Tue | Jun 19, 2018

WikiLeaks: hero or villain?

Published:Wednesday | December 8, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Dennie Quill, Contributor

AS A journalist, I love to delve into unclassified information, but I don't particularly like to read other people's mail. I would not like anyone to peruse my personal information. Who among us would be comfortable with their most private utterances being made public? And aren't we all guilty of 'under-the-breath' mutterings that we would like to keep that way? So as the world salivated over the trove of confidential United States (US) diplomatic cables exposed in WikiLeaks' cables last week, I found it somewhat distasteful.

For sure, the media thrives on getting tips and leaks from insiders, and often publishes information that politicians and powerful people would rather keep secret. Politicians, police, the private sector and corporations have lots to hide. And we continue to hear the clamour by citizens: Give us more investigative journalism. But, while leaks can be a strong test on moral and, especially, legal grounds, history has shown that this is often the only way to get accountability and bring the corrupt to book.

Freedom of Information Act

And it is only in the last few years that many secret government documents have become public via the Freedom of Information Act. Accountability is an important feature of a democracy. But are there some national-security issues that ought to be guarded? Many people would say no and, in fact, no secret remains forever, for these secrets will one day be declassified. However, many argue that the people should be told everything now and that shining the light on how government conducts its business will ensure democracy works better for all.

Dedicated to revealing government secrets, Wikileaks, founded by 39-year-old Australian Julian Assange, began releasing thousands of US military documents on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in July. There was outrage at this, as many argued that the revelations would likely cause the deaths of those engaged in war, espionage and diplomacy.

Others applauded the whistleblower for his work, saying that when governments operate in secrecy, they often make poor judgment with disastrous results. The cables revealed inept management of the wars.

The war documents were followed up last week, with the release of more than 200,000 cables from US diplomats posted around the world. Among the information released by WikiLeaks is a cable in which US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton asked diplomats around the world to list sites, which, if destroyed, disrupted or exploited, would likely have a grave effect on the US. This list included undersea communications to suppliers of food, medicine and manufacturing materials. Was it necessary to release this information?

Hero or villain

To many people, Assange is a hero and media and others are arguing that the contents of the cables are in the public interest. To others, he is regarded as a villain whose motive is exceedingly malicious. For example, they ask, does the public really need to know that a US diplomat thinks the Italian Prime Minister is vain or that Zimbabwe's Mugabe is ignorant on economic issues. Is this really an attempt to embarrass the candour of American envoys?

Wikileaks has promised that banking documents are to be released next. We are not sure how his recent arrest in London, England, on rape and sexual assault charges will affect that timetable. But the world waits to see how this will play out.

So what is the lesson in all of this for the ordinary man? Doesn't all of this shatter the concept of confidentiality? Does the Internet pose a threat to all because of the ability of users to steal and post the most damning information in a place where millions of viewers will have access to that information? Frankly, in this age of Google, Twitter, Facebook and WikiLeaks, more people are being dragged into a corner of fear and distrust.