WikiLeaks: 38 of you said that WikiLeaks promotes transparency and accountability in government; 24 think that it threatens international relations and global security; and 6 readers either had made up their minds or didn’t know about WikiLeaks.
Thank you for taking the poll.
It’s important to think about WikiLeaks. And what the whistle-blowing phenomenon means for Bhutan. Drukpa, a monthly newsmagazine, asked me for my views and published them in their latest issue. My commentary in Drukpa follows:
Opinion over WikiLeaks is sharply divided. The whistle-blowing website has angered many governments. They claim that the indiscriminate release of secret information threatens international relations and global security. And they warn that it endangers the lives of innocent people. So they have aggressively sought to discredit WikiLeaks and its upstart founder, Julian Assange.
But others including journalists, activists and technologists, claim that WikiLeaks makes governments and corporations more transparent and accountable. They herald the organization as a champion of democracy and good government. And anonymous supporters of WikiLeaks have retaliated by attacking the websites of several agencies who have appeared to suppress the organization.
The idea behind WikiLeaks is simple. It is essentially a clearinghouse for secret information. Whistle-blowers send secret material to WikiLeaks, they leak it to the media, and the media publishes the secrets.
But that simple idea is powerful. And that power is compounded by several interrelated factors. First, whistle blowers feel more secure providing information to an intermediary they can trust rather than going directly to the media. Earlier, people who had access to confidential information that they felt the general public should know about it – Watergate’s “Deep Throat” is an example – risked being found out when leaking the information to the media. By sending secrets to an intermediary, who in turn would leak it to the media, the whistle-blower has much more security. And that will encourage many more inside sources to disclose many more secrets.
Second, traditional media is eager to partner with WikiLeaks. They are the ones who screen the leaks, identify narratives, and publish gripping accounts of how governments and corporations may have behaved unethically or acted illegally. Germany’s Der Spiegel, Britain’s Guardian, El Pais in Spain, and the New York Times have all spent vast amounts of their resources publishing leaks. In the process, they have bolstered the credibility of WikiLeaks, and have given satisfaction to whistle-blowers.
Fourth, volunteers – thousands of anonymous benefactors – are willing to go to great lengths to protect WikiLeaks. They have retaliated aggressively at attempts to suppress the organization. And they have already created more than 500 WikiLeaks “mirrors” throughout the world, each one a copy of the original site, making it almost impossible to shut down WikiLeaks.
And fifth, WikiLeaks is spawning copycats – spinoff sites that are also dedicated to releasing hitherto classified information in the public domain. Some of them have even begun to specialize: BrusselsLeaks, for example, deals with the European Union secrets, while TradeLeaks focuses on trade and commerce.
WikiLeaks is, indeed, a simple yet powerful idea. That is why they have already obtained hundreds of thousands of secret documents in the four years since they launched their website. That is why they have won international acclaim and awards for using new media to champion freedom of information. That is why they have been able to embarrass politicians and governments for their surreptitious misdeeds. That is why analysts predict that, in some instances – the reunification of the Koreas, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions are examples – the course of history might even change.
And that is also why opinion on WikiLeaks is so sharply divided.
The battle between those who want to silence WikiLeaks and those who want to see it grow will get worse. But no matter who wins, the media landscape has been changed forever. Journalism will never be the same. The demand for transparency and accountability, especially in governments and corporations, will grow. And calls for more openness, along with the continued growth of the Internet and online media, will give people who have access to confidential information, more reason to and more ways of sharing their secrets with the world.
So what does all this mean for Bhutan? Online forums have flourished in Bhutan, and they continue to enjoy a relatively large following. Despite the fact that conjecture and slander can dominate discussions on Bhutantimes.com and Kuenselonline.com – two of our biggest forums – both still generate heated debates every time anonymous sources post otherwise unavailable information online. So in some ways, the use of online digital media to expose confidential information is not new to Bhutan.
But WikiLeaks is different. Its sheer scope and global reach means that eventually some of the information they publish may concern Bhutan. For instance, just consider the more than 250,000 cables from US embassies around the world that WikiLeaks has obtained. They have been releasing them in bits and pieces, every day, since November 28. So far, Bhutan has not, and hopefully will not feature in any of the cables. But in the unlikely event that Bhutan is mentioned, our government must be able to assess potential consequences quickly and respond appropriately to contain possible diplomatic and strategic damage to our national interests.
If it becomes increasingly difficult to keep secrets, it goes without saying that, wherever and whenever possible, we must not keep secrets. For that we have to promote and value transparency and accountability in the government and in big corporations. And an effective way to nurture an open culture is to provide citizens with the right to information. As it happens, this right is already guaranteed by our Constitution. What remains to be done is to develop supporting legislation that defines what “right to information” is and that outlines the legal process to take advantage of that right.
All government information should generally be made available in the public domain. But for those that cannot, because of national security concerns, clear protocols must be developed – also by law – to define, categorize, protect and access classified information.
Whether we, in Bhutan, support or condemn WikiLeaks, we can be sure that they and their derivatives are here to stay. Some of them may, in fact, specialize in exposing confidential material on Bhutan. And they, like WikiLeaks, will be almost impossible to shut down, or even regulate.
But there is an antidote to the WikiLeaks phenomenon. And that is governments and big corporations themselves becoming truly accountable and transparent, in which case WikiLeaks will become redundant, for they would have fulfilled their mission.
Photo credit: Time