By HUGO Odiogor
Is Julian Assange a hero or a villain? That is the question before lovers of freedom of speech and those who believe that government has a responsibility to protect public interest. Give the impact of his Wiki Leaks revelations on global diplomatic practice, international political and economic relations, which cannot be quantified now, there is no doubt that it would be profound, far reaching and contrasting from one country to another and from region to another region.
It will take some time to truly ascertain Assange’s motive for turning global diplomacy on its head. First, is Assange a publicity maniac or fighting for free speech and transparency in his whistle blowing mission? Assange, whose renegade colleagues have portrayed him as egoistic with publicity hubris, knew the consequence of his action. He knew that the power elite in the West would come after him, he was also conscious of the fact that whatever happens, he would go down in history as one of the people that demystified diplomacy as an activity of governance.
While proponents of free choice may see Assange as advancing the ethos of democracy by upholding the right of the people to know what those elected into public offices are doing with the mandate, the likes of China and Russian may look at America with some sympathy for the mess Assange has created for them now and in future. Supporters of Assange argue that the Wikileaks could not have come a better time than now when the US is believed to be withholding information on its war against terrorism in the Middle East and Asia.
Back in Nigeria, Assange evokes two sets of emotions namely from those who see the whistle blowing cable site as necessary to fight corruption, and those who want to stifle this noble aspiration by stalling the passage of Freedom of Information Bill.
The U.S has been embarrassed beyond comprehension by the revelations of diplomatic dispatches and critical commentary on leaders and countries by diplomats in over 270 countries. The comments by the diplomats can only be described as cynical, condescending and parochial.
According to the Dean of Center for Development Studies, Covenant University Ota, Professor Kayode Soremekun, what Assange posted on WikiLeaks is not “fundamentally outside the pre_occupation of diplomats, who are basically trained to gather information on their host country, with the goal of gaining advantage over them”. With the presence of whistle blowers like Assange, the need to ensure transparency in public office has become a priority.
As Soremekun puts it, “What I can see happening now is a linkage between democracy on one hand, and diplomacy on another, because democracy is about information dissemination, in the context of the right of the people to know. Wikileaks is about demystifying authority which is what democracy has done in the past diplomacy. It was a kind of insular and secret affair, but now Wiki Leaks has turned things inside out”.
According to him, nations will now “take some more steps to safeguard their information bases”. The US feels embarrassed and outraged not only by the Wiki Leaks disclosures, but also by the let down by one of its own, Private Bradley Manning, who leaked the sensitive documents.
Although this is not the first time such leaks have occurred, the recent one appears to be more devastating, given the fact that the US is at war with invisible enemies in the Middle East, keeping its eyes on Iran and North Korea on the nuclear interest, uncomfortable with Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe, restless with the upsurge of imperial China and India.
It is tired with the British and at loss in the African jungle.
Will Wiki Leaks make the world a safer place to live in or has it compounded the arduous task of navigating through dangerous flash points? The answer is in the air. According to Soremekun,” the storm kicked up by Wiki Leaks will settle because every country in the world engages in the act of trying to outsmart one another in the international arena”.
He said, “I am sure the ruling elite around the world will regain the momentum in terms of trying to secure their respective bases. You can see the heat has actually been turned on Julian Assange, the originator of this particular innovation with the alleged sex offense. It is a form of official harassment, but, given the way technology is, it has the capacity to be replicated and, am sure that the several potential hackers out there, even just for fun, will try, as it were, try to demystify the various governments. Again, the converse is that it is possible for people’s privacy to be invaded at will and that is very disturbing”.
The coming of a rival cable site called OpenLeaks points to the fact that more whistle blowing sites would emerge and hackers would be more daring to go for encrypted information and secret documents of high profile business transactions in banks, as well as the oil, pharmaceutical and environment related fields where multinational companies and high net worth individuals could be caught off guard.
OpenLeaks managers said they will not make their site open to the public but materials could be accessed by non governmental organisations, the media and academic institutions. OpenLeaks, which begins operation this week, said its mission, to do what WikiLeaks is trying to do, but without the drama that has attended the work of WikiLeaks.The scathing criticisms levelled against Assange seem to suggest that he is not a saint, after all, although he never claimed to be one.
Soremekun said the Wiki Leaks episode may strengthen the position of opponents of the Freedom of Information Bill. But the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda Mr. Edeatan Ojo told Sunday Vanguard that Assange did not get his information through a legitimate source but rather used a whistle blowing approach because of secrecy that has characterized governance in the US with regards to the country’s involvement in the wars in the Middle East and Asia.
The emergence of these cable sites that are not controlled by regulation has also raised concerns about possible trading of sensitive information to adventurous medium. He said people celebrate information from foreign media, diplomatic, opposition and alternative sources because of so much secrecy in public activities.
There are indications that further mutation in this sector of the media will promote exposure of sensitive information that will hurt individuals, institutions and government that may have transacted secret business especially on arms, illegal transfer of funds for corrupt enrichment by third world leaders.
To Soremekun, the WikiLeaks phenomenon may have its negative side in infringing of personal privacy but it is a worthy effort in fighting corruption and strengthening the practice of democracy by enhancing the people’s right to know what their government are doing. He said government’s response may be to reinforce the colonial statue of the Official Secret Act that criminalises the release of classified information.
He said although the approach of WikiLeaks may be wrong, “it will do our lawmakers a lot of good to learn from the WikiLeaks experience because the FOIB will provide safeguards against breaches that can result from secrecy”. The ruling elite have turned the heat on the originator of WikiLeaks with the alleged sex offense in Sweden as they try to regain the momentum in terms of trying to secure their respective bases.
This, according to Soremekun, amounts to official harassment, but, given the way technology is, it has the capacity to be replicated. It is yet morning on creation day as more mud would be splashed in the face of statesmen and nations.
More systems and institutions will be demystified and, on the converse, people’s privacy would be invaded at will and that is very disturbing.