“WikiLeaks has had more scoops in three years than the Washington Post has had in 30.” — Clay Shirky
It is for this reason that Wikileaks has become an incredibly important news source, with its commitment to provide the public with information that is deliberately withheld by governments and corporations, and to expose corruption.
Its recent release of classified diplomatic cables revealing what our governments are really talking about behind closed doors has created a great divide in public opinion about just how much we, the people, really have a right to know.
One side of the debate says that the documents should never have been released and that secrecy in diplomacy is actually in the public interest.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard sits in this camp. Despite admitting that an investigation by the Australian Federal Police concluded Wikileaks had broken no Australian laws in publishing the leaked documents, Gillard called the website “grossly irresponsible”.
In the United States, opposition to the publication of the diplomatic cables is more extreme. Some commentators have chosen not to attack the website, but rather its editor Julian Assange.
Ultra right-wing politician Sarah Palin used Facebook to ask why Assange is “not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?”
More drastic is the opinion of retired United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters. In December, he told Fox News the Wikileaks editor-in-chief should be assassinated: “Julian Assange is a cyber-terrorist in war time. He is guilty of sabotage, espionage, crimes against humanity. He should be killed, but we won’t do that.”
Surely the crime is not in exposing corruption, but in committing it. Indeed, the leaked diplomatic cables implicate many governments as complicit in crime and corruption.
Should our governments be allowed to keep secrets if those secrets involve participation in unlawful actions?
Brett Solomon told Fox News: “The space between the citizen and the government needs to be reduced. We’ve seen essentially, and as Glenn Beck says, you know, Assange is the man of the millennium, why? Because it stops governments from lying to their people.”
Solomon represents another side of this debate, the one that acknowledges the importance of transparency in government and the right of people to know what their governments are planning on their behalf.
Green Left Weekly co-editor Stuart Munckton spoke at a Sydney rally to defend Wikileaks in December. He said it was important to recognise the difference between personal privacy and diplomatic secrecy.
He said: “We need to be able to tell, quite clearly, the difference between the right of an individual to secrecy, and the right of us to know what governments, that supposedly represent us, that we elect, and that we pay out taxes to, are doing in our name.”
Many opposing the publication of the leaked cables fail to acknowledge this difference.
We are not talking about exposing conversations between private citizens in their personal lives — these are conversations concerning diplomatic matters by people who represent our elected governments.
Exposing these sorts of conversations means that accountability can be demanded.
Some commentators fail to understand the difference that Munckton speaks about, slamming Assange as hypocritical for being unhappy with the British Guardian’s December 17 article exposing details of his personal life when they published sections of a police report regarding sexual assault allegations.
The December 19 Georgia Daily News said: “WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s lawyers and supporters are up in arms that someone leaked the confidential police report detailing graphic rape allegations against him.
“Irony is not their strong suit.”
Former conservative US politician Susan Molinari also fails to see the difference between conversations of diplomats representing our countries and the private life of a journalist such as Assange.
She told MSNBC on December 1: “Well, obviously he doesn’t think he himself fits into the whole question of transparency.
“I think one can only conclude, based on what we’ve seen that he is hugely anti-American, somewhat anti-capitalistic, although obviously Wikileaks enjoys the benefits of an open capitalistic society where the media is allowed to engage in accessing these leaks and putting them on the front page and then disseminating them … Here’s a man who is destructive, and who sets guidelines for the United States government, and clearly only the United States, by rules and regulations that he feels he himself doesn’t have to live by.”
Failing to recognise the difference between personal privacy and government secrecy is like comparing Wikileaks to the celebrity gossip site PerezHilton.com.
Do we have a right to know what goes on in the diplomat’s bedroom? No. But when it comes to the government boardroom, that’s a different story. Secret diplomacy has no place in true democracy.