Wikileaks: Foe or Friend to Open Society?

Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha| AfroFutures.com Global Editor-At-Large| Harare

THERE was furore in Zimbabwe’s highest political circles when WikiLeaks – an international non-profit organisation that publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks, and whistleblowers –published classified US state department diplomatic cables on Zimbabwe. The leaks made news headlines and reflected, more than anything else, biases in editorial stance of state and privately-owned media outlets.32

In spite of Wiki Leak’s founder, Julian Assange’s belief that total transparency is for the good of all people, the impact of the spillage of US secrets has been controversial to say the least.

Like in Zimbabwe, the publication of the US state department diplomatic cables caused serious political fallouts in many countries around the world, including the United States itself, Belarus, Palestine, Tunisia among others. In a discussion held recently at the Columbia University Journalism School in partnership with Index on Censorship, one of the world’s preeminent advocacy organizations, panelists put the spilling of United States government secrets under the spotlight.

Mark Stephens, a lawyer who represented Assange at his extradition hearings, explained how Assange redefined society’s traditional view of whistle-blowers.

“The genius of Julian Assange was to recognize a gap in the market,” he said, arguing that Assange pioneered a new way of handling classified information. He also suggested that WikiLeaks has raised questions about how to handle an organization that exists outside of sovereign states’ regulations.

Panelist, P.J. Crowley, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, argued that Wikileaks had backfired against open expression.

“In pushing out 251,000 documents without regard for what was in them, Assange put in danger the very [democratic] activists he thought he was empowering. Possible consequences of this mean less information in cables, less information in discussions, so you have a less informed public service,” said Crowley.

In the wake of the WikiLeaks’ release in Zimbabwe, The Standard newspaper reported on alleged secret diamonds deals involving First Lady Grace Mugabe and the Reserve Bank Governor, Gideon Gono. The First Lady slapped the newspaper with a whooping US$15 million dollar lawsuit. In addition, the state media reported that the attorney general launched a probe to investigate Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s involvement in western sanctions following media reports of a classified US state department cable relating his meetings with Western ambassadors.

Nhlanhla Ngwenya, Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe director said that both the state- and privately owned local media had failed to report objectively on the WikiLeaks saga. He said that local media used the cables to buttress their editorial positions.

“The state media used the Wikileaks to sustain their editorial position against the opposition without noting that the leaks merely consisted of subjective assessments by individuals and not the official position of the US government. The private media did not make an effort to seek comment from the implicated sources,” he said.

“The thing is when you report on a personal opinion it should be balanced; the cables consisted of diplomatic opinions. If you report opinion as fact, there’s a problem.”

According to media analysts, Wikileaks risks “collateral murder” in the name of transparency. In other words, it can be used as a tool to suppress what its leader claims it stands for.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an associate editor at the Institute for Security Studies, a South Africa-based think tank was quoted by the Voice of America as saying that the spilling of the secrets could lead to destabilization in Zimbabwe. As events in Zimbabwe have revealed, the information leaked by WikiLeaks can potentially be used as a “political tool.”

“Certainly for southern Africa, the WikiLeaks Zimbabwe revelations are most significant, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they could destabilize Zimbabwe – and thus the region – even further in the months to come,” she said.

“I am not for one second saying WikiLeaks did not have the right to make the information public; I am merely exploring the possible ramifications now that this information is out there,” she added.

However, US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Charles A. Ray, was more blatant, calling Assange an opportunist.

“Mr Assange is an opportunist who has used this information for self-promotion. Along with freedom of the media is responsibility. Freedom of the press does not allow you to yell fire in a crowded theatre. It goes along with responsibility,” said Ray while addressing journalists at the Gweru Press Club.

“You need to be careful who you hold up as exemplars of a free press. Assange is certainly not a champion of freedom of the press, and he’s certainly no champion of people when he was told that the lives of some of the people in the leaked cables could be killed and his response was if they deal with the Americans then they probable deserve to be killed. I don’t even call him muckraker, I call him muck.”

At the panel discussion in New York, Richard Cohen, weekly columnist for The Washington Post posited that the massive leak of classified material will actually work against the Wikileaks’ goals of greater transparency in the long term.

“Assange proceeded without thought of the people affected. A lot of what was revealed was interesting but didn’t change any minds. It will intimidate people [in the future] from talking honestly,” he said.

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3 thoughts on “Wikileaks: Foe or Friend to Open Society?

  1. I think that most diplomats had a lot to hide and that is the reason for the loud noises. It is a great read and what then happens- to all since big brother is on all of us.

  2. A new discussion should emerge from the English premier league footbal star’s attempt at trying to gag social media using the law and money. But for Assange’s expose, everybody is affected differently and that is what forms the basis of their arguments-how they are affected, both state and non-state actors. most times the embarrassment brought by disclosure of private discussions is what irks the authorities but i think the debate will go on for years regradless of the effect of the revelations.

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