Wikileaks and Freedom of Information

Though it is, of course, too early to tell what the impact of wikileaks may be, the site has already divided the transparency community. Is the leaking of the cables an advance for the forces of transparency or a pyrrhic victory?

At a seminar at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, http://www.biicl.org/events/view/-/id/602/ among the panel of experts was Mark Stephens, the lawyer who represented Julian Assange, who justified the leaks on the ground that FOI was failing. He argued that the rise of spin, alongside other nefarious techniques, has undermined formal transparency mechanisms. So leaks via wiki is the future for transparency. Some transparency advocates agree. Established routes for accessing information have come, they say, a very poor second to wikileaks.

Yet there is also concern. FOI allows access to some information but protects others. Protected information, such as diplomatic cables, is protected for a reason. States, one speaker argued, need privacy too and wikileaks is operating outside the legal and social norms that normally bind media organisations.

It all hinges on what happens next. Some feel that the cables are destabilising and dangerous for individuals and states, particularly for non-democratic countries without a free press. Publication may also lead to a ‘chilling effect’ where crucial information is not recorded or written down in a ‘coded way’. Wikileaks’ action could undo the decade long moves towards FOI legislation and wipe the contemporary record. Others argue that all the cables reveal is politics as usual. Everyone involved accepts this is part of the diplomatic great game. Nothing that has emerged is a revelation but a confirmation of what we already knew. Embarrassing, they say, but not dangerous.

Can history help? Perhaps there is a lesson in the Pentagon Papers, which didn’t personally damage Nixon but led him on the road to Watergate and the US to a stronger FOI Act. But the lesson here seems to be that that we never know what consequences can flow from a leak.

To read an online debate about Freedom of Information and wikileaks see http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/?d=D%20-%20WikiLeaks and for a discussion of wikileaks, journalism and information gathering see here http://http://sluggerotoole.com/2011/01/30/after-wikileaks-and-phone-hacking-who-sets-the-new-frontiers-of-information-gathering/

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