In Defense of WikiLeaks

The Internet poses the only serious challenge to certain constitutional powers, capable in effect of guaranteeing a state of transparency. Its overtone of pseudo-anarchism and civil disobedience now form part of the spirit of our time.

Resulting votes: 229. As though it were swept along by the curse of binary code, contemporary society has once again been placed, by the hands of the Internet, before a seemingly unsolvable conflict, a dilemma that involves journalism, politics and new technologies. The WikiLeaks case shows us very clearly the way in which the flow of information today marks a new phase in human relations, one which does not fit in nicely with traditional politics.

Of course “Cablegate” is journalism: It reports new and relevant affairs of public interest.

What is fundamental is that an open society should never punish access to the truth.

The battle between the need for confidentiality and free expression — the “collateral effects” of which we have seen this week and the final implications of which concern the very functioning of democracy — contains the echoes of controversies that have marked the history of journalism but is also unprecedented in many aspects. Without the Internet and without the modern technology of data compression, forgive the obvious, Cablegate would not exist. A leak of this kind two decades ago would have been unimaginable, not only because of the ease of stealing files but also the absence of a mechanism for easy access to leaked information. If we have learned anything in these past days, it is that the Internet represents the only serious challenge to constitutional powers, capable of, in effect, guaranteeing a state of transparency like the one defended today by WikiLeaks and its followers.

One would have to begin by accepting that the level that technology has reached in regards to filtering facts and documents and sharing them with a guarantee of anonymity, is such that it allows us to count on future large-scale leaks of information. An analyst from The Economist made it clear a few days ago: “Just as technology has made it easier for governments and corporations to snoop ever more invasively into people’s private lives, it has also become easier for people who work alone or as a whole, to delve into and take ownership of secret government files and those of corporations.”*

From this vantage point, WikiLeaks would merely be the early sign of a much larger phenomenon that definitively affects all of modern life: a demand for transparency and a demand for the restriction of space for secret matters. The new generation of people raised in a digital world feels an irrepressible solidarity with the “WikiLeaks movement”: For some time now, they have been seeking more openness not only from those they know but also from their governments. There is a new ethos on the rise, and the vague sensation is being felt that something is amiss within political patterns of information control. We may or may not agree, and it may seem more or less unfounded to us, but this climate of unease that is fostering temptations toward pseudo-anarchy and civil disobedience now forms an inseparable part of the spirit of the age.

All of this in some way has produced a reaction. In the case of WikiLeaks and the recent saga of Julian Assange, it has turned into a new symbol of freedom of expression. Yet opposing reactions were also swift to appear. Perhaps the quickest way to broach the various implications of this topic is simply to list some of these objections. Namely:

That it is not journalism: It is the reading of a certain purist of the trade. They are right only up to a certain point. A good part of 20th century journalism was founded on the basis of privileged information “leaks.” Of course, it is not the same to stroll through WikiLeaks and comment on a dozen news cables as it is to “have a story.” But it is surprising that the defenders of strictly fact-based journalism have not come to realize the true reaches of this change. Assange has called it, with a certain sarcasm, “scientific journalism.” “We work with other media outlets,” he says, “to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”

WikiLeaks has neither the vocation nor the resources to put forward a traditional journalistic report. But as a source of information or a new kind of intermediary, it without a doubt contributes to the pact of trust upon which modern journalism is based: The secrets, even the most unpleasant ones, may be revealed in the name of public interest and the press will demand that the government hold true to its democratic imperative or pay the price for concealment. Certainly, WikiLeaks exists because traditional media has not known how — or been able to — guarantee confidentiality of its sources. But now the middleman has agreed with his informers that these exclusive rights will have the largest impact possible, and he has come through on his word. His recent alliance with major media sources is due to this demand, and it marks a new standard to bear in mind. Everyone comes out winning. Almost.

There is nothing that we would not know otherwise: This is repeated over and over by those who have not taken the trouble to read even a small portion of the exposed cables. It is sheer ignorance. But in reality, this complaint reveals a perverse dependency on the most obvious sensationalism; those who talk like that want blood, for they are the ones looking for scandals with a human face, political storms that personify the exposed secrets. In reality, many of these supposedly skeptic opinion holders have the same expectations as the Bolshevik government when it leaked the secret treaties of World War I: It is these readers, and not WikiLeaks, who reduce journalism to a “settling of scores.”

It is gossip and does not warrant the use of the notion “public interest.” In view of WikiLeaks, distinguished journalists like David Brooks or Christopher Hitchens have reacted by invoking 19th century privileges of diplomacy: The level of trust will be compromised, some things should not be exposed, privacy and diplomatic immunity are pillars of our civilization … They apply the reasons for private matters to the framework for public matters and express an almost superstitious veneration for a world whose fundamental subject is intrigue. They speak of diplomacy the way that Bouvard and Pécuchet used to refer to a Roman apse or the Duke of Angouleme. They should go back even further to the Borges or to the Venetian diplomacy of the 16th century.

Diplomatic confidentiality will not disappear. It is part of the civilized world, of course, but it is a convention. We will continue paying diplomats (let’s not forget our taxes), and they will continue doing their job, obtaining information and spinning together secrets. Apart from that, anyone interested in respect for the Vienna Convention should demand the same from the U.S. government, which according to these reports has been in this respect less than scrupulous. As stated the other day in the Guardian: “If the sanctity of the diplomatic bag is to mean anything, it must be a universal value.”

It is true that the most democratic nations are the most vulnerable to public exposure of their secrets. But the secret, actually, is never fully secret. No self-respecting diplomat believes in absolute confidentiality. What exists is public information and information for government use.

Sorry for the sanctum of diplomacy, but I do believe the public has the right to know that China wants to re-arm Iran and North Korea. Or that it was behind the Google attack, that Chávez and the drug cartels financed Daniel Ortega and that Cuban doctors in Venezuela are put through the hell of being under surveillance, blackmailed and extorted before emigrating to the United States. There are many opinions in these news reports, but these are happenings of interest.

I am going to set aside the type of arguments that say “Assange is a dangerous anarchist,” “WikiLeaks is a terrorist organization,” “We are before the personal crusade of a megalomaniac” or “Assange takes advantage of the protection of liberal democracies but refuses to comply with them.” I believe they have no bearing on the true nature of the phenomenon that concerns us: the role the Internet has played and will continue to play in defining the boundaries of legitimate information.

WikiLeaks is much more than Cablegate. For years, it has been creating a reputation and trying to guarantee its independence. While they were talking about Kenya and East Timor, few worried about its political ethics. Now the leaking is on another scale, and the demands oblige us to ponder the matter with a precise dose of realism and responsibility but, above all, with the conviction that an open society should never punish access to the truth.

*Editor’s Note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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