Wednesday, December 29, 2010

WikiLeaks: Neither a wiki nor a leak

Dec 29, 2010

Now an English word, but what does it mean, let alone stand for?
By Jeremy Au Yong

LAST week, WikiLeaks was declared an English word.

The Texas-based Global Language Monitor - which previously recognised Google, Twitter and vuvuzela as English words - inducted it into the language.

It said that the word had been referred to by so many that it has met the criteria of reach, depth and breadth to be considered a bona fide word.

However, they did not specify what WikiLeaks would mean. And that, it seems, is still very much up for debate.

No matter how you look at it, WikiLeaks is something of a contradiction.

It portrays itself as the defender of freedom in the world, an underdog champion of free speech victimised by evil, self-serving governments.

But to others, it is the evil, self-serving one, the epitome of an institution gone wrong, that may have begun with some noble purpose of publishing information, but has since been turned over to ego-boosting or other nefarious ends.

Even the name WikiLeaks is a misnomer. Critics point out it is neither a wiki nor a leak.

The term wiki, as popularised by online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, typically refers to a website that allows the easy creation and editing of any number of interlinked Web pages. A wiki site is a community effort, and users have a direct and immediate impact on its content.

Yet, while WikiLeaks accepts - or at least used to accept - submissions from anyone, whether or not that item got published and what form it took was the decision of one man: founder Julian Assange.

As for the leaks aspect, critics decry the manner in which it allegedly got hold of the diplomatic cables that created such a brouhaha recently.

WikiLeaks considers its leaks as whistle-blowing, yet 'cablegate' is not quite a whistle-blowing case. Some or all of the 250,000 cables are suspected to have come from a United States soldier, Private Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have stolen the information and then made it public. That, as one blogger put it, amounts to sabotage.

If the information revealed ultimately exposes the corruption of governments and brings about reform for public good, that wrong might reasonably be said to have had some good effect.

WikiLeaks itself justifies publishing classified information this way, saying this 'improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people', they explain on their site.

They add: 'Better scrutiny leads to reduced corruption and stronger democracies in all society's institutions, including government, corporations and other organisations.'

But this is not the case in 'cablegate'.

To be fair, WikiLeaks' early work did have some good public objective, even if it did not always have the desired impact.

Their Kenyan leak is perhaps the most oft-cited success story. In 2007, WikiLeaks disclosed a report by international risk assessment group Kroll alleging some US$3 billion (S$3.9 billion) in corruption on the part of relatives and associates of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.

WikiLeaks claims its report swung the vote by 10 per cent and led to the forming of a more open government.

While its disclosure was an issue in the 2007 election in Kenya, it is hard to say how it influenced voters, and certainly impossible to determine that it swung 10 per cent of the votes. By many accounts, it was a troublesome poll, with incumbent President Mwai Kibaki declared the victor amid allegations of vote rigging.

It is also hard to say if WikiLeaks had any lasting impact. Ironically, a cable it published from the US Embassy in Nairobi describes the Kenyan Cabinet as the most corrupt in Africa.

That Kroll report was WikiLeaks' most straightforward success. Since then, it has been wading in muddy ethical waters.

Its release of Afghanistan and Iraq war diaries was controversial at best. It lifted the veil on those war zones, but in both cases, it was criticised for endangering the lives of US troops.

Still, it was clear what good it hoped to do: Release information and improve transparency, in the hope that this increases accountability and, ultimately, better governance and a better society.

The same cannot be said of the diplomatic cables. Precious few of those released contain news or anything remotely resembling whistle-blowing.

Instead, there are remarks about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's flab, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's voluptuous blonde nurse and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's oversized ego.

In a word: Gossip.

What public good that does is questionable. In any case, what need is there for complete transparency in diplomacy?

An opinion in The Economist magazine recently put it this way: 'It wouldn't make the world a better place if Washington were unable to say anything to Jerusalem without its being heard by Riyadh, any more than it would if you were unable to tell your spouse anything without its being heard by your boss.'

WikiLeaks would have been naive if it believed releasing gossip cables would improve society. One is left simply wondering why it did it. Why didn't it sieve out the important from the inane, the impactful from the reckless? Does ego have anything at all to do with this?

At one point, Mr Assange threatened to release more cables if action is taken against him or his organisation, demonstrating his own penchant for using institutional resources for very personal ends.

So, although the word is now legit, WikiLeaks remains as nebulous as ever - it remains a group difficult to oppose, difficult to support and nearly impossible to define.

As those superhero comic strip characters always say, with great power, comes great responsibility. WikiLeaks aspires to superhero status, but it has not shown enough responsibility for the amount of power it one day hopes to have.

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