Wikileaks rewrites the rulebook

There’s no denying it: WikiLeaks is on a trajectory – one that will place it firmly in the annals of history as the organization that rewrote the rules in policing democracies.

Even though this romantically elusive whistle-blowing organization made its debut in 2006, its release of the “Collateral Murder” video and the subsequent release of the Afghan War Logs, was what made the laity of news consumers pay attention.

Everything else that happened from that point on, as they say, is history.

But the making of history was still in its infancy, as it turned out. In November 2010, WikiLeaks upped the ante with Cablegate – a release of over 250, 000 classified U.S. Embassy Diplomatic Cables, the “largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain…[that] will give people around the world an unprecedented insight into the U.S. Government’s foreign activities,” the site boasts.

Early this month, WikiLeaks hit the public with the Palestine Papers – a record of negotiations meetings between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – via Al Jazeera and The Guardian. In the days that followed, both news outlets have been scrambling to digest and regurgitate the contents of these documents in a form palatable for mass consumption. Their pages, both in print and online, have been consumed by one leak-themed headline after another. In their rush to “break the story,” both Al Jazeera and The Guardian seemed to have given WikiLeaks their unwavering trust.

Could there be a danger in this overly trusting, over-reliance on WikiLeaks as the de facto go-to source? Anas Aremeyaw Anas, the Ghanaian undercover journalist who recently visited Laurier Brantford, has his doubts.

“I think he’s doing a fantastic job,” Anas said, “but we [must] always remind ourselves when we’re dealing with WikiLeaks. …It is also an avenue for bad guys to put bad stuff there for us to [use].”

Rather than relying solely on the leaked documents as the Holy Grail, journalists should always carry out their own investigations. Deviating from that would border on being unethical, right? Guardian reporter Ian Black responded via email with a resounding “no.”

“We looked at the documents, reported on and contextualized them – something that WikiLeaks wasn’t equipped to do,” Black said in his email.

Black doesn’t feel that there is anything unethical about mining WikiLeaks’ database in writing his stories. “The release of the documents was obviously a highly unusual event,” he said. “But once they were in the public domain, we at The Guardian subjected them to normal journalistic treatment.”

Al Jazeera English’s David Poort also acknowledges that the public needs to be able to determine the legitimacy of information on their own.

“Alongside the presentation of The Palestine Papers, Al Jazeera has launched the Al Jazeera Transparency Unit to make sure AJ won’t rely solely on other organisations for obtaining sensitive material in the future,” Poort said. He added, “The AJTU published all the documents of The PP so that the audience can cross-check everything that’s published.” The New York Times is allegedly building a similar mechanism.

There isn’t much need to cross check the raw facts presented in the footage of an Apache helicopter pilot indiscriminately gunning down Iraqi civilians and children.

There’s no denying the complicity of American troops in collateral murder when they chose to blow up a building even when they can see an innocent passerby in close proximity. In those cases, the facts spoke for themselves. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has claimed that the Palestinian Papers’ leak was part of a political smear campaign against the party. The papers exposed Abbas and other PA leaders as ‘selling out’ on Palestinian interests to Israeli demands. Abbas is adamant that the papers had been doctored to turn Palestinians against the party. He even openly challenged Al Jazeera to publish all the documents in the PP, which Al Jazeera subsequently did.

Abbas’ demands go to the heart of the problem with WikiLeaks. The idea of a ‘wiki’ is that it is open for public contribution. For example, Wikipedia allows readers to contribute and make amendments to articles on its site. With WikiLeaks, however, classified information has to make the dangerous track from its secret source to one of WikiLeaks’ operators. Then that information will have gone through several filters to determine its veracity before it is released for public access. The onus is therefore on WikiLeaks to prove the credibility of their sources.

This is essentially what it all boils down to: a crisis of legitimacy. WikiLeaks vouches for the credibility of the documents in its databases. But who is vouching for WikiLeaks’? Time will tell whether or not WikiLeaks is as infallible as a lot of us hope it is. However, there’s no denying the fact that everything hinges precariously upon Assange’s personal credibility.

If Assange is revealed to have ulterior motives in championing this crusade against Big Brother, than WikiLeaks will lose much of its credibility as well. If that happens, the information that WikiLeaks hosts in its databases will lose much of their credibility. Ultimately, so will most of the stories written based on information mined from WikiLeaks’ databases.

On a superficial level, it almost makes sense for the American government and its allies to try and smear Assange’s image with the allegations of sexual abuse. As I am writing this, Assange’s extradition hearing is scheduled for February 7.

The “sexual abuse” ploy almost worked – for a brief period, the world’s media’s attention shifted from the leaked cables to details of Assange’s charges. There was also much interest in Assange’s “colourful” childhood and his meteoric rise to stardom as a skillful hacker who managed to infiltrate NASA’s database.

Ever since the release of the US Embassy Cables, the world’s spotlight focused glaringly on various governments’ attempts to silence WikiLeaks, be it through legal or extra legal measures. Private corporations have terminated their dealings with WikiLeaks while supposedly democratic networking sites like Twitter have been subpoenaed to divulge privileged information about WikiLeaks and its supporters. After all that, you would think that the public would be deterred from consorting with an alleged “terrorist.”

On the contrary, the world’s virtual community has since rallied in support of WikiLeaks. Hundreds of mirror sites cropped up overnight to host the classified documents should WikiLeaks’ own website get shut down, which it has numerous times. In the physical world, individuals in favour of the free flow of information have banded together in demonstrations across the globe to raise awareness and protest against governments’ censorship of WikiLeaks. Assange himself hasn’t had a shortage of couches to crash on in his trek across the globe.

There is nothing new about what WikiLeaks is doing. According to media theorists, whistle-blowers have been stirring the pot in all eras. However, what WikiLeaks is doing certainly harks back to the fundamentals of democracy and freedom of the press.

Democracy and the free flow of information go hand in hand. In that sense, WikiLeaks is contributing to a more democratic discourse by unlocking the secret information vaults that governments have worked so hard to conceal from the public eye.

It’s just unfortunate that it has to break all the rules in order to uphold our rights as citizens.

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