Speaking Truth to Power?

If you were asked a month ago to name the world’s most influential websites, there would have been only one “Wiki” making the list. But after more than 91,000 classified documents, entitled the “Afghan War Diary”, were published in July, people should become used to the idea of Wikipedia being joined on that power list by its partial namesake, WikiLeaks. 

The freedom of information website published the documents leaked from the American armed forces in conjunction with the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. Since then, the controversial website and its Bond villain lookalike founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange have been criticised. The leaked sensitive intelligence includes previously unreported details of friendly fire incidents, civilian casualties, Afghan informants and the suspected involvement of Pakistan and Iran in the insurgency, which could, said the Pentagon, jeopardise the safety of Nato and Afghan troops. The Times reported that the names of informants and their fathers, their villages, tribes and GPS co-ordinates for their homes had been published. These were men such as “[named person who] wanted to help us as much as possible…[but] they were afraid that the people in the next village would see them talking to Americans.” This led to the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, stating in a press conference that Assange “can say whatever he likes about the greater good he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier”.

Five human-rights organisations, including Amnesty International and the Open Society Institute, joined in the criticism because of their concern for the safety of Afghans named in the documents.

Assange has indeed cast the leak, and the role of WikiLeaks in general, as pivotal in achieving the “greater good”, even if some individuals are endangered along the way. He wants people to be able to assess their country’s role in the Afghanistan war with all the facts in their grasp: “You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere.”

He compares himself favourably with those journalists and media magnates who think of profit above principle when filling their pages, and the motivation is a good one. After all, the purpose of news providers should be to inform the public of things that are in its interest to know. And this isn’t necessarily going to be the same kind of material that makes a profit. But people such as Assange should be cautious about taking the moral high ground — the fall from there is much greater than for those who just chase the buck.

Wikipedia and WikiLeaks have a lot in common. They are both open and self-monitoring databases that operate on the idea that everyone and everything is fair game in the search for what they call truth, but what is actually just transparency. To get at the truth of the Afghanistan war, and whether it is worth it, one would have to see both sides of the story. And this transparency often comes at the cost of someone’s privacy — something Sarah Palin found out when WikiLeaks published her emails from her personal account. To Assange, privacy is an accomplice to conspiracy, and should always be violated to shine a light on the lives of those in power.

The internet has certainly changed journalism. But whether or not Assange’s crusade is the right one, he still relies on those profit-seeking media magnates who recognised that the war log would sell a lot of papers and who condensed the 91,000 documents into something that people would read. 

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