Global Radar Screen

WikiLeaks Gave Full Meaning To The Right To Information

Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange was recently arrested in London.

In future, a country’s democratic advancement would need to be measured in terms of the value the states and societies concerned attach to the ‘WikiLeaks revolution’. While the possibility is that the merits and demerits of the methods used by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to divulge the truth may dominate discussion and debate the world over following his recent arrest in London, there is no denying that his approach to keeping the world informed gave substantial meaning to the Right to Information. Needless to say, the latter right goes to the heart of democracy and helps define it considerably.

In fact, the way the US would treat Assange from now on would help clarify the quality of its democracy. The general understanding is that governments in democracies are crucially obliged to divulge to their societies everything of relevance to their well-being and advancement. Nothing could be ‘kept under wraps’ if it impinges on the public interest. This being the case, a hue and cry cannot be made by democratic governments over the methods adopted by whistle-blowers to arrive at the truth. In this context it is the end and not the means that has to matter most.

It could be argued that computer hacking is not the ideal method to arrive at relevant information but if the end is the truth, the means cannot be excessively criticized as illegal. These are issues that go to the heart of the democratic experience and the Assange affaire should be discussed widely in the interest of democratic advancement. It follows, that by the degree to which societies the world over defend Assange, to that extent would their democratic awareness and maturity come to be assessed positively.

Democratic societies in general and the US public in particular should be treated to the truth with regard to the manner in which the US military conducted itself in the war zones of the world over the past few decades, for example.  Whistle-blowers, such as WikiLeaks, should be seen as serving the public interest very effectively by divulging crucial information on the way in which the US defence budget was used or misused by the relevant security forces. Considering that these whistle-blowers served the public interest through their work, they could not be penalized in any way by states that lay claim to democratic credentials.

Accordingly, democratic institutions would be severely undermined when those sections committed to serving the Right to Information and the Freedom of Expression are taken to task by governments. Such issues are gravely compounded when the states concerned are touted as the world’s number one democracies.

It may sound clichetic to reiterate that the Freedom of Expression defines democracy but this is a truth that could never be stressed enough. This is principally because those sections that control the mass media of a country are its veritable rulers. To the extent to which this control and influence is vested in the people in real terms, to that degree is the country democratic; to the extent to which the public is not in control in this respect, the state concerned could be said to be undemocratic to the same degree.

Likewise, if a public is consistently in a position to access information that is central to its most vital interests and well- being, we could state that the public concerned is crucially empowered. A government could be democratic to the degree to which the relevant public is facilitated by it in the task of obtaining information and knowledge that are vital to its most important interests. A state that does not permit this cannot qualify to be democratic. In other words, the more empowered a citizenry is to that extent is the state concerned democratic.

Accordingly, a state could be said to be democratically vibrant if it permits whistle-blowers of the WikiLeaks kind to function without hindrance. It would be interesting to observe whether discussions on these lines would take place in the days ahead in those countries that claim to be democratic. May it be so, is our wish.

It is of critical importance that the US public in particular looks very impartially at this issue. National security is cited by governments as a reason for not divulging security-related information to the public too early. This argument cannot be persisted with because in a democracy it is the people who are considered as taking most of the crucial decisions for a country through their representatives. The latter are obliged to live up to the public trust vested in them and refrain from siding with the power elites of the country who may be least concerned about people’s interests.

An obligation is cast on the representatives of the people to take up vital causes, such as the people’s right to information, with the government; in the case of the US the latter is equivalent with the White House and other vital institutions of the US central government. If the representatives fail in these functions it is tantamount to rendering democracy in the US dysfunctional.

Thus, it could be seen that power relations within a society are crucial to the full realization of democracy, inasmuch as they are of vital importance in numerous other areas of national life. If the representatives of the people succumb to the pressures exerted on them by power elites and the upper most ruling classes, democracy will be betrayed.

In the WikiLeaks context, much would also depend on the degree to which the ‘genuine democracies’ of the world come together to protect the interests of their ‘ordinary’ citizens, for whom access to vital information is crucial. However, on this score too, betrayals seem to be on the cards. For instance, Britain has complied with US requests to arrest Assange and have him deported to the US, possibly to face trial. We see here a coming together of the West’s foremost powers to act against a fundamental right of the people.

Such developments that run contrary to the people’s interests could be contained if the global South, seen as comprising some of the most deprived peoples, act in concert to arrest these deleterious trends. Unfortunately, this too is unlikely to materialize in the foreseeable future.