Saturday, 18 December 2010

WikiLeaks and Free Speech

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, and his website have gained such prominence following leaks of sensitive information. In the process, they have reignited issues of freedom of information / speech.
What is the ideology of WikiLeaks?
You have to use IP address for gaining access to their website [as the web hosts have kicked them out!] and their stated mission is:
“WikiLeaks is a non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for independent sources around the world to leak information to our journalists. We publish material of ethical, political and historical significance while keeping the identity of our sources anonymous, thus providing a universal way for the revealing of suppressed and censored injustices”. 
WikiLeaks came into prominence with the release thousands of documents on Afghan War and a video footage of Iraq War showing a collateral murder.  The footage shows US troops shooting civilians including two Reuters’ journalists and laughing over it  [Collateral murder].
Time Magazine had this on WikiLeaks - "Could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act."
Freedom of Speech
The US prides itself as a beacon of democracy and a practitioner of Free Speech.  The First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 established, in no unequivocal terms, the right to practice any religion and the freedom of speech and no law can ever be passed to overturn this.
It will not be exaggeration to say that the democracy is underpinned by journalism. Freedom of press does not exist outside of democratic societies. There is no democracy without press freedom.
The WikiLeaks saga, however, has raised questions on the limits to this freedom of speech. Journalists argue that they are in the disclosure business and revealing secrets is part of its trade description. “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising”. Lord Northcliffe, a news baron of the early 20th century. 
I can visualize the likes of Vinod Mehta and Manu Joseph, editors from Outlook and Open magazine respectively, nodding their head in agreement and grinning gleefully…[see Radia Tapes controversy- [Barkha Dutt 1 of 4 ;  Vir Sanghvi – but more on that some other time!]
More importantly the immediate questions that are being raised are –
·       Does freedom of speech equate to "freedom to publish all and any information one can gain access to"?
§  Do journalists carry a sense of responsibility for their actions?
§  Do they owe a duty of care and accountability?
These have surfaced in the wake of the latest set of WikiLeaks revelations and the investigations carried out by The Sunday Times and BBC’s Panorama into the activities of FIFABelievers and supporters of freedom of speech equally advocate right to privacy and exercise of discretion to ensure that public interest is served in such disclosures.
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Any discussions on freedom of speech would be incomplete without delving into the watershed case of ‘Pentagon Papers’. Daniel Ellsberg, a former government analyst had served in the Pentagon.  He later joined Defense Secretary Robert McNamara who had instituted a secret study on Vietnam War. Neither President Lyndon Johnson nor the Secretary of State knew about the study until its publication.  Ellsberg had contributed to this top-secret study regarding the conduct of the Vietnam War during 1967. The compilation of the study, which was contained in 43 volumes and 4100 pages, was completed in 1968.  These documents later became known collectively as the ‘Pentagon Papers’.
Initially Daniel Ellsberg tried to engage the National Security Adviser but failed.  In February 1971 Ellsberg discussed the study with New York Times and gave 43 of the volumes to them in March. The Times began publishing excerpts on June 13, 1971.  Subsequently, Ellsberg gave the documents to other newspapers.
President Nixon's first reaction to the publication was that since the study embarrassed the Johnson and Kennedy administrations, not his, he should do nothing. However, Kissinger convinced the president that not opposing publication set a negative precedent for future secrets [ of course to prevent release of the Watergate Scandal tapes!]. Kissinger went on to brand him as “The most dangerous man in America”. The administration argued Ellsberg and Russo were guilty of a felony under the Espionage Act of 1917, because they had no authority to publish classified documents.
After failing to persuade the Times to voluntarily cease publication on June 14,  the Attorney General and President Nixon obtained a federal court injunction forcing the Times to cease publication after three articles. The newspaper appealed the injunction, and the case NewYork Times v. United States and the case came up to the Supreme Court.  
On June 18, 1971, the Washington Post began publishing its own series of articles based upon the Pentagon Papers and the Assistant U.S. Attorney General not surprisingly asked the paper to cease publication. After it refused, the government unsuccessfully sought an injunction at a U.S. district court. The government appealed that decision, and on June 26 the Supreme Court agreed to hear it jointly with the New York Times case. Fifteen other newspapers received copies of the study and began publishing it. On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court decided, 6–3, that the government failed to meet the heavy burden of proof required for prior restraint injunction.  One of the judges wrote:
“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.” - Justice Black
Ellsberg said the documents "demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates". He added that he leaked the Papers to end what he perceived to be "a wrongful war".  He further added - “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”
