News / Europe

WikiLeaks Document Release Sparks Secrecy Debate

A man views a news stand displaying newspapers, some carrying the story on WikiLeaks' release of classified US State Department documents, in London, Nov. 29, 2010
A man views a news stand displaying newspapers, some carrying the story on WikiLeaks' release of classified US State Department documents, in London, Nov. 29, 2010
Jennifer Glasse

The diplomatic cables recently made public by WikiLeaks were not intended for wide dissemination. Advocates say releasing them is in the public interest, opponents say the result will be damaging both for freedom of expression and international diplomacy.

Internet whistleblower site WikiLeaks' latest release of information comprises more than a quarter of a million cables from American diplomats at embassies around the world. British Parliament member and former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind says the disclosures are a blow to diplomacy.

"This is not governments trying to prevent themselves from being embarrassed, this is because sometimes the resolution of very difficult international problems is helped if you can have at least in the first stage very private diplomatic negotiations before you go public," Rifkind said.

But editor Jo Glanville, of the freedom of speech organization Index on Censorship says the cables should be public.

"This information impacts on all of us," said Glanville. "The decisions that are made, the deals that are made between countries and over the last 10 years since 9/11 where we've been in such a critical situation of being at war in Iraq and being at war in Afghanistan, where there has been increasing concerns around human rights, I think that what goes on is obviously going to be in the public interest."

Director Simon Davies, of human rights watchdog Privacy International, agrees.

"You get to know the way the world works, and I think that this is our reality check," Davies said. "These leaks allow us an inside glimpse so that we can adjust our expectations as citizens and we can force governments to adjust theirs."

Scott Gilmore is a former Canadian diplomat who says the disclosure is wrong.

"It is going to be much, much more difficult for not just American diplomats, but diplomats in general to talk to people on the ground, to get frank information from locals on human-rights issues and abuses and democracy issues," said Gilmore.

Gilmore says it also could put lives at risk.

"In my personal experience in East Timor and Indonesia, we had specific cases where people actually died because they were brave enough to talk to Western diplomats about some of the abuses they had seen," he added. "If the WikiLeaks /Cablegate release had happened back in the late 90's there would have been a lot more people that would have been hurt or even killed by their government."

Davies disagrees. He says, "I do not buy that argument that there is a risk to life. I do not buy the argument that there is going to be a problem diplomatically between governments. Because these things, if there is a problem, these things should be out there, they should be open, people should be able to assess them."

Glanville says the WikiLeaks team and the journalists who have been given access to the cables have taken precautions to protect anyone who might be at risk.

"Many, many, many hours have been spent redacting names, checking with the authorities, so I think everybody has dealt with this in a responsible way," said Glanville.

She says leaking facts is the main way that crucial information from governments or businesses becomes public.

"As concerned citizens and as journalists we all rely on the leak, so from that point of view, I would say it is a necessary thing, that somebody somewhere is blowing the whistle and that somebody somewhere is prepared to publish that information," he added.

Privacy International's Davies says this WikiLeaks release offers an opportunity. He says, "Possibly that moment has occurred now where we need to step back and take a look at the magnitude of that non-disclosure, the magnitude of the secrecy and ask, 'Well, how do we, if necessary, how do we rebalance the equation of the right to know versus the right of secrecy?'"

WikiLeaks' founder says the site's next target is a major bank. Whatever the site publishes, it will likely continue to court controversy over what should stay private and what the public has a right to know.

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