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Wikileaks presents an evolution in journalism where the ‘old' and the ‘new' media can work together in new ways...

Committed to the cause: Julian Assange. Photo: Reuters
Committed to the cause: Julian Assange. Photo: Reuters

T here are several marvellous things to note about this latest bombardment from cyberspace. One, when new media challenges old media, it is still possible for the latter to outshine the former.

Get on to the Afghan War Diary web pages on Wikileaks and you will be suitably fazed. How to get something useful out of these bald listings without investing inordinate time?

Here is just one little alphabetical segment from the section ‘browse by category': checkpoint run (37) close air support (95) convoy (53) cordon/search (80) counter insurgency (8) counter mortar fire (41) counter mortar patrol (7) counter narcotic (6) counter terrorism (1) criminal activity (27) defecting (5) deliberate attack (69) demonstration (237) detain (185) detained (683) detainee release (60) detainee transfer (517) direct fire (16293) downed aircraft (13) drug operation (6) drug vehicle (2) elicitation (1) enemy action (13) equipment failure (81) erw recovered (24) erw/turn-in (58) escalation of force (2271) evidence turn-in/received (50) extortion (5) finance (3)…etc.

Sixteen thousand-odd files on ‘direct fire' may sound promising but go there and you will be stumped at the bald statistical nature of the tabulation. There may have been no casualties at all but the listing is there anyway. Wikileaks was being precise when it called its latest offering a Dump: 90,000 plus reports indiscriminately dumped there, getting something cogent out of it is your headache. Even if there is a reading guide to help you decipher some 400 abbreviations and military acronyms.

Tranforming information

So Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, was doing us a favour when he decided to make the documents available to three newspapers first. They rose to the challenge quite magnificently. Here is what The Guardian did with thousands of files under seven IED categories: it created an interactive map. It took every roadside bomb planted and IED attacks by the Taliban between 2004 and 2009, with full details and processed the data: “16,000 improvised explosive devices are recorded in the Afghanistan war logs, rising from 308 in 2004 to 7,155 in 2009. Press start on the map below, or drag the date along the bar, to see where and who they hit over these five years.”

The scroll on the map takes you rapidly through every single day of those years with dark green red and blue markers lighting up to indicate the fatalities. Red for civilians is a constant, with overall fatalities rising from 122 in 2004 to 793 till the timeline ends at January 1, 2010. Imaging the data processing it took to build that interactive map.

The New York Times focused less on raw data and more on analysis, while also presenting a selection of despatches for its readers to browse. The journalism applied to the dump, came from old media. Without it, the war reports revealed would have had more symbolic than real value. And as American commentators pointed out, overall there was little new in the core revelations of the war logs.

The real significance of the Afghan war diaries lies in what Wikileaks represents as a movement, as an evolution in journalism. One analyst has called it the emergence of open source journalism. Julian Assange makes it possible for anybody anywhere in the world to submit secret documents for publication. Since it went online more than three years ago, the site has published an extensive catalogue of secret material, ranging from the Standard Operating Procedures at Camp Delta, in Guantánamo Bay, and the “Climategate” e-mails from the University of East Anglia, in England, to the contents of Sarah Palin's private Yahoo account! Its most stunning scoop was the online posting of a video which showed airborne Americans in Iraq killing civilians including two Reuters journalists, in 2007.

“Make a submission,” it says at the top of the site, and Assange explains in a video and elsewhere that Wikileaks provides something entirely new. It provides a secure, military grade protection programme for whistleblowers which has enabled the safe transmission of important evidence to the public. So far, not one amongst the thousands of submissions in the public interest has been compromised or its author disclosed.

Secondly, it is a movement. On every single page of the war documents on the website is a link which says “Help us extend and defend this work.” It asks for financial, legal and technical support. It has hundreds of volunteers across the world. Assange has a manic belief in his cause and he drives it, attracting whistleblowers everywhere.

Present everywhere

Significant point number three: what we have here is a stateless news organization. Its Twitter profile lists Wikileak's location as “everywhere”. The New Yorker profile of Assange which appeared in June this year describes how Wikileaks maintains its content on more than 20 servers around the world and on hundreds of domain names. You can't take it down, somebody said, without dismantling the entire Internet.

When the website put its war logs into the public domain the president of the United States took to a mike to express his concern. That does not happen very often after a journalistic scoop. But the US response that the leaks will harm national security (and endanger lives) cuts no ice with Wikileaks. Why would a stateless organisation feel any commitment to the US national security?

But the newspapers which relayed its revelations to the world are not stateless, and The New York Times said it had taken care not to publish information that would harm national security interests. It removed from the documents it published the names or precise identifying information of sources, the names of buildings under surveillance, prisoners, kidnap victims, times required for various tactical military reactions and radio frequencies or phone numbers used in insurgent communications.

This new level of partnership between old and new media promises to make the future of both journalism and whistle blowing quite fascinating. And while Wikileaks is not in India yet, given the vulnerability of our whistleblowers, it needs to be.


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