Of Media Ethics and the WikiLeaks Phenomenon

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EZEKIEL MUTUA

A fundamentally crucial question that emerges from the devastating effect of the recent leak of classified mili¬tary files by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks is whether this purported investigative journalism can pass muster on a professional ethical scale.

Indeed, many analysts who have keenly followed these rare developments in the history of journalism and warfare wonder whether Julian Assange’s work can really be classified as journalism or whether it is something else – perhaps a new offshoot of espionage.

And if it is journalism, how do the ethics of this trade and profession apply to the un¬relenting, barefaced exposure of highly sen¬sitive materials of a security nature? These and many other cogent questions are going to preoccupy the teaching and practice of journalistic ethics for years to come.

Also moot is the question whether whistle-blowing overrides all other rights, privi¬leges and priorities, including the security of sources and informers, which has been held to be sacrosanct in journalism for millennia.

A few years ago, in what was then East Germany, millions of classified files of the fear¬some secret police agency – then known as the Stasis – were declassified and many East Germans took the opportunity to go and see what the government had thought of them.

To the astonishment, distress and perhaps even trauma of many of them, they discov¬ered that the most strategically-placed Stasis informers who had spied and informed on them were spouses, children and even lovers.

The Stasis files were declassified after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany under one of the world’s most wide-ranging and efficacious Freedom of In-formation and access to data laws.

This was easily the world’s single biggest “outing” of informers and other spies. But it was considered to be a healing and cathartic experience and process at the national level.

Today, millions of Germans are living out the balance of their lives fully aware of some of the darker aspects of human nature and The Evil That Men Do. The German and world media had a field day reporting and analysing the shock and other reactions of ordinary people finding out they had been caught up in the espionage trap, one of the world’s oldest professions, second only to prostitution.

WikiLeaks’ style is also a species of spying. By using the Internet to leak top secrets and confidential information and data, WikiLeaks has brought together two spheres in the in-formation gathering business that are usually mutually repellent and exclusive – the world of Intelligence, usually known as secret source, and the world of journalism, usually known as open source.

The world of Intelligence is retentive of se¬crets; the world of journalism loves nothing more than shouting the details of every con¬ceivable secret from every available rooftop. But the media are also keepers of secrets, chiefly through the device of self-restraint and self-censorship.

However, Mr Assange seems to be in the process of creating a third dimension in the information business – open source all the time, busting secrets without frontiers, with¬out self-restraint or any other inhibition.

Last year, the whistle-blower leaked details of apparent money laundering activities at an especially secretive Swiss bank. The bank hit back with massive litigation, forc¬ing WikiLeaks offline for several weeks, un¬til a number of the world’s most prestigious newspapers intervened on WikiLeaks’ behalf and the bank took fright and retreated. But should banking and military secrets be bust¬ed?

The WikiLeaks phenomenon is a brand new dilemma, conundrum and imponderable in the world of media ethics. Perhaps the nearest comparison to what WikiLeaks is at¬tempting to do with the ethics of the media and other information-gathering profes¬sions is to be found in science of physics, in the field of antimatter.

The most accessible dictionary defini¬tion of antimatter is that it is any “sub¬stance that, when combined with an equal amount of matter, results in the complete and direct conversion of all substance to energy. Antimatter is composed of anti¬particles. Each particle of matter has a corresponding antiparticle of antimat¬ter”.

But what is the nature of the energy released by the WikiLeaks phenomenon?
Beyond the cheap thrills of voyeurism, gossip, exposure and the titillations of tittle-tattle, what good is it doing anyone?

Another question (and yet another danger) is : How long will traditional media just stand by and watch Assange hog all the expose limelight and glory before it tries to emulate him and cash in on the action? The minute the rest of the media do this, all media eth¬ics and restraints are going to be thrown out of the window and then anarchy will prevail full scale.

But the greatest danger in discarding media ethics is not even anarchy. It is anomie – a media audience fed for too long on an unre¬strained diet of debilitating expose upon ex¬pose will develop expose fatigue and become numb to being shocked all the time.

And that is the point at which people simply stop caring. If this happens then corruption and all manner of wrongdoing and impunity will rampage through society at will.

I do not wish to discourage Wikileaks and other gutter-inclined media from their unique, self-appointed mission to expose sleaze in the corridors of power. My point is merely a reminder that the media’s place in society is to tell the truth without doing evil.

If the Wikileaks phenomenon is to stand in judgment of all other institutions, it must itself also be in a position to be held account¬able.

Power without responsibility is a recipe to corruption. To quote Lord Acton, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts abso¬lutely. Mark my words.

*The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya*

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