For this week we’ve been given the task of arguing for or against Wikileaks as an agent for media transparency and the methodology of information dissemination. Since I’ve been assigned to the negative, I’ll try and use this post to flesh out the main arguments against the Wikileaks organisation so here comes a lot of text:
Perhaps the main criticism is the way in which information is filtered by Wikileaks in partnership with media outlets. One of the strong supporters of Wikileaks, Reporters Without Borders, (in August, 2010) criticized Wikileaks in an Open Letter because “indiscriminately publishing 92,000 classified reports reflects a real problem of methodology and, therefore, of credibility. Journalistic work involves the selection of information.” It can be argued that Wikileaks was in its infancy at this stage, yet this ‘dump’ is a major problem, as the New Yorker Reported, that soldiers and informants names and details were not redacted, jeopardizing personal and national security operations, publishing technical details of an army roadside bomb preventative, and the only known blueprint for a nuclear fission device, among other details, calling into question what information is relevant for the public interest and attention.
The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks has shown an evolution of methodology over time, leaking cables slowly, however to filter through thousands of documents and present only slices of information to the media and public is extremely problematic. While some cables (such as Human Rights Abuse in India or the Australian Internet Blacklist) reach the world media, they remain complex issues that have not been adequately followed up partly because they have a localised effect pertaining to a particular state apparatus, other cables sensationalising rumour and opinion within international relations has had more of a media splash because the information is of a global scope, stimulating the public’s imagination as to the previously unknown world of international relations. Without a guiding methodology or criteria for the responsibly of media institutions, information can easily be directed, misrepresented, or attract an inordinate amount of unnecessary attention.
The reliability and context of the sources of the leaks is also of importance. To what extend do we know or understand the sources of the various cables, at what position are these sources in to comment on these situations, where do they get their sources from and how reliable is this testimony, is it objective fact or personal opinion? There is a lack of this kind of transparency, not necessarily one that can be leveled at Wikileaks, but calls into question the extend that a public must know of the delicate international dealings that are beyond a collective public understanding and how much attention the media should be give to the different cables released, that journalists should fact check and treat with objectivity rather than rush to meet a deadline in the fast paced world of ratings/readership race.
Yet it is not only the filtering of sensitive information that is at stake, it is also how these publications are followed up and injustices corrected through action. A comparison can be made between Wikileaks’ publication of the Iraq Apache helicopter Attack video and The New Yorker’s publication of the Abu Ghraib Abuse photographs. Both disclosures involved extremely graphic and disturbing images, unreleased or classified government records and generated a public sensation. However while the Abu Ghraib photos prompted lawsuits, congressional hearings, prison sentences and declassification initiatives, by contrast the WikiLeaks video produced no investigation or any real public backlash. While Wikileaks as an organisation bears no responsibility to follow up what it releases, perhaps the sensationalism surrounding Wikileaks inhibits the State Apparatus response due to a perceived illegitimacy of the source information and the organisation itself as a medium of publication.
The sensationalism surrounding Assange as the figurehead of the Wikileaks organisation is also problematic. There are Many Whistle-blowing Websites and other channels for sensitive information, but when the publicity generated by a single organisation and its figurehead outshines the important information that is published, public attention that should be directed towards identifying and correcting serious issues raised in the cables becomes secondary. The Wikileaks disclosures have been praised by many who believe that they will allow the public to hold the government more accountable and thus improve foreign policy, however leaks like this simply make those in power retreat further into the shadows to defend themselves and their positions against a clearly defined entity and its spokesman, while the international public, over-saturated with sensationalist world spectacles, are less likely to mobilise support for transparency and corrective action than to polarise the simple debate of Wikileaks/Assange vs. Government/State practices.
While these are legitimate concerns I believe the Pro’s far outweigh the Con’s in this debate though I think Assange summarises his methodology best in the above video. Whistleblower Bias: Is WikiLeaks Losing Its Objectivity? Berkeley School of Journalism
We just got Wiki’d…