Spotlight on the Dodgy | by EPW

by Oct 6, 2011All Articles

wikileaksSurely the imperialists would put a stop to WikiLeaks’ exposure of their shady ways.
Much of the front-page news from around the world over the last year and more cannot be understood, perhaps, without factoring in the role and effect of WikiLeaks. But today, despite its multiple successes, or some may say because of those, WikiLeaks is facing a challenge it may not survive. Not only has it been enfeebled with the attacks, it has been steadily deserted by its supporters, both in the media and civil society as well as within the organisation itself. However, it has changed the world in ways unthinkable and there is perhaps no going back.
While most of the travails of WikiLeaks are well known, this may be a good place to list some of the more important ones. Firstly, like many of the great institutions of the present world, WikiLeaks is also largely a virtual entity; that is, it exists in servers, mirror sites and packets of data on the world wide web with very little of a physical presence. Apart from the lack of a
physical presence, it has also been identified, almost entirely, with one man – its founder and head – Julian Assange. This has been both a source of strength, and increasingly, of weakness
for WikiLeaks.

Secondly, what is often forgotten is that WikiLeaks came up with a very “western” agenda of providing journalists and activists in the non-western world – China, the former Soviet and east European states, Asia and Africa – a platform to post secrets and documents that their governments tried to hide from citizens. It was meant to provide something of the effect of a “free press” in these parts of the world. While it worked on this “mandate”, WikiLeaks was feted and awarded by western governments and institutions. However, the tide began to turn when it decided that it will go beyond this initial agenda and was willing to receive and publish documents relating to governments and institutions of the west.

The publication of the United States (US) diplomatic cables was perhaps the last straw, as far as the western powers were concerned. The greatest impact of these revelations has been
on the Arab world, whose citizens had already been seething at the million injustices of their local tyrants as well as the oppression of US-led, oil-inspired, imperialism. Many of the revelations from WikiLeaks exposed their rulers’ doublespeak, their sense of fear at their own citizens and their craven dependence on the US. While this was hardly a state secret, its exposure in the manner of the diplomatic cables was perhaps the final straw which broke their legitimacy and helped catalyse the Arab Spring! Also for the first time, people have an uncensored view of how the US administers its global empire and husbands its interests behind the veils of democracy and humanitarianism.

The attack on WikiLeaks has been relentless. The US government closed down WikiLeaks’ servers, got financial portals and banks to freeze accounts and halt donations and brought in
criminal cases, apart from a range of covert actions targeting those working for WikiLeaks, its donors, whistle-blowers as well as media partners. Despite actions by WikiLeaks’ supporters,
like keeping the website open through mirror servers and working out other means of accepting donations, these moves have hurt WikiLeaks.

But there has been a third aspect of this too, which is the dependence on the personality Julian Assange. While his singleminded determination and ability to stand up to pressures from some of the world’s greatest powers is surely commendable and responsible for much of WikiLeaks’ successes, it appears that a certain self-importance and a seeming sense of predestination too have marked his actions. Whatever the legal case or the geopolitical conspiracies that may have been involved in the manner in which Sweden has pursued the charges of rape against him, it is beyond doubt that his behaviour with those two women has been indefensible and morally compromised.

Similar has been Assange’s relations with WikiLeaks’ media partners, particularly The Guardian and with his comrades and associates inside WikiLeaks itself. Some of his closest associates have left him, accusing him of harming WikiLeaks’ mandate and working by his “megalomania” and his insistence on equating his persona with the organisation.  The spat with The Guardian has been very damaging, not only because it has taken away a strong defender but also because it has exposed the structural weaknesses of WikiLeaks. The release of the password which protected the diplomatic cables, and thus opened them up without redacting the names of many informers and activists appears to be a product of errors committed by both The Guardian as well as WikiLeaks. It has also damaged the credibility of such whistle-blower sites in the eyes of those who may want to share secret information, since it shows that WikiLeaks has not been able to protect such information.

Together all this has allowed forces opposed to WikiLeaks to perhaps fatally damage this organisation. From being a global hero speaking truth to power, Assange and WikiLeaks have been reduced to an individual and entity which is politically contested and morally fraught. It appears undependable to potential whistle-blowers and has its financial and submissions gateways besieged. It is unlikely that WikiLeaks will emerge out of this with any ability to carry on its work. Its failings notwithstanding and despite the success of the US in pushing it to the brink, WikiLeaks has changed the world for the better. It has played a central role in exposing the liberal facade of imperialism and has shown the vulnerability of states when their venality is exposed. Even if WikiLeaks does not survive its present travails, it will have been a proof of concept – that people can use the new technologies of communication and depend on international solidarity to expose, challenge and push back powerful states and corporations. There is no turning back from that.

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