Why Wikileaks has changed journalism forever

December 8, 2010 · 7 comments

in Articles,journalism

It is becoming clearer day by day that the Wikileaks saga has changed journalism and citizen’s relationship with government forever. This is not about some temporary embarrassment to governments and their leaders but a sea change in the way we are ruled and the information we are entitled to expect about how decisions about our future are made.

Journalists have always known in their heart of hearts that their reporting on government has only been half the story. How to get the other half? How to sort out the truth from the propaganda? How to learn what is really going on—as distinct from what our leaders tell us is going on. Julian Assange and the whistle-blowers who have provided his organization with its sensational material have answered this.

Naturally, governments are not pleased. Assange is in jail in Britain over what looks like a very weak case—suspicion of rape in Sweden earlier this year. He has been labeled “a criminal” for facilitating the release of the secret documents, although no one can say what crime he has committed. The US authorities continue to do their best to close down the Wikileaks websites. Many of its bank accounts have been frozen. The more extreme elements on the American political scene have called for Assange to be kidnapped and “rendered” to the USA for trial, or failing that, for him to be assassinated.

But Wikileaks has them all over a barrel. It did not steal the documents; one or more whisteblowers did. All Wikileaks did was to publish them. So did the New York Times and thousands of other newspapers throughout the world. And freedom to publish material, secret or not, offensive or not, is enshrined in the American Constitution and has been confirmed by the US Supreme Court case of Near v Minnesota, 1931.

The government of Minnesota had banned publisher Jay Near’s anti-semitic, bigoted, racist, scandal-ridden sensationalist newspaper. The American Civil Liberties Union appealed on his behalf to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that freedom of speech was absolute. The Court agreed 5-4. Chief Justice Charles Hughes summed it up brilliantly: “The rights of the best of men are secured only as the rights of vilest and most abhorrent are protected.”

As for those who have argued that the Wikileaks material has destroyed the diplomatic process and that for diplomacy to function there must be some things kept secret, have they forgotten President Woodrow Wilson, who made “open diplomacy” number point of his famous 14 points in 1918.

“Diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view”, was Wilson’s argument and he would certainly have approved of Wikileaks actions, in contrast the current US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has called them “an attack on America’s foreign policy interests” and on “the international community”—though she failed to specify which community members were the victims, or of what they were the victims.

There has been some criticism of the media for concentrating on the more scandalous side of the revelations rather than on the terrible injustices revealed, such as that inflicted upon Khalid El-Masri. A German citizen, he was kidnapped while on holiday in Macedonia, taken to Morocco by CIA agents tortured there and later in Afghanistan on behalf of the US government.

The Americans eventually realized that he was who he had always said he was, a victim of mistaken identity. They were reluctant to release him, despite orders to do so from the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, because “he knew too much”. He was eventually dumped by the roadside in Albania.

Back in Germany he complained to the German authorities who issued criminal proceedings against the CIA officers responsible for his kidnapping, imprisonment and torture. The Wikileaks documents reveal that the US embassy in Berlin pressed the German government to block the proceedings because the outcome could have “a negative impact on bilateral arrangements”. The German government acceded to the request.

If that is the way that international diplomacy functions, then the sooner all is revealed the better. Unless the US Government succeeds in shutting down Wikileaks—and I do not think liberal America would stand for this—then Assange and his organization has a lot more suprises in store for us.