How WikiLeaks has changed the way the world looks at America and what does it mean to India
“WikiLeaks has had more scoops in three years than the Washington Post has had in 30”, said Clay Shirky, a prominent thinker on social and economic effects of Internet technologies. Come to think of it, one cannot help but be impressed by that. Personally, in all of my 23 years, I have never seen the US appear so humbled and feckless in the face of an adversary as I see now. Wikileaks, today, has brought into the fray, among others, the debate over the ethical tenets of journalism, and to what extent can we stretch the definition of journalism, or ‘scientific journalism’, as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange terms it, to include what WikiLeaks claims to do – “prod and probe the vulnerable underpinnings of administrative systems”.
Not that it doesn’t have its share of strictures. We have seen mixed reactions to this form of ‘hackivism’ from the world over. Recently, Apple removed a WikiLeaks application from its iPhones and iPads, and joined the likes of Visa, MasterCard, Amazon and PayPal who have severed all ties with WikiLeaks. The motive behind the extreme step is debatable – whether it was wanting to keep their image clean or whether it was political pressure, is something no one can clearly answer. What could be interesting, though, is to see how long the cable-leaks of this inexorable juggernaut called WikiLeaks will go on.
Jullian Assange is being charged with rape according to Swedish laws, but his trial for extradition request to Sweden is going on in Britain, the hearing for which was adjourned until January 11, 2011. He is reluctant to be extradited to Sweden, as it may be a precursor to a subsequent extradition to the US where he might be ultimately prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, which punishes leaks involving, and injuring, America’s national defence. On December 14, the London court granted him bail, and strangely, the British authorities appealed against it, as opposed to the Swedish authorities. This bolsters the widespread belief that the rape charges are just eyewash with ulterior motives abound.
Let us assume Mr. Assange is extradited to Sweden. Now we can concede that a charge against Mr. Assange is possible. But for extradition, the deed in question needs to be a crime in both the countries involved. And in Sweden, we have one of the world’s most liberal press-freedom laws. Whether and argument against Mr. Assange suggesting his culpability on charges of espionage will hold water is anybody’s guess. Also, a 1961 treaty between Sweden and the US forbids extradition for “political” crimes. Thus, it is probable that the case of Mr. Assange being ultimately tried in the US will come to naught.
Julian Assange has no doubt added many to the list of people in power baying for his blood. But at the same time he has also gained world-wide acceptance and admiration as someone who can tilt the scales of authority towards the common citizen who has the right to know what goes around behind the closed doors of the powers that be. I would compare the capability and potential of WikiLeaks, at the global stage, to the power that Right to Information (RTI) wields in India. One difference, critics would argue, between the two is that where as RTI brings out information which is specifically asked for by a complainant or a litigator, WikiLeaks puts out there any information out of the many leaked cables at its own whim. The detractors have already tried to portray WikiLeaks as something that would endanger the government institutions and would effectively embitter the diplomatic relations between many nations. But it is not difficult to notice the sense of confidence and dominion it is conferring upon the general public by such entities such as WikiLeaks and RTI – they not only strengthen the cause of the activists working for the rights of the common man but also work as a shot in the arm for public interest journalism which has suddenly found a lot more to write about, a lot more to expose and an opportunity to examine each thread of opportunism after unraveling deeply intricate instances of corruption.
What WikiLeaks is doing might entrench some relationships between nations with long lasting rancour, but it is something every citizen of a free country has a right to – complete and naked information. And WikiLeaks has admitted that what it puts out there is just raw information. It might be out of context in some parts, it might not paint the complete picture, it might even jaundice the public opinion in a certain way. But that is just a way to look at it. Isn’t unbiased and ideal journalism about exactly that – putting forward dispassionate information in the public domain and trying to make inside information available to everyone? Equal opportunity and free information, I would argue, is a major part of what America is today. It should not be allowed to a few people in power to subvert the ethos that prop up America as high as it is today. And it would not hurt India to sit up and take notice of the current situation and try to ascertain where America went wrong.