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New WikiLeaks doco begs the question: should the public know state secrets

Author's name: 
Phil Mincher
Johannesburg

I would expect most people leaving the cinema after watching the recently-released documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, would plunge into debate over a raft of flow-on topics, such as is Julian Assange a crusader for civilian empowerment and government/corporate accountability or a cheeky, power-hungry hacker hell bent on anarchy and achieving hero-status. For me, however, the topic with the most punch is whether governmental privacy and national security should take precedence over freedom of information and the public’s right to know (or however that term is used).

I must preface this blog by stating that I am in no way very well informed on the history and happenings of WikiLeaks, nor an expert on international security issues and nor have I even seen the aforementioned film (thanks to South Africa being behind the 8-ball with motion picture releases).

WikiLeaks, which has been responsible for some massive whistleblowing successes, such as exposing police killings in Kenya, toxic waste dumping in other African countries and harsh detention procedures at Guantanamo Bay, maintains that its overall goal is to bring important news and information to the public. It also states it’s work is based on broader principles of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history as derived from the principles espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Given that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formed by a United Nations dominated by democratic member states, it is worth asking which side of the pendulum best serves democracy – national security or freedom of information? Moreover, how transparent must a democratically-elected government be?

In a democratic society, where people expect a level of involvement in government, transparency is key. Although some people feel it is their right to know its government’s secrets, the release of confidential information that could potentially harm its people is understandably a real consideration for government. WikiLeaks has brought this balancing act debate to the fore.

I think it goes without saying that whistleblowing holds an important place in an international society where some governments and corporations would ride cowboy were it not for the risk of being publicly exposed. Therefore, at very least, WikiLeaks fulfils an important whistleblowing service and contributes to pressuring governments and companies into playing fair ball.

But does WikiLeaks go too far? Almost every government, particularly the US, would emphatically say yes! Such governments, however, are not alone. In a CBS poll taken soon after WikiLeaks released a massive bundle of US State Department documents at the end of 2010, 73% of pollsters believed the American public had no right to State secrets.

I’m the first to admit that the antics of WikiLeaks are exciting and read like a thrilling espionage novel. Any day the little man stands up to the powers-that-be (especially Corporate America) and exposes corruption is a good day. But I can’t help but feel WikiLeaks goes too far and jeopardises important diplomatic relationships in a world shrouded in fear and distrust of one another. In an idyllic world there would be no need for state secrets. Unfortunately we live in anything but.

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