Coral Pereda, a student from IE University’s Bachelor in Communication, interviews Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Freedom of Speech & Communication History at IE University, on the issues of public interest, journalism and government control surrounding the controversy created by the release of the Wikileaks documents.
There are documents that were prior to the cables release, there were documents dealing with the warlogs in Afghanistan, the warlogs in Iraq and the cables. The documents from the warlogs are of public interest because we get a greater picture of how many civilian casualties were in both in Iraq and Afghanistan which has not been fully transparent and fully disclosed by the US government . In terms of the cables, it is in public interest in the sense that the public gets to learn how the US government functions. You can say those are public goods.
2.Do you think the information could have ever threatened national security?
The critics who argue that it is not a public good would say that it is a threat to national security particularly to American national security as well as security about the Heads of States that the cables discuss. In terms of revealing how the US conducts intelligence or diplomacy the critics would argue that it hurts America’s War on Terror. Other critics would say that the documents reveal scandalous material about the government in Tunisia and perhaps that was one of the factors that lead to the revolts. Even now Wikicables about the government of Egypt are being faxed into Egypt. In this case the information is becoming a tool of revolution. Again, it depends on your perspective. For the national security elites, whether it is in Egypt,Tunisia and the US, it is a threat. But in the case of the protesters the information is transparency. It is a public good for them.
3.How do you think Wikileaks will affect the world of journalism in the future?
Wikileaks will not affect the world of journalism because journalism has always been based on reliable sources, varying the source and seeing if the source is reliable. And this is not new. You have always had journalism as a tool of government: if someone wants to undermine an opponent, if there’s a story which has to be released, government officials have always done so. Wikileaks is not affecting journalism . What was different was the sheer volume. There was just so much material. What was different was that new technology allowed so much material to be transferred to an USB drive. But journalism has always been searching for sources to get those stories to check on government power.
4.Do you think the organization attempts to criticize what journalism has become in the past years?
No, in fact Wikileaks says “we are a journalistic organization, we are a scientific journalist organization” in the sense that we just give our readers raw data. Julian Assange has criticized the NYT journalists for writing stories about him. But the thing is he can’t have it both ways. He wants transparency in the US government but the journalist’s job is to always search for the story. They have responsibility to search for the story about Julian Assange as well. But that’s the only critique. Otherwise Wikileaks is now trying to sell itself as a scientific journalist outlet.
5.Do you think governments will ever succeed at controlling the release of documents?
Governments can be more vigilant, they could probably create new computer technology that does not allow such a massive download. But governments will never be able to stop an insider wanting to leak information because at the end of the day he or she could smuggle a document out of that government office. Even the word of mouth is still a means of communication. Sometimes an insider can give a valuable story and if the journalist sees that source as reliable, just word of mouth can transmit sensitive information. That will never end. What can be controlled, is the scope, the amount of information that gets out there.
6. Julian Assange said that the existence of secret information implies that its release must make some good. Do you agree with him?
It is hard to give a yes or no answer. I would personally say that the way the information was released in the raw format was irresponsible because it could have put informants in Afghanistan or in Iraq at risk. But nevertheless, you’ve had the Freedom of Information Act and I think any liberal democracy should have some kind of transparency. Of course I do love my research based on archives that the US or the British government have made public. For academic interest I think it is another archive. Assange let it out there and you can do as much damage control as you can from the US government side. But from my perspective, since this information is out there, it will ultimately serve as an educational tool. I can use those documents now to teach at my International Relations courses or my Freedom of Speech courses. It does have some kind of educational benefit at least.
7. How does the arrest of Julian Assange pose a threat to freedom of speech?
I do not think his arrest poses a threat to freedom of speech because he wasn’t arrested on the grounds of releasing the documents. And if there was kind of a conspiracy to use it as an excuse to arrest him, we will never know. So the arrest initially does not pose a threat. What I think are counterproductive to freedom of speech are the calls to execute him, which some members of the US government’s political elite have made. That is against freedom of speech and the US government’s first Amendment. Even if you don’t like what he has done, it is still a matter of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is about listening to the things that we hate. Maybe you might hate the fact that he released the documents but you can’t kill him for that.
8.To conclude, what do you think the ultimate function of Wikileaks is? Is it to reveal corruption?
Wikileaks is like any type of archive. Any archive, even in the US or the UK, releases documents but usually within a waiting period of 30 years. On the one level it is an archive, it is just an archive that compresses time and uses new technology to spread that information quite quickly but also in what some would say in an illegal fashion, at the same time.