diplomatic cables  -mountains of raw data that confront society and professional media with dilemmas on their use. This explosion of primary source data has impacted newsgathering by journalists and their relation with governments. Editors of three media outlets chosen by WikiLeaks to review the dispatches for use discuss their experiences.

The description suggests it might have been constructive and illuminating to have someone, who could speak about how WikiLeaks went about working with media. The site that handed over thousands of possible scoops (whether the media organizations turned them into full-blown news stories or not) might be able to add great insight into professional media’s handling of “primary source data.” But, no WikiLeaks person is scheduled to speak. Sylvie Kauffman with Le Monde, Ian Fisher with the New York Times, David Leigh with The Guardian and Charlie Beckett with the London School of Economics are all invited to speak.

Given the feud that produced “Passwordgate,” along with Leigh’s track record of being highly critical and often condescending toward Assange, Leigh is likely to use the platform UNESCO is granting him to renew his attack on the operations of WikiLeaks. This will be very easy to do, because UNESCO has made it so no person will be there to speak for WikiLeaks and respond if he criticizes the organization.

The conference’s keynote speaker is Heather Brooke. She once was in love with Assange but now considers him to be an asshole.

A WikiLeaks volunteer shared a copy of the US State Embassy cables database with Brooke in the summer of 2010, according to an unauthorized biography on Julian Assange. Brooke made a copy of the database. She had a level of involvement in the work of WikiLeaks, but then, due to what happened with the volunteer, she was no longer allowed to be part of operations.

Brooke took her story to the tabloid newspaper in the UK, the Daily Mail. She told her story, which now appears in her book The Revolution Will Be Digitized. The headline for her article, which she penned, was, “The WikiFreak: In a new book one author reveals how she got to know Julian Assange and found him a predatory, narcissistic fantasist.” And, ever since, she has been using her experience with WikiLeaks to gain more notoriety for her journalism and work on digital freedom issues.

UNESCO has every right to hold a conference on WikiLeaks where WikiLeaks has no opportunity to speak on behalf of the organization. But, what UNESCO is doing is akin to holding a conference about the impact of Google or Facebook on world sectors where no person who has worked for Google or Facebook gets to come and defend their organization against charges that they engage in practices that violate people’s privacy. If one knew Google or Facebook employees had asked to come speak, the conference would have questionable legitimacy.

Nonetheless, as someone who does not work for the organization and would follow the conference regardless of whether it was open to including a spokesperson for WikiLeaks or not, I intend to follow the two-day conference tomorrow and Friday. Many of the panels should be insightful and worth watching. UNESCO will have a live stream that anyone not at the conference can watch.

The conference is being co-organized by the World Press Freedom Committe and co-sponsored by the World Association of Newspapers & News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), the World Editors Forum and the International Press Institute. The tone and content of discussions will be a nice indicator of how the world’s press perceives WikiLeaks.

Here in the United States, most press think and cover WikiLeaks like The Guardian‘s David Leigh (if they even bother to cover WikiLeaks at all). Some even call for the prosecution of WikiLeaks and the assassination of Assange. Hearing from press who aren’t American may be a welcome departure from the opinions of an oft-puerile pundit class in the United States.

This is the program for the conference. And, here is a link to the stream, which will begin showing video of the conference at 4 am EST.

Update

UNESCO has responded to WikiLeaks’ call to #OccupyUNESCO:

Update 2

UNESCO continues to try and beat back criticism of the upcoming conference. Here’s a message sent out and retweeted by the United Nations’ official Twitter account:

FYI – As someone who enjoys following all things WikiLeaks, along with leaks, document releases and whistleblowing in general, I will be up at 3 am ET to follow the conference. The conference should be wrapping up around 10 am ET. I also intend to cover this House Homeland Security Committee hearing on “DHS Monitoring of Social Media.”

I’ll get up two posts – one with updates on interesting quotes on the conference and then one that will essentially be a live blog post of the Homeland Security Committee hearing.