Wikileaks: A Neutral Watchdog or a Partisan Chaos Maker?

Are you a current or former foreign affairs minister, diplomat, or embassy employee? Well, it hardly matters whether you are working or not: You will probably have to spend sleepless nights watching for the next release of Wikileaks documents.

Until recently, external affairs officials were directly accountable only to the governments of respective countries, but the recent emergence of Wikileaks and the release of highly classified documents of various foreign embassies has changed that reality. Every activity is now being watched by “Wikileaks” and hence, by everyone. 

What exactly is Wikileaks? WikiLeaks is a non-profit organization working across the world which publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified media provided by different private sources and whistleblowers. Launched in 2006 under the Sunshine Press organization, its website claims that it had developed a database of over 1 million documents within a year of its launch. The organization’s aims continue to change, as it experiences attacks from different governments and other agencies. Although initially envisioned as an open-source platform like Wikipedia, it has now, since 2010, become more like a traditional publisher of documents and does not allow editing on, and withdrawing of, documents from the site(s) by the public. 

Since its first publication of documents in 2006, Wikileaks has created turbulence in political and diplomatic circles. It came into prominence when its documents were recently published in The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel. The most recent releases are also being published by the Indian leading daily, The Hindu. Reaction to the releases – on topics ranging from war and foreign policy to financial policy – has been mixed; the general public has been highly curious, while governments have been scathing in their criticism and have even censored the documents. Some of the revelations have changed people’s perceptions towards their governments, while others have the potential to change the governments themselves. 

What are the possible outcomes of Wikileaks? While sources like Time Magazine have been quoted as saying, “(Wikileaks) ... could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act,” world renowned leaders like India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have rejected Wikileaks as a non-reliable and unverifiable source of information. Naturally, that view has been challenged by Wikileaks’ founder and advisory board member Julian Assange. Will the public, in general, and the government agencies concerned take the leaks seriously enough to bring more transparency in their practices and higher ethical standards in their affairs? Or they will just try to push Wikileaks revelations aside as mere illegitimate whistle blowing? 

Another possible repercussion is that Wikileaks may provoke a sense of chaos and havoc among officials, diplomats, and people. In turn, tt may interfere or limit the decision-making power of respective agencies. Is this a good development? On its website, Wikileaks claims, “we help you safely get the truth out.” But, how safe it is for a whistleblower or an official to work with Wikileaks, against their own government? Doesn’t Wikileaks inherently encourage disloyalty among workers and organizations? Won’t there be an eye of suspicion on every employee of organizations? 

Wikileaks has prompted the formation of a number of other similar organizations such as Openleaks, Brusselsleaks, and Indoleaks, to name only a few. Will the rise of these new organizations encourage governments to rely more heavily upon undercover espionage, thereby undermining very ethics ‘of transparency’ that these agencies are claiming to promote? Will people accept the legitimacy of “disloyalty” of officials like Bradley Manning to unravel the disloyalty of their governments? 

Yet another unanswered question is whether whistleblowers will remain politically neutral: Will they work impartially as mere watchdogs or try to influence governments to act according to their wishes for subversive gains? Can’t organizations like Wikileaks ultimately be employed for partisan political gains? Will they remain as just a political pressure group or will they encroach on the independent functioning of the respective governments?

Such questions raise legitimacy issues for the existence of Wikileaks and other similar organizations. Is it appropriate to have more watchdogs, despite all the international bodies that currently serve that function, such as the U.N. Security Council, the IMF, and the World Bank? Will the possible benefit of transparency brought by Wikileaks and its sister organizations outweigh the cost in terms of the loss of credibility of government machinery, the development of mistrust between people and government bodies, and the possible misuse of these organizations for partisan aims?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons