Thursday, August 26, 2010

Another Inconvenient Side of Democracy: WikiLeaks

Julian Assange
The defense of market economies and liberal democracies has been a fundamental part of the discourse of Western societies in recent decades. Not surprisingly, right at the the end of the Cold War Francis Fukuyama declared that the triumph of the West sealed "the end of history", with which the great conflicts of the past would begin to disappear while political and economic freedoms would be extended throughout the world. The benefits of democracy are told in countless ways, and the freedoms people enjoy in the West are often contrasted with the great limitations people face in other civilizations; it immediately comes to mind the image of a young Californian woman next to another woman from Afghanistan where the latter is covered by a burqa.

However, the often-touted democratic principles -that have also been used as an excuse for military incursions in places anywhere in the globe- in many occasions create uncomfortable situations even for those who claim to be their main supporters. In 2006 with the launch of the website one of these situations started to consolidate and we have seen these democratic principles subject to a number of exceptions. As in other occasions, we have also seen how they are arranged before the reality and the protagonists of the moment, tempered to ensure the preservation of the status quo or, in general, re-defined with a series of "buts."

WikiLeaks, a company created by the Australian computer programmer with studies in physics and mathematics, Julian Assange,  has taken the task of disclosing documents that governments and large companies around the world considered confidential and contain information that compromises the interests of various parties. In many cases the information that reaches the public eye thanks to the work of Assange and his colleagues has been a motive of scandal, and has led to significant political changes. A clear example of this occurred in Kenya with the disclosure of documents showing a case of extreme corruption by the government, which meant its defeat in its attempt for being re-elected. With this scandal WikiLeaks appeared to the world eyes as an organization that seeks to fight corruption and expose classified information.

Another important step for the organization occurred last April with the publication of the famous video "Collateral Murder" in which American soldiers carried out an attack against civilians, some of them minors, during the war in Iraq in 2004. As a result of the operation that appears in the video, at least eighteen people were killed, including two journalists from the Reuters news agency. After three years of trying to get the video jealously hidden by the U.S. government, Reuters fails and only has access to it when it is released by WikiLeaks.
"Collateral Murder"

Following this series of information leaked to the public, last July 26 WikiLeaks gives its most notable blow -some people even consider it the most important journalistic work in history- by posting to its website about 77000 confidential documents of the United States government on its military operations in Afghanistan. The documents include information about secret meetings between Pakistani and Taliban members and the concealing of the death of civilians, victims of the armed conflict. At the same time, WikiLeaks maintains its announcement of posting 15000 additional documents concerning this war.

The WikiLeaks working model is similar to that adopted by some modern organizations such as Mozilla, OpenOffice, Ubuntu or Wikipedia: contributors throughout the world share their knowledge and information for the development of a common project. While WikiLeaks is not technically a wiki in the strict definition of the term, as the publications are classified and verified by the organization before reaching the public, and are not directly under users' control, the virtual community contributes to the compilation of documents by sending the material, they believe, must be disclosed. WikiLeaks encrypts the material so it is not captured by the tracking systems of governments or companies involved, and distributes it on different servers in various locations around the world. The documents are presented in their original form, without processing or analysis, and for security reasons the sources are omitted.

In this regard, the issue of the informants safety has been one of the most important points of criticism against WikiLeaks; according to the official discourse, the physical integrity of the informants can be put at risk by the nature of the information that is published. The government of the United States has called WikiLeaks irresponsible, a threat to national security, and has even said that they might have blood on their hands. Aware of the risks involving its publications, the organization recently proposed the Pentagon's review of the 15000 documents yet to be released in order to eliminate the names and information of people who may be jeopardized after the publication. In response, the Pentagon has shown its refusal to release what it calls a "minimized" or "sanitized" version of WikiLeaks. At the same time, the personal attacks on Assange include a recent demand on charges of sexual abuse, which were removed a few hours later for lack of foundation: a clear amateur smear tactic and an attempt to deflect attention before the additional documents are released.

In the opposite direction, the organization receives press awards in new media with origins as diverse as The Economist in 2008 or Amnesty International in 2009. Also, the Icelandic government, who condemns the restriction on information on bank statements provided to the public, prepared a law package to be implemented next year and that would make the country a "Global Press Freedom Haven." In terms of the public opinion, the donations received by the organization grow exponentially while campaigns are initiated through the web so that those who declassify information are be considered as defenders of democracy and not as criminals, as it has been the case in recent months.

The discussion on the democratic nature of WikiLeaks is precisely one of the topics that generates most controversy. Whereas for governments and companies interested in hiding information, Assange's work represents a serious threat to democracy, activists and independent journalists, among many others, consider this work essential for the proper functioning of the institutions in which democracy is based. Press freedom and access to information are a fundamental pillar of any society that wants to be called democratic, and what the work of WikiLeaks does is precisely exposing a large volume of information, although much of it is rather inconvenient.

Not surprisingly, then, given the benefits that the control of information has meant to many governments and businesses over history, there have been several attempts to silence these voices and censor the material that can be released by WikiLeaks. Thus, when the information is in the hands of those who can manipulate it and twist it to further their objectives, and thus make the public receive the image that matches the one that favors them, we hear talks about defending freedom of the press and access to information. A quite different situation occurs when the information falls in the "wrong hands" and is used to reveal the darkest secrets of these governments and companies, their despicable practices and the concealment of truth in the eyes of the masses who elected them through democratic mechanisms. In this case speaking of censorship, State secrets and restrictions on information, is quite reasonable for those who pride themselves on being champions of democracy.

Before the scandals that have surfaced thanks to the work of WikiLeaks, the response has been to condemn the means by which these facts have been revealed and not the facts themselves. It's the typical practice of killing the messenger who brings bad news, and is a clear lack of attention to the real underlying problems. As stated by Assange in reference to "Collateral Murder": "[The video] sends a message that some people within the military don’t like what is going on." But the solution has been to silence dissenter voices instead of reviewing the practices that lead to the growing dissent.

The type of work done by WikiLeaks plays a key role in the Web 2.0 scenario in which we live today. Until recent years the public was far from having access to information as it was mainly produced and processed by large companies that own the media. Similarly, it was difficult for opposition voices to reach many places, which facilitated the manipulation of the masses based on false information or on convenient interpretations. With the emergence of social networks, blogs, wikis and video sharing sites, among others, ordinary citizens become mass producers of information and opinions, and find many spaces where debate them. However, only with the emergence of sites such as WikiLeaks the ability to access first hand information appears, and the accurate analysis of this information will be the work of academics, journalists, analysts and independent users.

While those with intentions of hiding information are striving to silence WikiLeaks and consider it a threat to democracy, it is the responsibility of the voices in favor of it to fight for transparency in the practices of governments and businesses. We can not talk about democracy in societies where people do not know what their governments do with the power that these people decided to give them. And if we do not like the information in the hands of the public, then, what democracy are we talking about?


  1. Great piece Julian ! nice one :D

  2. Very good article, nice work Julian :)

  3. Regrettable as war may be, you don't win wars by divulging strategy, errors, or weakness. Also, in classifying any type of document, a government has rendered that document to be a legal instrument, making it's disclosure a criminal act. Those responsible should not be surprised if they find themselves suffering the legal consequences of their actions, i.e., a very long time in prison.

  4. nice one julian