The public has a right to know

November 30, 2010 01:07 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:53 pm IST

Thanks to WikiLeaks and ‘Radiagate,' a significant treasure trove of classified or privately held information with the potential to affect the lives of millions of people has been brought into the public domain. To be sure, the two sets of documents — diplomatic cables in one instance, audio recordings in another — pertain to vastly different subjects. But both provide a much-needed glimpse into the real world — especially the real and often illegitimate interests that lie hidden behind the diplomatic niceties, political correctness, and corporate PR that dominate international and domestic messaging. The leaks we have seen and those that are yet to come are unlikely to alter any of fundamental balances. Nevertheless, it is also true that as a result of these disclosures, the task of those who use misinformation, manipulation, and deception in the exercise of global, political, and corporate power has become a wee bit harder. That is why legal and even strong-arm tactics — the cyber equivalent of which is hacking and denial of service attacks — have been employed to stop this information from being made public. In the case of WikiLeaks — a not-for-profit media organisation that says its goal is “to bring important news and information to the public” — its founder, Julian Assange, has found himself at the receiving end of police investigations and other more subtle forms of harassment. In the case of Radiagate, an industrialist who is not pleased with what he and his lobbyist are heard saying in secretly recorded telephone conversations has asked the Supreme Court to order a CBI investigation into how the material leaked and to pass a restraint order on further publication of the recorded conversations that would affect his right to privacy.

As far as WikiLeaks itself is concerned, Mr. Assange has shown himself to be a more than skilful player in the game of dissemination. In his latest effort, five respected media outlets in five separate countries were selected to bring the vast archive of diplomatic cables and memos before the international public in a phased and systematic manner. Thanks to this approach, what might have been a messy data dump has become an archivist's dream. Readers around the world who click on links on the WikiLeaks website or the websites of The Guardian , The New York Times , El Pais , Der Spiegel , or Le Monde can read for themselves cables that were meant to be shielded from public view for anywhere from 10 to 30 years. If newspapers are the first draft of history, the cables are the manuscripts and marginal notations that go into the making of that first draft. What we are seeing then, in a small way admittedly, is the democratisation of information as well as the production of information. The world, and our knowledge of it, would be impoverished if WikiLeaks and other channels of communication between whistleblowers and the rest of us were to be shut down or terminated.

The diplomatic cables provide a fascinating glimpse into the world that floats below the surface of headlines. Every day, diplomats from around the world send in to their headquarters candid assessments of what is going on in their host country. The lazier envoys do little more than reproduce gossip while the more gifted send reports full of verve and wit. Daniel A. Russell's confidential cable, ‘A Caucasus Wedding,' sent from the U.S. embassy in Moscow in July 2006, is a splendid example of long-form reporting worthy of The New Yorker , whose publication is likely to guarantee its author a decent post-retirement literary career. Even the gossipy ones provide insight and amusement, like the reference in a cable from Rome describing the unusually deep friendship between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a ‘bromance.'

On a more serious note, it is essential that analysts and policymakers pay close attention to the political content of the leaked cables. The candour used in these dispatches may offend some and titillate others but they reveal a nation at sea in a world that is no longer willing to march to its tune. We learn, for example, that America frets over not just what Beijing or Moscow thinks or does on a crucial question like Iran. Ankara and Berlin are also seen as potentially dissonant hothouses. American helplessness is writ large in the cables we have seen from Kabul and Islamabad. We know, for example, that Washington was worried that radioactive material in nuclear power stations in Pakistan could fall into the hands of terrorists but that Pakistani authorities refused to give the United States access to a research reactor for fear that local media coverage of the removal of highly enriched uranium would fuel public suspicions about an American takeover of Pakistani nuclear weapons. The revelation that many Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, are concerned about Iran's nuclear programme is not really new but their strident advocacy in private meetings with American diplomats of military force is worrying. So also is the news that the U.S. is seeking to spy on senior United Nations officials. Apart from a Hillary Clinton cable referring to India, Japan, Germany, and Brazil as “self-appointed front-runners” for a permanent seat in an expanded U.N. Security Council and a cable from Ankara confirming that Turkey kept India out of a regional meeting on Afghanistan in deference to Pakistani sensitivities, there is little in the disclosures so far to discomfit New Delhi. But when the 3,000-odd dispatches sent by the U.S. Embassy in India are published over the next 48 hours, it is possible that some or many feathers will end up ruffled. Elements of the strategic partnership — especially those pertaining to defence and the wider set of American goals involved — remain cloaked in secrecy. Stay tuned to this space.

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