There has always been a level of responsibility placed on journalists and the media, which has extended to human rights organisation who genuinely seek to act for social good. The foundations for both human rights organisations and the media has been to seek truth, to verify sources, to ensure an honest portrayal of facts; this can easily be challenged and certainly in more recent years the media has been accused of breaking from these principles and responsibilities. Wikileaks provide a whole new world for both news and also social activism; many believe them to be a spotlight shining on the worst aspects of governments, opening them up to transparency and accountability. Clearly such a light is necessary; there are many famous cases of whistle blowing, such as Watergate, where speaking truth was vital. The work of investigative journalists and social movement organisations, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, has held accountable governments, criminals, and murders across the world. Cases of corrupt government, of injustice, and of impunity, have been challenged to save lives, to intervene in crises caused by oppressors, and to protect the innocent.
As a Board member of the human rights organisation Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems International (HURIDOCS), and an academic who works with human rights organisations and the use of information, I am well aware of the importance of high quality, timely, and accurate information, which is at the core of human rights work. The same values are required for the media, with credibility a shared aspiration. Wikileaks aspires to “…provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists…” They claim that “Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society’s institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations. A healthy, vibrant and inquisitive journalistic media plays a vital role in achieving these goals. We are part of that media.” Since the launch of wikileaks in 2007 they have published on highly controversial and important issues including: War, Killing, Torture and Detention; Government, Trade and Corporate Transparency; Suppression of free speech and a free press; Diplomacy, spying and (counter-) intelligence; Ecology, climate, nature and sciences: Corruption, finance, taxes, trading; Censorship technology and internet filtering; Cults and other religious organizations; Abuse, violence, violation. In undertaking this campaigning journalism they have encountered threats and challenges, and have undoubtedly provided information that holds authority accountable.
The latest Wikileaks campaign is making public some 251,287 United States Embassy Cables, containing communication about the United States and its foreign activities. Amongst this sea of information there are 15,652 documents classified as Secret. The leaks have caused a huge interest from media around the world, some causing embarrassment, all of which might be good for transparency and accountability, but are they ultimately good journalism and for social good. More importantly, how might these leaks impact upon trust and diplomacy between states, who also need high levels of security in their dealings. If we seek responsible governments, who discuss international affairs with integrity, will the sharing of these leaks aid or restrain such bridge building and discussion. The claim of freedom of speech and freedom of the press is a clarion call, and injustice or malpractice must be accounted for by governments, but there is also a responsibility to be balanced – no right is absolute. Therefore whilst are intrepid friends in Wikileaks must continue their battle to expose the worst they must also consider what damage they may cause by ill-judged leaks that could damage diplomacy and international relations.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society