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WikiLeaks, Censorship and the Right to Publish

Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were the Cana...
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Readers to this blog know that back in October 2009 I wrote two articles commenting on the WikiLeaks organization.   As an auditor having been exposed to ethical issues in corporate America, and having seen cases where transparency in practice does not always follow documented policies, I felt that WikiLeaks could serve a valuable role in the corporate world, simply by being the place where whistleblowers could expose their concerns without fear of reprisals, especially when they exhaust normal channels.  Today, a year after having written those articles, I feel the same as I did then.  But, in this article I will venture to share some political  observations about the context  in which the planned release of over 350,000 reports, dubbed ‘The Iraq War Logs’, documenting the war and occupation of Iraq from 1 January 2004 to 31 December 2009 is  taking place.   It is up to the reader to determine if any of my observations have future implications for their work in the corporate world.

Thinking about the WikiLeaks media extravaganza brought back memories of my childhood in Cuba, where there is no Freedom of the Press or Freedom of Speech and journalists are regularly jailed for criticizing the government or expressing dissent from the accepted socialist dogma.  In places like Cuba, controlled by dictators or one party systems, the pursuit of the truth, the right to protect the identity of sources, the right to publish free of censorship and the ideals of transparency are often thought of as unachievable dreams.   Because of my personal experiences regarding the value of speaking freely, and memories of the killing, jailing, intimidation, beatings and exile of relatives for the simple reason of “political disagreement,” my support for publishing the leaked Afghan war documents and now the Iraq War Logs may be a bit more complex than that held by the average person.

As an American citizen, with various family members currently and previously in the US military, I support 150% the sacrifices that our service members make on a daily basis.  However, I do not hold similar admiration and trust for our political leaders and the political elites that (unfortunately) send our military men and women to war.  The lies, cover-ups, corruption, greed and incompetence that have occurred during the last fifty years, from the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, the Middle East, Latin America, and within our own borders in our inner cities, does not lead me to believe that this political culture (of the right or the left) can be trusted, especially when dealing with matters of life or death.   It has become clear that there is a huge and growing socio/economic chasm in America, with those at the top of the pyramid no longer acting for the benefit of the society, but for their narrow selfish interests. Whether this happens by accident or as part of a conspiracy, does not matter.  We have a political elite where its members spend their entire lives in “public office” with many of their children and grandchildren succeeding them to the same or similar offices.  We have billionaires who live in 15 million dollar mansions who spend 35, 50, or 80 million dollars in political campaigns for offices that pay annual salaries of less than $250,000.  And, they tell us they do it for the love of serving the poor and ensuring equality.  We have a two party system monopoly that plays musical chairs getting its members elected by less than 50% of voting adults nationally, and less than 30% of voting adults in local or state elections.   We have a media that repeatedly reports on the same politically correct subjects 24 hours a day, from the same ideological perspective and the same prejudices, by reporters that previously worked for or will work for, the very political or financial elites they are supposedly providing unbiased reporting and coverage on.  Our multinationals  conduct business all over the world  and when cases of corruption surface, our guys are always found to be ethical and within the law, while the foreigners are almost always found to be guilty of all sorts of unethical, criminal and fraudulent acts.  In the name of Globalization our companies ship millions of jobs and capital overseas, but do little to re-invest and create jobs at home, feeding a vicious circle of unemployment, poverty and social unrest.  As the world’s leading superpower, we have no qualms in militarily intervening, threatening and destabilizing other countries when our political and financial elites decide that their arbitrary interests are threatened.  So let there be no doubt, I love America, but I also see its wrinkles and warts.  The America I see today, is not the America I believe our Founding Fathers conceived and wanted.

