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21 April 2014 12:04 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane

WikiLeaks in the badlands - between a bullet and a target

  • Sipho Hlongwane
Citizen Cope’s lyric “But what you've done here, is put yourself between a bullet and a target” describes how a lot of people, journalists and activists and opposition politicians and the like, living in despotic countries feel these days. Except they were put in the tight spot by Julian Assange and his merry men. Do they need to get thrown in prison, or worse, before we start questioning how WikiLeaks operates?

I have a huge problem with WikiLeaks. My disquiet is only growing with each passing week. The whistle-blower organisation may ostensibly fit into the legal definition of “the press” in countries like the US, but it does not behave like a responsible news agency. That behaviour is going to eventually put lives at risk.

In June 1971, a very important ruling was made in the US Supreme Court. The case was The New York Times Co. v United States, and it set an important precedent on reading the First Amendment on classified information. Leakers of such information weren’t protected by the ruling, but the press was under the First Amendment. The case related to the leaked (and classified) Pentagon Papers, which Nixon tried to bar The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing.
What The New York Times did back then is very instructive, and stands as a counter to the way WikiLeaks is behaving now. They obtained the Pentagon Papers, and after seeking legal advice, satisfied themselves that they weren’t about to hand over sensitive secrets to the enemy, and then began publishing. The editors of The New York Times used their editorial nous, as one would expect from the press. When the Nixon administration obtained an injunction against the papers, they took the matter to the higher courts, and were absolved to continue publishing. (And as The New York Times fought Nixon, The Washington Post continued publishing the documents anyway.)

The New York Times didn’t publish the documents without any forethought into what their actions might translate into in the jungles of Vietnam. And when the government tried to stop them, they took the matter to the courts. They didn’t run. They didn’t threaten to release a “thermonuclear device” of unredacted information if their editors or publishers were arrested.

Now compare that to how WikiLeaks has gone about “protecting” itself over the last weeks. Its frontman Julian Assange went into hiding and promised to basically screw anybody over whose sensitive conversation with a US embassy official had been committed to cable (keep in mind that they’ve threatened to release unredacted Iraqi War Logs and Afghan War Diaries – who knows what might happen if that information made its way into Taliban hands).

I would love nothing more than for the US government to be made to answer in court why they’ve tried to hound WikiLeaks off the Internet when they can’t point out exactly which laws WikiLeaks has broken. Who knows, a precedent may be set against American commercial companies that prevents them from taking actions, such as frivolously cutting services to a news agency, which could be interpreted as contravening the First Amendment. But WikiLeaks doesn’t want its day in court, does it? It isn’t interested in being accountable to anybody.

Just because WikiLeaks is on the Internet, and is pushing a “new journalistic” model (someone actually said this to me recently – I repeat it here in jest, of course), doesn’t mean the law doesn’t apply to it.

Just remember, if WikiLeaks is not answerable to the courts, it isn’t answerable to the people either. Does it become a matter of public interest, or narrow self interest, then? Under the circumstances I’d seriously question whether what WikiLeaks is doing is in the public interest at all.

I have serious reservations about the “megaleaks” model as well. Dumping hundreds of thousands of documents on the Internet, leaving every reader to make up his own context and balance: investigative journalism or information vandalism? In the good old days of whistle-blowing, someone, usually an insider, would approach a journalist with a document that showed specific wrongdoing on the part of government. The documents would be published, but the journalist would also provide the context, and balance the piece properly. It would be “journalism”.

To their credit, The New York Times and the Guardian are attempting to put the cables they publish into context. And they refuse to publish some of the cables. I asked the Guardian why they didn’t publish the so-called “terrorist shopping list” and, according to its press office, editor Alan Rusbridger told Reuters his staff made a conscious decision not to run a story about the cable or link to it because they were uneasy about its content. “We're comfortable not to have done this one,” he said.

The result of this “megaleaks model” is that not enough time can be devoted to each and every cable from each and every country for proper redaction, analysis and contextualising. The megaleaks are, well, too mega. The implications for dissidents in hard-line regimes of these cables isn’t considered. News is, people are already getting into trouble in Zimbabwe thanks to the diplomatic cable leaks. Julian Assange’s defence that nothing bad has happened to anyone as a result of any leaks is ridiculous – editorial standards shouldn’t be based on the likelihood of something bad happening. I don’t imagine a local paper would have had trouble publishing and reporting on these cables in a nuanced way that shines greater light on diplomatic goings-on without putting the unity government in jeopardy.

It’s quite remarkable how quiet the “all information is created equal and wants to be free” nutjobs have gone now that WikiLeaks is screwing with the MDC in Zimbabwe. Or not so remarkable for people who can’t think further than their own noses.

The fourth estate has an important duty to the people. Democracy can’t function properly without people being able to make informed choices. Governments will do bad things if they think they can get away with hiding them from the people. Whistle-blowing is a very important part of democracy. But not in the form of WikiLeaks.

The world deserves better than an autocratic, whimsical, paranoid and eccentric watchdog like WikiLeaks.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for the poor sods in despotic countries that will now be in a very uncomfortable position thanks to WikiLeaks and their shoddy editorial rule book. To paraphrase Citizen Cope’s “A Bullet and a Target”, it won’t be long before they’re being pulled away by very nasty authorities. DM

  • Sipho Hlongwane
sipho hlongwane BW

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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