When WikiLeaks published the Afghan War Diaries earlier this year, the site was criticised by the free press association Reporters Without Borders for bad journalistic practice. In an open letter to the site’s founder, the Australian Julian Assange, the association said “journalistic work involves the selection of information”.
With 400,000 documents in the Iraq War Diaries, published last Friday evening US time, selectivity and journalistic practice again is an issue.
There is no question that digital technologies have changed the face, and the capabilities of the media industry; at no point before the rise of the internet could such a leak of classified documents have taken place. This is the up and the down side of the internet: information can be shared in unprecedented ways and on a never-before-possible scale, but it is also much more difficult to control who has access to it.
Publication of information that is “in the public interest” is a key goal of journalism, and in an increasingly globalised and information-hungry world, precisely what this means is becoming ever more complex. In the case of the WikiLeaks publication of such huge numbers of US government secret document relating to Iraq and Afghanistan, the real issue is how could it be possible for one organisation to select all the material that was in the interests of the various publics around the world?
The good of the US public is different to the good of the UK public, the Iraqi public, the Australian public and so on, and to group even along national lines is also to make sweeping generalisations.
The story or stories that matter to and for one media outlet’s readership has no necessary relevance to that of another, and by providing full access to the information, WikiLeaks permits those stories to be made known.
The Iraq War Diaries document 109,000 deaths, including those of 66,000 civilians, 15,000 of these were previously unreported. The full stories of each individual killed, wounded, or otherwise involved in each event are not told in the documents published by WikiLeaks, and identifying material including but not limited to names and places has been excised.
In a press conference in London on Saturday, Assange said “that tremendous scale should not make us blind to the small human scale in this material”, the sum of the deaths reported is comprised of many incidents that killed one or two people at a time.
One, two, even a few media outlets working in a conventional way could never tell the stories of those incidents, either on a small or large scale — and have the relevance to the public interest and good that making the censored whole available can.
How could WikiLeaks select either the material that should be available once the premise that releasing classified documents might be in the public good is established?
Reporters Without Borders does not criticise the release of the information as such, and in fact praises previous WikiLeaks actions in making otherwise secret material public. They do raise concerns that the information would endanger lives, although the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was quoted as writing in October that the release of Afghan documents “did not reveal any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised”.
The ultimate argument of Reporters Without Borders was that the mass, indiscriminate publication will give democratic governments around the world a justification to increase surveillance of the internet. What WikiLeaks has done is make use of the capabilities of the online world, and if this gives governments a reason to increase surveillance, it is one among many, and not one that has been deployed at this point.
The Australian government, for example, in its arguments for a mandatory internet filter has made no mention of security issues, focusing rather on morality rather than security as a justification.
Not only governments but society around the world is struggling to know how to manage the accessibility of online information — cyber-bullying, privacy breaches by Google and Facebook, mining of personal information to target advertising — WikiLeaks publications are far from the only challenge for regulators, corporations, media, and the public. A networked society depends on numbers, the more people are active participants the better it works; a moment’s though about Facebook demonstrates this.
The internet was and is designed specifically to facilitate information sharing, and what WikiLeaks has done is put that design to use by allowing media outlets and the public themselves to select what information is in the public interest.
*Dr Helen Young, School of Communication Arts/ Centre for Educational Research, University of Western Sydney