In this environment and in this day and age, our political elites tell us that it is dangerous to have WikiLeaks publish the leaked Iraq war documents, because it will disclose important secrets that may put the lives of our troops in danger.   It is hard to believe this claim, since it has been used so many times before by the same political culture every time someone published or threatened to publish government wrongdoing.  It was used with the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate leaks.   What seems to be more credible is that the danger is to the political elites and not so much to our troops. The fear of showing the world and the American people the mistakes, incompetence, injustices, arrogance, bullying and waste perpetrated by our top level leaders and institutions is what is at the heart of this call to stop Wikileaks.  If we were living in a totalitarian regime like Cuba or North Korea, this sort of reaction would be expected, but aren’t we in an open democratic society?  What the political elites are telling us is that we have to accept a conditional version of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press and Transparency in government.  They are saying that we have Freedom of Speech only when it does not offend them, that we have Freedom of the Press only when it does not challenge mass media and commercial interests and we have Transparency in government only when the government tells us it’s OK, for our own good!

We hear that Wikileaks should be an exception to the rules used with other media outlets.   That Freedom of the Press protections allotted to other publishers and information distributors should not be extended to it because it is an open forum of information provided by unanimous “uncontrolled” and “un-vetted” individuals from around the world who may harbor anti-American sentiments and that the organization may be influenced by our enemies.   Doesn’t this claim then support the notion that the American mainstream media has legal protections because it subjects itself to a sophisticated form of  censorship, indirectly in the hands of the political and financial elites who determine the financial viability and licensing of these media conglomerates?  Doesn’t this in turn put into question the integrity and reliability of the information analyzed and distributed by the mainstream media?  What does this do to the claim that there is no censorship in America?

In an unprecedented manner, the left and the right, Democrats and Republicans want to crush Wikileaks and its founder.  No one is talking about the original reasons why Wikileaks was founded and what it set out to do.  It was a simple attempt to provide an alternative vehicle to corporate level “Whistleblower” programs, that were seen by many as ineffective and flawed.  The fact that people of all persuasions, from all over the world, jumped on the opportunity to share uncensored information via the platform is evidence of the pent-up hunger there was and there is for such a tool.   The majority of early Wikileak releases were not from disgruntled ex intelligence agents or unhappy consultants informing on government covert operations.  They were articles and confidential papers on corporate fraud, unethical business practices, exposes on dangerous products, corporate bribery, insider trading, multinational tax evasion, unfair labor practices, consumer safety  and so forth.  As a corporate whistleblowing tool, it took a while to take off, but when it did, it quickly became an irritant to many large global organizations.  Wikileaks did not choose or tell a global audience what they should submit for distribution in its platform.  The material was and is submitted at the will and following the motivation of whomever has something they want to submit.  And, this is how politically charged information has made its way to Wikileaks, and how ‘The Iraq War Logs’ found their way to the platform.  These politically charged releases have also created a perfect distraction away from the original goals and objectives of Wikileaks. That of becoming a global corporate whistleblowing vehicle.  Now, these things are forgotten and when Wikileaks is brought up in conversation, we hear instead about spies, the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, traitors and hacking.  It is truly an interesting turn.  The complexity and legitimacy of Wikileaks as a whistleblowing service has been transformed, by very smart and sophisticated media and political experts, into a very simple and primal concept.  Wikileaks equals treason!

By diverting public opinion away from the original subject, the legitimate need for some form of global corporate whistleblower is postponed.  The global tax dodgers are safe, details on dangerous environmental risks in parts of the world will remain unknown and those who fund the arms trade will continue to be nominated for Nobel Peace Prizes.  However, the genie is out of the bottle.  Even if the current Wikileaks is shut down and its founder jailed, what we are experiencing is a high profile confirmation that such a public service is needed.   Future incarnations will be more sophisticated and will likely be designed to withstand the types of technical and legal attacks we have recently seen.  The days of secrecy as we used to know it are over.  In this age of Social Media, cameras in every Smart-phone, instant messaging and millions of blogs, the existence of a Wikileaks type of service is likely to have a deterring impact on the way irresponsible and/or corrupt politicians and corporate executives do business.  And, that’s not a bad thing.

