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Posts tagged “press freedom

WikiLeaks: Is information a crime?

Some would certainly like to answer yes to this, describing the organisation as illegal and dangerous. Others think WikiLeaks should be rewarded with a Nobel Prize, for its efforts for Freedom of Information.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange, spokesperson and director of WikiLeaks

Since the organisation was launched in 2007 it generated a number of controversial headlines by releasing previously unpublished and sensitive documents. We are not talking about a few drops here, but rather heavy showers of information. In its first year WikiLeaks claimed to have a database containing more than 1.2 million documents. Most of it considered confidential, some of it secret.

The information is mostly leaked by anonymous sources, who see a need for disclosure in the public interest. The topics range from corruption and war to corporations, ecology and freedom of speech.

One of the latest releases caused outrage in the US government. On 28 November WikiLeaks and five major international newspapers simultaneously published confidential diplomatic cables from 274 embassies dated from 1966–2010.

The contents include numerous unguarded comments and revelations such as dealings between various countries, actions in the War on Terror, US Intelligence efforts and other senstitive diplomatic actions. Despite serious criticism by the US, WikiLeaks plans to release the entirety of 251,287 cables within the next months.

Criticism and praise to WikiLeaks has been equally overwhelming. The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated that she “absolutely condemns” Wikileaks actions and that the release of information on the site was “grossly irresponsible” and “illegal.”

Peter King, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee of the United States House of Representatives, has stated his support for listing WikiLeaks as a “foreign terrorist organisation” explaining that “WikiLeaks presents a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States.”


In April 2010, WikiLeaks posted a video from a 2007 incident in which Iraqi civilians and journalists were killed by U.S. forces

On the other hand the organisation has won a number of awards, including the 2008 Economist magazine New Media Award and Amnesty International’s UK Media Award, in the category “New Media” in 2008. Julian Assange, who is the spokesperson and director of WikiLeaks, has been suggested by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev as a Nobel Prize laureate.

WikiLeaks is a not-for-profit media organisation, which says its goal is to bring important news and information to the public. They state on their website: “The broader principles on which our work is based are the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history.”

In particular the organisation grounds on Article 19 of the Human Rights Declaration, which states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Naturally governments and organisation, which are negatively affected by the publications, are opposing it strongly. But the question arises how far the freedom of speech reaches, even in stable democracies. Can it really considered to be a crime to reveal information? Don’t we have the right to know about the wrong-doings of governments and other organisations, which might have an essential affect on peoples lives and even our own lives?

WikiLeaks represents an enormous pond of information, which is of high value for journalists to help them to do what they are supposed to: Informing the public about important issues, which is the best stabilizer for a healthy democracy.

WikiLeaks

http://www.guardian.co.uk/video/embed
Julian Assange, the spokesperson of WikiLeaks, on the Afghan War Logs

http://www.guardian.co.uk/video/embed
An excerpt of John Pilger’s new documentary “The War You Don’t See”, including an interview with Julian Assange

http://www.guardian.co.uk/video/embed
Hilary Clinton condemns WikiLeaks


Public interest is what the government says it is

Although we live in a democratic society which accepted the principles of human rights, like the freedom of information, there are still some significant loopholes. The government is by law admitted to keep information secret, for national safety.  Let’s have a look how it all began: The Official Secrets Act.

In July 1984 Clive Ponting, at that time a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) sent two documents to Labour MP Tam Dalyell concerning the sinking of the Argentine navy warship General Belgrano.

The case was a key incident in the Falklands War in 1982. The documents revealed that the General Belgrano had been sighted a day earlier than officially reported, and that it was steaming away from the Royal Navy taskforce. And most importantly it was outside the exclusion zone, when the cruiser was attacked and sunk.

On the right – The news coverage of The Sun after the attacks

Clive Ponting admitted revealing the information and was charged with a criminal offence under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act of 1911. His main defence was that the matter was in the public interest. Ponting was acquitted by the jury in 1985. The verdict came despite the judge’s direction that “the public interest is what the government of the day says it is”.

The verdict was seen as a landmark in British legal history and raised controversial debates of the public’s right to know. The Observer began to serialize Ponting’s book “The Right to Know: The inside story of the Belgrano affair.”

The Conservative government reacted by tightening up UK secrets legislation, introducing the Official Secrets Act 1989. This enactment dismantled the defence that a release of information could be seen to be in the public interest, and therefore justified. Since then it was taken that public interest actually is “what the government of the day says it is.”

The Official Secrets Act made it possible for the government to use spy strategies such as phone tapping on citizens or groups, like ngo’s. Although Freedom of information is a basic democratic principle, the government seems to disagree that it should be applied on themselves.

Instead of advocating the investigation of internal crimes, the government seeks to protect itself by tools of a totalitarian regime, which are undermining human rights of privacy, freedom of information and freedom of expression.

As the term says, the public interest should be concerned about public interests and not governmental interests or warfare strategies.


With freedom comes responsibility

We are lucky, I mean those who live in the UK. Maybe we are not blessed with the best weather, but at least we have the right to freedom of expression.

Although this is a human right, which has been accepted throughout the world, in reality it is still a relatively rare condition. Unfortunately the freedom of press in many countries in the world is limited. Therefore being a journalist can be a dangerous job.

According to RWB more than a third of the world's people live in countries where there is no press freedom.

The organisation Reporters Without Borders(RWB) states that in 2010, so far,  26 journalists have been killed and 155 are imprisoned worldwide, because of their journalistic activity. So, yes it is a real value that we can criticise the government without having to expect death threats the next day.

When it comes to freedom of expression the media plays a vital role. It represents the eyes, ears and the voice of the people. The media is nothing less than a crucial cornerstone of a healthy democracy.

The media is supposed to be critical, accurate and as objective as possible. It should investigate what is of public interest and importance. Basically it delivers information to the people. And the quality of this information is fundamental to the quality of a democracy.

So, taking a look at the media can tell us a lot about the state of our democracy.

UK's best selling newspaper with an average of 3 million copies a day

The UK is a country with a good ground for freedom of expression. The question is what are we doing with this.

I think the first the thing we need to realize is that with freedom comes responsibility. This responsibility does not only depend on news organisations and journalists. They wouldn’t be anything without us!

If nobody demands celebrity gossip then we wouldn’t get it. That simply wouldn’t be profitable, in a capitalistic world. We have the power.

That is what a democracy is all about, the power of the people. It is up to us to take this power back.

There is an alternative to treating ourselves just as victims of  circumstances. We can take responsibility and therefore act responsible and shape this society in a positive way.

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