Wikileaks: view from the AJF network

Although Julian Assange and Wikileaks have drawn the ire of many government officials, journalists are more divided about what to make of their sensational leaks. On the one hand, whistleblowers are an important source of information for the public. On the other, indiscriminate releasing of secrets can cause harm.

“What about ethics, morals and discretion?” asks Shifan Ahmed from the AJF Class of 2010. “I’ve heard and read of documents being published in large bundles without filtering certain information such as names and other personal data which have no bearing on the issues at hand.”

Shifan, who is a director and producer with Sri Lanka’s Young Asia Television, hopes that journalists and Wikileaks will think more deeply about how to use the information they possess to serve the public interest. Otherwise, individuals implicated in the documents could face life-threatening situations.

Leaks as such are nothing new, as Madhumita Datta (2010) points out. In India, the prominent news magazine Tehelka is well known for investigative pieces that rely heavily on whistleblowers. It even has a page on its website that encourages the public to become a “Tehelka Whistleblower”.

Datta, a senior journalist with the Kolkata-based AAJKAAL, says that Indians understand the power of the media and are not afraid to divulge any irregularities to the newspapers. For example, much of the information that was used to indict former communications minister A. Raja for graft came from a former staff. The Indian government is also working on a new whistleblower bill that would include provisions punishing those who reveal a whistleblower’s identity.

The environment is drastically different in Sri Lanka, notes Shifan. While there are many cases of whistleblowing, reprisals are also common. Last year, a law student who filed a police report about a leakage of an examination paper in his college received threatening phone calls in return. He was forced to go into hiding.

Faced with such an environment, Shifan believes that any attempt to set up a Wikileaks-like site in the country would be impossible for the foreseeable future. “Anything critical and challenging those in power has proven consequences. Yet the bold and outspoken who are a minority continue doing what they think is best,” he says.

Indonesia is another leak-friendly environment, reports Feby Indirani (2010), a reporter with Business Week Indonesia. “In Indonesia, you can have so many leaked stories spread out in our media, from print, TV, radio, Internet, it’s enough to make everyone beyond crazy!” she says. Many of these are trivial matters like celebrity porn videos.

Indeed, with so many leaks, the challenge is often distinguish between real whistleblowers and people with vested political and economic interests. “For some figures, perhaps they want to get attention and win the public’s heart,” she says.

One issue raised by the Wikileaks phenomenon is whether news organisations are losing control of the agenda. Agnes Lam (2010) calls it a “wake-up call for journalists”. Wikileaks and similar platforms make it possible for readers to scrutinise documents directly and make their own judgments. While it may be daunting to trawl through and make sense of the thousands of documents, the silver lining for readers is that it eliminates the gatekeeper. Professional journalists would have to think harder about how to remain relevant, says Lam, who now works for the Hong Kong government.

Article by Terence Lee