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  1. Samuel Perez
    November 17, 2010 at 7:21 AM

    Joel,

    Thanks for the article. My parents are Cuban and I know exactly what you experienced and how that translates to issues of freedom of expression and the press.

    WikiLeaks is in transition as most things are in the Internet. The idea of an anonymous and easy to use tool to report corporate and government wrong doing will not go away and will grow as more people become aware of it.

    Saludos,

    Sam

  2. E. L. (An old auditor at a Big 5)
    November 24, 2010 at 4:07 AM

    Joel,

    This is the first time in the history of corporate compliance and ethics where there is a true and credible place for whistleblowers. Until now, whistleblowers have had to expose themselves and almost always ended up fired by HR whose jobs is to cover up for the old boys or thieves involved. In my many years as an auditor, I’ve never seen a credible corporate whistleblower program, or an HR department that has seriously taken the side of a whistleblower. Never!

    Reporting wrong doing via the internal compliance channels and HR in today’s corporate America is the equivalent of asking to be abused, humiliated and fired without any benefits and carries a stigma in terms of finding future work. My advice to readers is to become familiar with WikiLeaks so when the time comes they can use it!

    E.L.

  3. R. Wood
    November 24, 2010 at 4:07 AM

    To me the Wikileaks issue boils down to this:

    It is clear that the integrity of secret US Government information is poor, and current security can be breached by various means, some low tech. These leaks are by themselves evidence of the inadequacy of current security policies and systems. At fault lies the US government and its various agencies responsible for preventing these types of security breaches.

    Wikileaks is not the cause of the problem, but simply a publishing medium. If Wikileaks did not exist the information would have found another way to hit the public. By re-directing attention to Wikileaks we all run the risk of allowing the government to confuse the causes of the problem, to blame others for the problem and to continue to operate in the incompetent manner it has.

    R. Wood

  4. Harold
    November 24, 2010 at 4:07 AM

    Good article.

    Enjoyed reading your comments about WikiLeaks. I’ve noticed most Americans in the business community are not expressing their views on this subject. I think the fear is that American corporations do not want an independent channel where employees can expose wrong doing.

    I agree with you, in that WikiLeaks will increase in popularity around the world and if the Pentagon can not stop them, no corporation will either!

    Harold

  5. AthenaG
    December 5, 2010 at 2:58 PM

    Joel:

    What else can I say? You took my breath away with this; it is a great piece and ought to be placed in the Library of Congress. Quite provocative, amazingly insightful and deliciously entertaining!

    Well done, my friend! 😀

  6. Henry
    December 8, 2010 at 6:41 PM

    Your reasons for not trusting the official media and arguments from government officials are well presented and I agree with most of what you write. As an auditor, I have reached a point of pessimism and do not trust most of our so called corporate and government leaders. Having met many corporate crooks in my career, who get away with it, while the auditors get fired, I do not need much to sense when a story is a diversion or cover up.

    The link below has another story about government misconduct and lying, this time its the FBI…. as you wrote, after 50 plus years of this stuff how can anyone seriously trust what the government says?

    http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/12/fbi-arbitrarily-covers-evidence-misconduct

    Henry

  7. Pradeep Karamcheti
    December 9, 2010 at 9:48 PM

    There is a possibility that the story we are hearing from the media is the truth. However, it sounds a little simplistic and even fabricated. The US is still the richest most powerful country on earth and the explanation given for this leak is more fitting for a third world country.

    Your article makes me wonder if the information leaked was part of a larger conspiracy by the government, done in order to achieve some hidden purposes. It will not be the first time the US Government is involved in this sort of thing.

  8. Ethics Man
    April 9, 2011 at 11:09 AM

    Good article. What is happening with this case is a classic in terms of a powerful government tiring out its opponents to the point where public focus goes elsewhere. The case will drag on for years, while Asange is held in jail. I agree with your predictions and commentaries. The real guilty parties will never be touched!

    Ethics Man

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