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We leak

By CHAY FLORENTINO-HOFILEÑA

Is WikiLeaks good or bad news for journalism? Any quick or easy verdict would be an oversimplification.

The big news is that founder Julian Assange, an Australian, is being hunted by the Interpol for sexual charges relating to two Swedish women sometime in August. The arrest warrant is obviously a form of harassment intended to shut him up or close down his operations. This type of harassment doesn’t always work, however, as the closure of one site can mean the opening of another—pretty much like terrorist cells that mutate because they are anchored on an ideology. In the case of WikiLeaks, a strong argument for its existence is really the quest for transparency and the right to freedom of expression.

At the core of the debate over WikiLeaks, I think, is the question of whether there are absolute rights. Should governments have absolute rights to secrecy, in the same way that individuals should have absolute rights to privacy? On what occasions can the abrogation of those rights be justified? Quick but tricky answers are when there are threats to life or threats to national security.

If employees of private banks or investment houses uploaded vital personal information about their Top 100 depositors or investors (name, address, amount of deposits or investments) on the Web, this will be most beneficial to journalists who will have a lode from which to extract wonderful, rich information. It will also benefit tax collectors and other government personnel tasked with lifestyle checks.

Individuals on the Top 100 list could stake a claim on the absolute right to secrecy because without it, their lives could be put in danger. They know that the information disclosed will make them easy targets of kidnappers and other criminal syndicates. Using the same argument, governments could also make a case for secrecy on grounds that publication of details about a person on the list who could hypothetically be an agent on a mission, might jeopardize his and his family members’ lives and in turn, endanger national security. And yet, the upside of disclosure is greater transparency and the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.

Some journalists have argued that WikiLeaks is great for journalism because it can provide context and perspective to decisions made by governments. Locally, think of Philippine National Police “confidential” documents relating to the Dacer-Corbito case landing in a local version of WikiLeaks. Or of “highly confidential” exchanges between Manila and Washington over the Lance Corporal Daniel Smith Subic rape case being exposed.

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. (Photo from Wikimedia)

Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. (Photo from Wikimedia)

Defense, police, diplomatic and Palace reporters would surely have a field day. Defense and police reporters would understand the roles, if any, that Sen. Ping Lacson and former President Joseph Estrada played in this case. And if diplomatic and Palace reporters had their hands on vital documents before Smith was acquitted, who knows if the acquittal wouldn’t have happened? Or if his being spirited away would have been prevented?

Then there are still other journalists who have countered that WikiLeaks is a bane to journalism because governments would become even more secretive than they already are. As it is, even in democratic environments where a free press supposedly exists, obtaining official and harmless documents from government offices can already be such a challenge. Here, the degree of paranoia will certainly rise to a preponderant level—to the detriment of those pushing for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, for instance.

In both situations, arguments are valid. One could even contend that WikiLeaks could make journalists lazy and less enterprising or resourceful. True. But it would also make their jobs a whole lot easier. Also true. Then again, in our country, we naturally leak. Our lively gossip mill is our institutional version of WikiLeaks, minus the documents and the vetting.

What is undoubtedly revolutionary about this whole issue is that WikiLeaks wrests power from those who feel that absolute secrecy is their ultimate protection. It rocks the status quo as it creates an unsettling degree of insecurity on the part of those who have become too comfortable not having to account for decisions they have made. It is an equalizer of sorts. At the same time, there might come a point when documents and cables will contain information that is no longer useful or revealing. This could spell irrelevance for WikiLeaks and inordinately raise the value and importance of insiders and whistle-blowers. Thankfully, we still have a number of those brave souls. Newsbreak, independent journalism from the Philippines

CATEGORY: Blogs, Chay Florentino-Hofileña
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  1. lordpaterno says:

    WikiLeaks should go beyond being a source of spicy soundbites or intrigues, and instead become a starting point for in-depth and contextualized reporting. Will WikiLeaks promote good journalism? Leakages will help, but the crucial question is, "What will we use it for?"

    WikiLeaks will help if we contextualize and build up on it to help the public make sense of how governments work. But if we only lead the public in feasting on gossip, I fear that WikiLeaks will only cause sensationalism — or "gawang tamad" among journalists.

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