Beth Cherryman

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Category: Citizen Journalism

WikiLeaks Does Not Promote Transparency It Only Aids Those Seeking to Destroy Such Liberal Ideals

WikiLeaks has been proving a constant source of controversy these last few months.  The whistle-blowing website is poised to release 391,832 secret documents relating to the Iraqi war.

The new release has governments the world over (especially the American government) denouncing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.  The WikiLeaks enterprise has recently seen the defection of many of its higher profile comrades stating reasons of disillusionment with their founder and boss.

The defectors portray their enigmatic leader as a man of erratic and imperious behaviour and nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by any awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in blood.  12 weeks ago when WikiLeaks went live with secret Afghan documents, Julian Assange decided without consultation to release them with the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops.

I believe there is a man, formerly of the American military, facing a 52-year prison term for passing the documents to Mr Assange.  Not to mention the Taliban have admitted to using the information posted on the WikiLeaks website to track down their “most-wanted list”.

Indeed organisations like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Boarders have joined the bandwagon of criticism, saying Mr Assange is risking people’s lives by publishing such documents.

Mr Assange himself (in the New York Times article linked above at least) seems to view these as collateral damage necessary for the greater good of bringing these documents into the public domain.

Now I’m all about transparency, but I think Mr Assange has a rather warped concept of a balance of harms.  It is ridiculous to sacrifice a bunch of people, who moreover seem to aspire to Mr Assange’s notion of openness, for essentially nothing.  The release of the Afghan papers was a story for that week but has since been forgotten by the general public.

The release was more beneficial to the Taliban than any abstract idea of transparency.

WikiLeaks has gone some way towards redefining whistle blowing.  Gathering secrets in bulk, hiding them, and then publishing those secrets instantly and globally.

I have discussed citizen journalism in a previous post, but I actually do not feel it correct to classify WikiLeaks as citizen journalism.  There is no thought, no critical observations or interpretation; just a mass of documents that frankly no ‘average Joe’ is going to sift through himself.

When The New York Times released the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in 1971, the newspaper did not just throw 1000 pages of a secret study of the Vietnam War at its readers.  They provided analysis and a map for their readers to follow the reasons why the information contained within the 1000 pages were important and what was being said.

Further, while I’m sure it is not a universal law, newspapers do go someway towards protecting their sources, for instance, by not revealing who they are.

Mr Assange has no doubt done some good with his website.  For example the release of a video showing American Apache helicopters shooting 12 people including 2 Reuters journalists in 2007 Baghdad.

But, in its current state, I do not think WikiLeaks is a force of good or indeed of benefit to anyone except people who wish to use the information to harm others.  Oh, and I suppose such splashes like the release of the forthcoming 391,832 secret documents relating to the Iraqi war certainly bolster Mr Assange’s profile.

Why the Camera Phone is Instrumental to Democracy

“The world doesn’t know it happened, because you didn’t photograph it.” Martin Luther King

Okay, so the pictures tend to come out a little grainy.  And maybe they’re not always perfectly in focus.  But for many people camera phone images are the only means of holding those in power to account.

Those blurry images are their primary weapon against injustice, corruption, and straight out lies.

My case and point is the reportage of a series of protests involving Buddhist monks, students, activists, and ordinary citizens against Myanmar’s regime (formerly Burma).

The regime has a long history of controlling media coverage.    It presented a much-edited version of the increasingly violent events to the outside world.

However, a steady stream of pictures and texts detailing the horrendous and inhumane actions of the regime soon destroyed this diluted presentation.

Citizen witnesses captured images of bloodied monks and shootings with their camera phones.  The images were posted them on the Internet and picked up by major news networks.

Another defining event for citizen journalism was the London Bombings.  The first images and recordings news outlets had to work with came not from trained journalists but from ordinary citizens on the scene.

The BBC and MSNBC broadcast these images during their reports.  They were not for context, they were the report.  At least until journalists could get further information.

These two examples highlight two ways in which “user generated content” (to use the jargon) is essential to the process of journalism.

First, it is simply an unfortunate fact of life that the events that really change the world are those that nobody really saw coming.  Second, the people with the worst records of criminal activity (especially governments) are generally very good at keeping the press at arm’s length.  Their victims often cannot rely on journalists to expose the injustices.

And yet there is something special about getting the report from someone emotionally connected to the story; someone part of the struggle.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is more to journalism than being a witness to a newsworthy event.

But I have always thought of a journalist as being someone who tells the stories of people who, for whatever reason, cannot speak for themselves.

The advent of the camera phone means that more and more people can tell their own stories.  I fail to see how this could be a bad thing.  To empower the ordinary citizen, the persecuted, perhaps the victims of crimes we hadn’t even been aware of.

That’s accountability journalism.  That’s democracy.

Perhaps it’s a funny thought, that one could hold the world to account with a camera phone, but it is a thought I wholeheartedly believe in.

I hope that as this technology becomes more accessible, particularly in Africa and South America, we will start to see a truer picture of the world we live in and the worlds in which our fellow human beings live.