Wikileaks: Transparency vs terror

Wikileaks, a website dedicated to leaking secret documents, is a subject of debate, both legal and journalistic, since it began publishing memos sent to and from US State Department and 274 US embassies around the world. The diplomatic documents, some classified as secret or confidential and many unclassified, do not reflect the official policies of the world’s most powerful country, however they represent the attitudes and opinions of American diplomats, which has put the US in an uncomfortable position.

The US tried its best to stop the publication since Wikileaks informed it about having such documents. When US issued a warning that publication of the memos could put lives in danger, Julian Assange – the website’s founder and public face – cleverly asked the US to categorically point to the memos that are sensitive. The US, which denied any communication and comments, tried to block the way through many means including forcing firms in their land to withdraw services that they were rendering to Wikileaks. Amazon withdrew hosting, EveryDNS withdrew domain name services (meaning that when somebody types wikileaks.org, the internet is unable to find the server computer where the site is stored) and popular financial transaction service provider PayPal dropped their accounts (which constrained the donation collection by the site).

The US State Department issued a stern warning to government employees not to view, share or store any information from the site at home too while also banning the access to the website in the officials networks.

All these efforts by the country, which claims to be the frontrunner in freedom of expression and democracy, look to have made reciprocal impact. Associations like International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) who were silent early on were forced to issue releases condemning the acts which they see as an attempt to curtail the freedom of expression. And, Wikileaks, as a victim, gathered enough support to keep itself running.

TRANSPARENCY OR TERROR

Wikileaks also has 2,600 memos related to Nepal, 2,278 of them sent by the US Embassy in Kathmandu. US Ambassador Scott DeLisi issued a press release and met Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala to put forward a US point: No matter what the memos will reveal, the relationship between the two countries should continue as it was. For many, it meant that Nepal memos will be explosive. An ex-home secretary in Nepal termed it as an ‘information terror’.

Is it information terror? Yes, it is but only for those who have committed wrongs. Every evidence of wrongdoing is a terror for those involved in it.

There is a thin line dividing investigative journalism from stealing. But what we need to see is what the is motive behind the act and who the beneficiary is. In 1971, when The New York Times (NYT) and The Washington Post printed stories based on the leaked documents of US-Vietnam War – popularly called Pentagon Papers and classified top-secret – the US government tried to stop the publication but the final verdict that came through the US Supreme Court did not support the government attempt and that case is generally seen as the victory of First Amendment of US Constitution which states ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’.

The publication of Pentagon Papers proved that US governments had misled the public about the war. Citizens are not meant to be misled by the government voted by them; and transparency is a guiding principle for every democracy. The government has the authority to hide some important documents for national interest; but they as people elected by citizens neither have the right to act wrongly or mislead the people.

In the case of Wikileaks, the US government should have provided valid reasons and requested the site not to publish sensitive documents. Trying to bully made the US government look foolish. The US government’s efforts should have been concentrated on protecting sensitive documents, if there were any.

The Wikileaks publication is not creating an information terror, rather it’s an example of transparency and investigation – long practiced by journalists – to show the world the truth and any impact due to the releasing of the documents should rather be taken as, as Time magazine put, the consequences of the truth.

WHY IS US WORRIED?

A tweet tagged the Wikileaks read: It’s okay to be idiot but it’s not okay to be found out! The US is worried because during all those years as the most powerful nation, it had assessed noteworthy events and people in blunt, sometime foolishly derogatory, words. The memos were meant to be confidential, thus the diplomats were not worried about what they write and what would happen if they were leaked. And, when it’s leaked, it’s not the diplomatic faces of the US officials that are revealed but the truth below the hood of diplomacy.

The US is also worried because the release of memos will not only limit their assessment of events and people in future for many would fear giving them honest opinions but also endanger their diplomacy’s effectiveness and, in the worst case, jeopardize their relations with many countries, and people, which considered themselves ‘friends of the US’. The rebuilding of credibility and trust will take time and a lot of effort.

The US is also worried about the security of the people and organizations who/that provided them honest information which could enrage others in their homeland. But Wikileaks did not repeat the mistake of not removing names of innocent people from the documents that it did during the leakage of Afghanistan War memos.

IN DEFENSE OF WIKILEAKS

Wikileaks needs support at least from institutions advocating transparency and democracy. No matter how embarrassing it is for the US, the promoter of democracy worldwide should have restrained itself from attempting to kill the website. Rather their effort should have been concentrated in protecting the innocents by informing the whistle-blower website about data to be hidden and rebuilding trust with other nations.

Information empowers, and that’s true no matter how embarrassing or damaging the documents could be for a handful of people. Similarly, the leaked memos will empower all – even the US. The face of diplomacy can change; the security system for classified documents will change and most importantly, the diplomats at least will be careful about what they write.

As I have said earlier, motive and beneficiary distinguish between investigative journalism and stealing and in this case the motive seems to be flowing information (without very sensitive elements) and the beneficiary is the public. So no harm there!

In such a scenario, if transparency is terror to some, it’s those people who have committed mistakes and those committing mistakes who deserve to be terrorized.

(As published in Republica Op-Ed)

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