Ellsberg surrendered to the authorities in Boston and admitted that he had given the papers to the press. He was later indicted on charges of stealing and holding secret documents by a grand jury in Los Angeles. Federal District Judge Byrne declared a mistrial and dismissed all charges against Ellsberg [and Russo] on May 11, 1973, after several irregularities appeared in the government's case.
[A viewing of the Pentagon Papers documentary entitled “The most dangerous man in America” is highly recommended].
How does this compare with WikiLeaks?
WikiLeaks’ reported source, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, having watched Iraqi police abuses, and having read of similar and worse incidents in official messages, reportedly concluded, “I was actively involved in something that I was completely against.” Rather than simply go with the flow, Manning wrote: “I want people to see the truth … because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public,” adding that he hoped to provoke worldwide discussion, debates, and reform.  WikiLeaks released the video as well 250,000 documents of diplomatic cables, now referred to as “Cablegate”.
In contrast to Pentagon Papers, critics of WikiLeaks point out that, WikiLeaks’s huge data dump as an indiscriminate act of dissemination of data that included the names of agents and sensitive diplomatic cables endangering lives in the process. Some have even likened it to no more than rifling through the neighbour's bins and publishing their bank statements on the internet. The official line is that diplomacy depends on secrecy. It is part of statecraft going far back into history. By compromising secrecy, WikiLeaks and the media outlets that feed off its website are placing the whole system of international relations in jeopardy.
The notion that millions of Americans already had access to 250,000 confidential diplomatic files beggars belief. Many of the diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks confirm what journalists, and most sensible citizens, loathe — that what is said in private does not accord with what is said in public.  Diplomats regard such hypocrisy as typical, just as they accept the compromises necessary to get along with despots. It is part of their trade.
However, the history of journalism suggests that democracy has benefited from a knowledgeable and informed citizenry. Society thrives on transparency and accountability.
Politicians have, however, resisted such notions including the reporting / televising of Parliament or Senate or Congress for years. This does not mean that freedom of speech war has been won because those in the know inevitably develop alternative ways to conceal things from the public's knowledge.
However, In the digital age both journalists and citizens have many ways to discover more than ever before. It is easy for whistle-blowers to bring material to the public domain.  Based on the leaks thus far, short-term consequences might be embarrassing, though it is questionable whether they will ever be as catastrophic as so many officials and spokesmen are claiming.
At the same time, it is changing the face of journalism too. The newspaper journalists have now the responsibility to turn the leaked cables into sensible, readable news.  Contemporary journalists are still doing what their ancestors did, that is, making sense of heaps of knowledge for the wider public good.
Persecution of Assange
It is not totally unexpected then, given the red faces in the administration, Julian Assange is being pursued by the Interpol, the Swedish Sergeants, the British Police and commercial organizations like Mastercard, Paypal and even Amazon have jettisoned him. Most of the media are demanding that Julian Assange be hunted down, with some politicians calling him to be branded a terrorist and punished with a death penalty. It would not be far fetched to speculate that the various actions being pursued are at the behest of US, whether by arm-twisting its cronies or by its allies across the world.
Daniel Ellsberg commented - "If I released the Pentagon Papers today, the same rhetoric and the same calls would be made about me. I would be called not only a traitor—which I was then, which was false and slanderous—but I would be called a terrorist... Assange and Bradley Manning (Private from US army – the source of the leak) are no more terrorists than I am. Every attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time.
WikiLeaks has let the genie of transparency out of a very opaque bottle, and powerful forces in America, who thrive on secrecy, are trying desperately to stuff the genie back in.  Ironically enough, in a recent commentary in Pravda: “What WikiLeaks has done is make people understand why so many Americans are politically apathetic … After all, the evils committed by those in power can be suffocating, and the sense of powerlessness that erupts can be paralyzing, especially when … government evildoers almost always get away with their crimes. …
The American people should be outraged that their government has transformed a nation with a reputation for freedom, justice, tolerance and respect for human rights into a backwater that revels in its criminality, cover-ups, injustices and hypocrisies.”
 “The corruption of the press is part of our sad reality, and it reveals the complicity of the oligarchy.” Monsenor Romero.  Sadly, that is also true of the media situation across the world today.
The challenge is to make the truth available in a straightforward way so that the public can draw its conclusions.
“There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nothing hidden that will not be made known. Everything you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight; what you have whispered in locked rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops.” – SAAII.
As Charles Dickens put it, “There is nothing so strong ……. as the simple truth.”
As the Chinese curse goes – “May you live in interesting times”  - The Assange judicial saga has just begun!!!!!.  Meanwhile the fight for freedom of speech takes a new turn….with retaliatory cyber attacks!!! 


