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Democracy in the digital age: WikiLeaks and the public right to know


WikiLeaks is best known for publishing "Collateral Murder", a video of US soldiers shooting Iraqi citizens.

Pacific Media Centre, Wendy Bacon

11 May, 2011

Five months after Julian Assange’s arrest, international debate continues about the impact and ethics of whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. Professor Wendy Bacon explains why new media outlets are playing an increasingly important role in democratic countries and why they are here to stay.

ANALYSIS: Australians can now celebrate a new federal shield law, passed by Federal Parliament in March, that recognises journalists’ ethical obligation to protect anonymous sources.

This law brings us into line with European countries such as France and Germany and most states (although not the federal jurisdiction) of the United States.

Thanks to an amendment by the Australian Greens, the law protects not just mainstream reporters but recognises others who use journalists’ ethics, including some bloggers and academics.

A disappointing development in the Australian government’s 2010 freedom of expression record, however, was its condemnation of its citizen Julian Assange, director of WikiLeaks – the internet news organisation that since 2007 has been publishing documents received from anonymous sources.

WikiLeaks is best known for publishing "Collateral Murder", a video of US soldiers shooting Iraqi citizens, and thousands of United States secret diplomatic cables.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the cables’ release an “... attack on the international community”, while other US politicians claimed WikiLeaks should be classified as a terrorist organisation.

There is a convention that governments will support the rights of their citizens who are under attack by foreign governments. Instead, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard followed the US lead, branding the actions of Assange as not only “... grossly irresponsible ...” but “... an illegal thing to do”.

She referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police, who predictably could not find any law had been broken.

Assange 'betrayed'
It seemed to some, like Victorian human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, QC, that Assange had been betrayed. Such condemnation encouraged the misconception that WikiLeaks was acting criminally.

In fact, support for WikiLeaks, like the support for shield laws, rests on broad ideas about the relationship between media and democracy.

At the heart of this relationship is journalists’ ethical obligation to respect the anonymity of sources. In most democracies, although to differing degrees, the law recognises the right of media organisations (as WikiLeaks has always described itself) to publish confidential information on behalf of what is called the ‘public right to know’.

It’s a mistake to assume WikiLeaks opposes secrecy in all circumstances. According to its website, the criteria WikiLeaks applies in deciding whether to publish leaks are these: that the information has not previously been revealed; that it was previously restricted, censored or otherwise withheld from the public; and the information is of political, diplomatic, ethical or historical significance.

WikiLeaks also has a practice of querying issues about the veracity of information. While these criteria are broad, they rule out publishing private or government information of no public interest.

Few argue that governments never need secrecy. One can understand, for example, that negotiation for the release of kidnapped citizens would need to be confidential.

The real issue is the openness of governments and whether they are actively misleading the citizens of their own and other countries.

Individual dramas
What is at stake are the boundaries of secrecy and whether citizens have a right to know what governments and large corporations are doing. In sadly predictable fashion, much of the Australian media’s focus has been on Assange himself.

While his individual dramas are gripping, it would be good to see more debate about the new information contained in the cables.

While it is an exaggeration to call the recent uprising in Tunisia a ‘Facebook revolution’, there seems little doubt the revelations in the cables showing the US government was well aware of the Tunisian rulers’ gross abuse and corruption played a part in inspiring the movement for democracy.

It’s unlikely those suffering under the oppressive regime were impressed by the US Ambassador’s recommendation that it was better to keep silent on corruption for broader strategic reasons.

In Australia, the 2009 defence white paper stated the Rudd government "... is opposed to the development of a unilateral national missile defence system by any nation because such a system would be at odds with the maintenance of global nuclear deterrence.”

It seems the public was misled as one cable states an author of the paper told the US embassy in June 2009 that Australia would continue to help the United States develop this weapons system.

Surely the Australian public should have been told this at the time.

Tsunami fallout
More recently, according to US diplomatic papers released by WikiLeaks in March, the Japanese government and nuclear industry failed to act on some earlier safety warnings outlined in the cables.

Today, the earthquake- and tsunami-affected country is still dealing with the fallout.

The impact of each cable can only be assessed in its particular context. Whether you support the general principles on which WikiLeaks is based will depend on your broader views about the relationship between democracy, transparency and accountability.

Whether you like it or hate it however, WikiLeaks is here to stay.

Those with an interest in international politics will be reading stories based on the cables for years. Already, the technological skills and imagination of a younger generation of media producers that made WikiLeaks possible have produced new initiatives.

Al Jazeera English recently published the largest ever leak on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and there is now an EnviroLeaks and even a Unileaks! The way we’re finding out information may be changing, but the principle of the public’s right to know, on which WikLeaks and its successors rely, remains the same.

This article was originally published by the University of Technology, Sydney, Newsroom website on the eve of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. It has been republished with permission.

"Collateral Damage"

About the authors

PMC profile photograph

Pacific Media Centre

PMC newsdesk

The Pacific Media Centre - TE AMOKURA - at AUT University has a strategic focus on Māori, Pasifika and ethnic diversity media and community development.

PMC profile photograph

Wendy Bacon

PMC Advisory Board member

Professor Wendy Bacon is a well known Australian investigative journalist and non practising media lawyer.


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