Publish and be Damned

Saturday, 11 December 2010 00:00 GFP Columnist - Helen Briton Wheeler
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The most startling thing about the WikiLeaks revelations has been the reaction to them. Whether or not you support what WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange have done, the response raises very serious questions about freedom of information, transparency in government and the independence of the judiciary.

The above three are central planks of any healthy democracy. Regimes which do not allow freedom of information, transparency in government and independence of the judiciary frequently fall into the category of rogue states. We may applaud or deplore what WikiLeaks has done, but if we throw out the cherished foundations of our democracy in order to persecute Julian Assange, then we are doing our whole societies a very grave disservice.

And while we speak of the persecution of Julian Assange, why are the editors-in-chief of The New York Times, The Guardian in Britain, El Pais in Spain and Der Spiegel in Germany not also being pursued and vilified? That would seem consistent since these respected publications have also published leaked US Embassy cables.
 

The leaked cables have almost certainly been supplied to WikiLeaks by US personnel who have access to them. How many officials have access to such cables and why some are obviously so disenchanted with their government is an internal – and surely vital – question for US authorities. Leaking information is not unusual. Over past decades and around the globe, much government material has been leaked to the media – some by governments themselves when they thought it to their advantage – and the media organisations have happily published them. No precedent has been set here, although the scale and scope of the US Embassy cables is exceptional.

Much of what the cables contain is unsurprising. We may chuckle to read the thumbnail character sketches: Silvio Berlusconi has a penchant for partying hard, who would have thought it? Or that his close friend Vladimir Putin, known for releasing such gems as footage of himself shirtless and riding bareback on a horse, is really an “alpha dog” who runs the Russian government behind the scenes? Who could have believed this? Possibly only the millions of readers worldwide who keep up with global current events.

However, these unexceptional observations seem to have embarrassed the US State Department. The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has condemned the publication of the cable leaks as “irresponsible”. She may be right and is entitled to her opinion, though many of her countrymen and women don’t share it. Importantly, the furore over the value of much of the cable content is obscuring a very significant point.

Some leaked material is quite certainly in the public interest. Government corruption, for example, and the close alliance of Berlusconi and Putin. On the US side, video footage taken from a helicopter of two unarmed news photographers being gunned down – and the accompanying commentary – indicate at best grossly inadequate rules of engagement and, at worst, an immoral view that collateral damage – civilian deaths – is no big deal, it’s not, for example state condoned murder.

What is state condoned murder? What is a war crime? Those big questions are in the national interest. Democratic governments act in the name of their citizens. The morality of what is done in our names is vital to the health of a society. We have a right to know what standards governments set and express our views on that.

When governments go to war they put lives at risk: the lives of their military personal (our siblings, grandchildren, sons and daughters) and the lives of civilians caught up in conflict not of their making. If there is one government action above all others that causes deaths it is the decision to go to war.

In the current conflict in Afghanistan, the lives of military personnel and taxpayer money have both been used up by the US Government, the NATO Governments involved and the Australian Government. In return for our personal and financial investment, our governments owe us transparency and accountability in their words and actions.

Governments should not lie about the reasons for going to war. Former US ambassador Joseph Wilson courageously put his job on the line to expose lies about the reasons for invading Iraq. The man is a hero. Similarly heroic are those who have made personal sacrifices to reveal brutality, torture, corruption and ineffective action in Afghanistan. There have been a number of courageous media people and documentary makers in this category.

They are doing us a great public service. Transparency and truth in government are essential. We should not allow the embarrassment of US authorities and rather light nature of some of the WikiLeaks cables to obscure the fundamental importance of freedom of information and holding our governments to account.

A small number of right wing personalities have called for Julian Assange to be killed. That is incitement to murder, surely a much greater crime than any he may (or may not) have committed. Remember he has only been accused of rape, and initially the case was thrown out in Sweden for lack of a strong legal basis. How this contested accusation put him on Interpol red alert is a mystery.

I seriously suspect there has been interference with the independence of the Swedish judiciary. Julian Assange’s lawyers say the case against him is being pursued for political reasons. It certainly appears that way. This is once again a black mark for democracy, an undermining of one of our most cherished freedoms, independence of the judiciary.

In pursuing Julian Assange for reasons of embarrassment, anger, hurt pride, or whatever, authorities are in danger of gravely setting back freedom of information and accountability of our governments and judicial freedom. This is a watershed time for Western democracies.

Image Courtesy of DayLife - A woman and her son holds up a placard supporting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as thousands of Australians rally around the country in protest, in Melbourne on December 10, 2010. The protest was to support the 39-year-old Assange who remains on remand in Britain on sexual assault allegations, with the rallies designed to coincide with international human rights day. - Getty Images



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