  1. Well written Sridhar!
    Real leaders would apologize to their people for allowing injustice and crime to happen under their leadership. And, most importantly, they would present and implement actions that would ensure that repeated power abuse cannot happen.
    But what are these weaklings doing instead? They are rejecting responsibility and blaming the whistleblower. That is certainly not how to rebuild a shattered repution! They are just digging themselves deeper into the mud.

  2. What exactly is meant by wikileak?? still not clear :(

  3. Sorry to be contrary Sridhar...who is Assange to decide what secrets to expose or not? How do we trust his ethics?
    What next if he trains his sights on corporates, and makes public things which for good reason are kept confidential. How does one draw the line between confidential and sectret?

  4. Agree with a lot of your views, however I am not sold on Assange's integrity nor his motives. All we can gather so far is that he is a hacker par excellence and is wielding his power in a sensational way.I do not believe his 'non profit' status either. In principle and theory, freedom of speech is a sacred privilege, but do I trust this man and Wikileaks with the security of my country and myself? Heck, NO!

  5. @ Chris - Thanks. Agree, there is absolutely no accountability and the nexus between corporates, politicians, mainstream media is just too strong....instead of focussing on the root issues, they are indulging in shooting the messenger...

    @ Jay - Wiki is typically refers to an open site for people to come and contribute and wikileaks is a site that enables whistleblowers to leak without fear of long as they don't go and gloat as Brad Manning did...

    @ Janani - What you need to bear in mind is that Assange is not a spy trying to snoop; his site enables people to come and squeak when they see unethical practices or illegal activities in their institutions. He is a facilitator and not someone engaged in espionage. Somewhat similar to the recent scoop by the Telegraph in the UK on MPs expenses scandal. Public has every right to know of any unethical practices carried out ostensibly under its approval. Such actions should neither be confidential nor a secret. Persecuting the messenger is just not on... instead they need to address the fundamental issues and raise ethical standards.

    @ Anonymous - Agreed he is a code breaker but the information he has released thus far has been gained through a whistleblower. If whistleblowers vent unethical or illegal practices in their organisations..his site brings it into the open. Even if it is commercially run, certainly the cause espoused is worth it and welcome...

    I agree with you that Assange need not be the guardian of security. Security of the country is with the administration but more than a million people had access to that!! The focus is misplaced...instead of persecuting Assange US should review its data security and access control and not mislead the public with disinformation.

  6. Agree that USA and other countries seem to have over reacted and gone after the proverbial messenger. Perhaps the awkwardness at being caught with their pants down? The State department does concede that their security systems are pitifully short. From my POV, Assange seems to have an ax to grind with the US, in particular, and his take on things come off as anarchist. His motives are fuzzy at best and do not impress me as being noble and altruistic. Do not believe he is being persecuted - the media and international attention are giving him near martyr status. Is it so surprising that countries react the way they do when they are concerned about what he will 'expose' next?

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