WikiLeaks is a journalistic organisation that publishes secret information on behalf of anonymous sources. When the site launched in 2006, it was claimed to have over 1.2 million secret documents within a year of its launch. More recently, WikiLeaks made front page news when a number of significant documents were leaks to the public. In April 2010, the site published gunsight footage from the 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike in which Iraqi journalists were among those killed by an AH-64 Apache helicopter – this was famously known as the Collateral Murder video.
Julian Assange, a computer programmer, hacker and internet activist is generally regarded as WikiLeaks’ founder, editor-in-chief and director – he has made it his life’s work to exposing truths and making people and organisations accountable for any unjust and immoral behavior. Recently, Assange was alleged to have committed four sexual offences by the Swedish Director of Prosecution. In 2012, facing extradition to Sweden, he sought refuge at the Embassy of Ecuador in London and was granted political asylum by Ecuador.
A documentary about WikiLeaks, entitled; ‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks was released in the United Sates on October 18, 2013. This highly acclaimed film covers a period of several decades and includes considerable background material and interviews with people involved in the collection and distribution of secret information.
Students are will be required to provide an argumentative essay on one of the following topics:
- Privacy in the 21st Century: is it dead?
- WikiLeaks: is it good for democracy or a hindrance to it? Is Julian Assange and his team making history by increasing accountability and improving the democratic process or are they simply whistle blowers severely damaging diplomacy and democracy whilst giving investigative journalism a bad name?
TED TALKS ON PRIVACY
Glenn Greenwald was one of the first reporters to see — and write about — the Edward Snowden files, with their revelations about the United States’ extensive surveillance of private citizens. In this searing talk, Greenwald makes the case for why you need to care about privacy, even if you’re “not doing anything you need to hide.”
WHISTLEBLOWING AND WIKILEAKS: IS IT GOOD FOR DEMOCRACY OR A HINDRANCE TO IT?
The unsanctioned publication and distribution of government documents regarding surveillance and the operations of armed forces in the United States has become prevalent in recent years through sites such as WikiLeaks and individual whistle blowers such as Edward Snowden. Those who support such enterprises highlight the fact that transparency of government is a critical pillar of democracy, whilst those who oppose whistle-blowing claim that such leaks are a threat to national security. Although often grouped together as a result of their ideological similarities, WikiLeaks, run by Australian activist Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden differ greatly in the care with which they distribute secret government documents and files.
In order to achieve a free and fair democratic society the people must hold the government accountable for their actions, essentially, a society needs governmental transparency. However, governments of modern countries, for example the United States, seek to operate with a high degree of secrecy to avoid public scrutiny and to combat the perceived threat of terror groups. In such a society, namely the United States, it often falls on individual whistle blowers to highlight exactly what the government is capable of doing; allowing the general public to evaluate the veracity of programs run by said government. Edward Snowden, in detailing the surveillance capabilities of the U.S. was one such whistle blower. Snowden released an archive of documents regarding mass surveillance programs run by the U.S. on its own citizens, revealing the truly Orwellian truth behind America’s shadowy National Security Agency (NSA) and their operations. When asked by the BBC’s Peter Taylor why he released the archive, Snowden stated that “I say that the public statements of our government were inconsistent with the reality of what was actually happening to everybody in the world” clarifying that “we’re not talking about terrorist suspects, all of our communications are being intercepted all of the time in the absence of any suspicion of wrong doing” . Due to the fact that this was occurring without the knowledge of the people whom a democratic government is meant to be of, by and for, the release of such information was integral in upholding the democratic process. Snowden’s motives were, in fact, highly democratic themselves; he notes that the reason for leaking the documents was to “allow the American people to decide” whether these programs were in their best interests. Furthermore, Snowden took great care in ensuring that the information he gave to journalists to publish would be correctly censored to avoid causing serious threats to national security. Unfortunately, the New York Times failed to properly redact part of a slide making it possible for the general public to see information regarding specific military operations, causing a threat to soldiers on the ground. However, such slip-ups are a small price to pay for a government which is accountable to their people.
WikiLeaks chooses a different means to the same end. While WikiLeaks also seeks to achieve governmental accountability, they have often been labelled as far more militant in the content they choose to publish. WikiLeaks is essentially an online newsletter for governmental secrets rather than a whistle blower, that is, they receive information from people like Edward Snowden. WikiLeaks have often been criticised for releasing documents which are too sensitive to be in public circulation, such as the CIA e-mails released less than a week ago on the site. Leaks such as these have the potential to cause threats to operatives on the ground, however, surely those fighting for the apparent freedom of their country would prefer it to be a truly free and fair democracy.
