When the private goes public: the media and information

Write. Right. The difference in spelling is arbitrary, for the words, to many, mean the same thing. The Gods of Democracy and All Things Rational have bestowed upon us the inalienable right to information about everything deemed public and secrecy about everything deemed private.

Yet when Wikileaks recently published top secret Pentagon information about the Afghan war for the general perusal of the Internet vultures, we lauded the act as a victory for journalism and freedom of information. Care was taken to include no information about American personnel and 15000 documents were not released to ensure that information inside would not put lives in Afghanistan at risk, but this courtesy was not entirely extended to informants from the Afghan side of things. And instead of the government deciding for us what information we did or did not have access to, this task was magnanimously carried out by the wigs behind Wikileaks. They appear to believe that now that the stolen information is in their hands, they have complete right to do with it what they please. The Pentagon was not particularly happy. Not surprising, they believed that publishing secret information would undermine their war effort. But nor were a whole handful of journalists.

Journalists, whose motivations lie in pockets more often than principles, are not necessarily the best placed to determine what should and what should not remain secret.

Reporters Without Borders wrote an open letter to Wikileaks explaining their reservations about the publication. They were concerned firstly for the individuals who were named, and the lives put at risk. They were concerned secondly that this sort of irresponsible posting would result in more regulation of Internet content. There is certainly great use in leaking private information, they admit, especially in the cases where some misconduct or irregularity has occurred. This does not mitigate problems with blanket posting huge swaths of government information.

Transparency. Accountability. Integrity. Words brandished with little evidence of effectiveness as a standard response to threats against press freedom. More subtlety is necessary. Journalists, whose motivations lie in pockets more often than principles, are not necessarily the best placed to determine what should and what should not remain secret.

We all understand that the Protection of Information Bill could provide methods for hiding acts of negligence, incompetence or corruption. This is possibly the crudest of arguments, but coupled with simplistic exposition on how information would be protected under the bill, is probably the most common made by the media and opposition politicians (e.g., 1, 2, 3). There is very little good to be said about the Bill, but attacking it assuming nothing is wrong with the status quo is juvenile. Real issues are on the table here. Technology has made it easy for whistleblowers to disseminate evidence of illegal activity, but simultaneously allows ease for other enterprising individuals to sell private information. There appear to be genuine instances were keeping information private is crucial to the success of  a project or safety of individuals involved. The government certainly needs to be kept in check, but it is far from clear that the way to achieve this is by allowing a frenzied media free-for-all. What is needed is a media debate, more sophisticated analysis, but not the usual Zille-style knee-jerk standoff.