The biggest argument levelled against whistle blowing in America as a whole is made by government officials and conservative news media sources such as Fox News. The basis of their criticism is always national security; specifically, those who oppose whistle blowing and support mass surveillance and the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” use the fear of terrorism to progress their own political agendas. This blatant fear mongering has been a highly effective tool used by such individuals and organisations to convince the American public that government secrets should remain secret and that mass surveillance keeps America safe. However, in the words of one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, will deserve neither and lose both”. The threat of terror is essentially non-existent when compared to the amount of liberties modern day western societies forfeit to their governments. For instance, in the United States, the average American is 8 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. Furthermore, according to studies done by two investigatory panels appointed by the White House, mass surveillance programs were not effective tools in stopping terrorist attacks. Hence, to claim that preventing whistle blowers and allowing mass surveillance is simply fear mongering.
Although criticised by some, the role played by whistle blowers such as Edward Snowden and by distribution sites such as WikiLeaks is vital to the preservation of free and fair democracy in the western world at large. In the words of Edward Snowden “There can be no faith in government if our highest offices are excused from scrutiny – they should be setting the example of transparency”. Hence, whistle blowing is good for democracy.
What do you value? Honesty, transparency, free speech, courage? Despite all controversy, WikiLeaks abides by all that we value and exposes cringe-worthy injustices in our society.
WikiLeaks promises to bring ‘truth to the world’ while at the same time, keep our society in check. Some governments and organisations have attempted to shut WikiLeaks down, saying it publishes private, secret information that could put lives at risk. I believe that these people feel threatened by the possibility of WikiLeaks revealing uncomfortable material. The possibility that they may be WikiLeaks’ next target. Unlike other media organisations, WikiLeaks is not for profit and offers whistleblowers a way to reveal information without the risk of retaliation. WikiLeaks should be kept operating because if truth, and honest governments and organisations are important to us in our democratic society then WikiLeaks deserves a place in our world.
Imagine you are going to the city for work just like any other day. A helicopter is circling, but you aren’t sure why – you’re carrying no weapons, you aren’t related to any criminals and you’re only doing your job. They fire. They shower the ground with bullets and hit you, your crew, your friends, everyone. Dead. This is what happened to Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen in 2007 Baghdad. The U.S. military army killed 12-18 innocent people including 2 children, who officers thought were insurgents. But in actual fact they killed Reuters news staff and children, not terrorists, carrying camera equipment, not weapons and who meant no harm whatsoever. WikiLeaks exposed this injustice 3 years later, after Reuters had attempted to attain the footage under the Freedom of Information Act but without success. The government wouldn’t budge. The WikiLeaks’ website states that they aim to ‘reveal suppressed and censored injustices’ even though this may cause controversy, the families of the deceased had a right to know. WikiLeaks shone a light on this issue with the attacks receiving worldwide coverage provoking a global discussion on the legality and morality of the attack. Consider, if your actions were constantly being watched, wouldn’t you think twice before acting? Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.” Numerous scientific studies have shown that people behave better if they believe they are being watched. WikiLeaks can keep organisations in check by acting like a watchdog.
Switzerland the home of Lindt chocolate has $1.6 trillion in the banking system. Recently, WikiLeaks published a list of the top 100 Indian depositors of Swiss Banks who hold about $2 billion of what has been referred to as Black Money that is, funds where tax has not been paid. If you think about how almost 30% of India’s population is below the poverty line you can understand why the Indian people are demanding its government claw this money back into the country. But, whilst tax evasion is illegal, tax avoidance is not and the pursuit of WikiLeaks in exposing these inequalities and morally unjust practices, have forced Switzerland to disclose more information on its Swiss bank clients. Without this pressure, the Swiss banks would have continued to operate without public scrutiny, and the result would have been shameful. WikiLeaks can continue to work together with other (media) organisations to uncover such injustices.
On many occasions WikiLeaks is the first to ‘break a story’, but why WikiLeaks? It’s the power of being anonymous; if not even WikiLeaks can identify their own sources, how can others? Therefore, WikiLeaks website is by far the safest platform to upload such confidential information. WikiLeaks can be used to expose the truth to reduce the unfairness in our world today.
Our country values ‘freedom of speech and expression’, so what reason is there to prohibit WikiLeaks presenting either informative, shocking or frivolous issues. This was evident with the ‘Je suis Charlie’ protest in France. Charlie Hebdo, published a cartoon depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in a way that was disrespectful to Muslims, and extremists shot 12 journalists in cold blood as a result. Publishers, journalists and the public held up ‘Je suis Charlie’ posters and marched together because they believed that people were allowed to have differing opinions without attracting violence. If we believe something is not just, we have the right to take a stand just like whistleblowers are doing with WikiLeaks.
In an increasing technologically driven world we need an outlet for transparency, openness and the right to question and critique our institutions and governments. WikiLeaks is that outlet.
Julian Assange once said, ‘If wars can be started by lies, then peace can be started by truth’.