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The following article was first published in August 2010, before the latest release of confidential US government emails and other files by WikiLeaks. A more recent critique of this issue can be read at DogBitesMan.

The controversy over the Wikileaking of thousands of US documents on the war in Afghanistan demonstrates how deadly serious the profession of journalism can be.

Who is to blame when words kill?

The US military and the White House claim that some of the 92,000 confidential government  documents put online by WikiLeaks have put many lives in danger because they identify Afghan civilians who have helped the coalition forces and who now face retribution from the Taliban.

If true, this could be a case in which – to further abuse an overused cliché – words can kill. Of course, the words themselves won’t kill those Afghanis exposed by the leak; that will be done by the Taliban. But the publication of their names will both help the Taliban find their victims and discourage other Afghan civilians from helping the Afghan government and coalition forces, leading to further death and vengeance.

So could WikiLeaks have blood on its hands, as the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, claims?

And if Admiral Mullen is correct, are those lost lives the price we must pay for democracy?

Because at its heart, the controversy over WikiLeaks is about American democracy, and by association all people who enjoy – or hope to one day enjoy – the benefits of a democratic society, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.

One of the pillars of genuine, workable democracies is freedom of information. For democracies to work properly, citizens must be well informed when making decisions, especially at election times. The better informed citizens are, the more wise and representative will be their decisions. This applies not only to politics and elections but to the rest of economic and social life. People work better, smarter and more effectively when they are well-informed and free to exchange ideas and pursue innovation. One only has to look at the relative progress now being made in China under (admittedly limited) increased openness or the decline of countries such as Zimbabwe, North Korea and Fiji under increasingly repressive regimes.

“Publish and be damned!” has been a battle cry for generations of publishers, editors and journalists, although the decision to publish whatever the consequences was usually taken after consideration of the arguments for and against.

It is generally understood that most publications can cause harm to someone, however well-meaning or seemingly innocuous that publication is. Even to publish a laudatory review of one movie could be seen to damage other, competing films.

The task for journalists has become more complicated in recent years, not only because there is more information around today but because there are more people manipulating it for their own ends. Ironically, although the human race today knows more than it ever has, much important raw information is harder and harder to access. The people who possess it either keep it to themselves or release it in censored, pre-packaged forms, putting their own “spin” on it.

Businesses and governments increasingly employ specialist public relations experts to disseminate information and answer tricky questions from journalists and citizens. Sometimes these PR spokespersons or media managers act ethically and give the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But often they tell lies, hide unpleasant aspects while stressing the positives or simply hide behind excuses not to release information because it is “commercial-in-confidence” or “a matter of national security”.

And sometimes governments and others with civil or commercial power actually leak information themselves, hoping to divert attention or undermine opponents in ways that might be unacceptable or ethically questionable if done openly. And often they are aided and abetted by journalists who either knowingly publish dubious information or fail to check whether it is accurate or reliable.

It is little wonder that citizens and consumers in democratic societies have grown deeply cynical of those in authority and even the media themselves.

In the Internet age it is hardly surprising that websites such as WikiLeaks have sprung up to cut through the manipulation and deceit to present raw information and let the readers make up their own minds. Uploading leaked documents as raw data has numerous advantages. It means no-one stands between the authors and the citizens - no analysts, interpreters or spin doctors. And it helps to rebut accusations that WikiLeaks has a particular cause to advance, even if it does. If it publishes everything, everyone gets the same opportunity, the same opportunity to leak, the same chance to read.

It seems to overcome questions of morality by being “morality-free”.

But, of course, it’s not ethics-free. The mere act of posting hitherto secret or restricted documents itself involves ethical choice. And while WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange might argue he acted responsibly in not uploading everything he was given, there is no escaping the thought that the “Publish and be damned!” approach of putting 92,000 documents was partly about absolving himself of responsibility for anyone who might be hurt as a result.

Three newspapers were given advanced copies of the leaked documents – The Guardian (UK), The New York Times (US) and Der Spiegel (Germany). They all say they applied conventional journalistic methods to publishing material from the leaked documents and they tried to avoid anything which might cause serious harm to innocent individuals.

The Guardian’s Nick Davies said they published fewer than 300 of the 92,000 documents. “We select and check and make judgments and publish,” he told reporters from Fairfax newspapers in Australia.

Bill Keller of The New York Times said: ''Obviously we did not disclose the names of Afghans, except for public officials, who have co-operated with the war effort, either in our articles or in the selection of documents we posted on our own website.”

So who really is to blame if innocent Afghan civilians are murdered by the Taliban as a result of the WikiLeaks?

Clearly Julian Assange must bear some responsibility. Receiving 92,000 documents did present him with a huge challenge and – apart from sharing some of the work with three major newspaper partners – he met it by putting aside the ethical question of “collateral damage”. More than 2,000 years ago the Greek philosopher Socrates said that with knowledge comes responsibility. In the leaked Afghan war documents, Assange and WikiLeaks received a gift of great knowledge. Their responsibility towards its use was therefore all the greater.

But governments and military cannot escape their share of the blame. Along with all holders of power in democracies, they have the great knowledge that Socrates spoke of, with which comes the great responsibility. On a daily basis throughout the world governments withhold knowledge which their citizens have a right to know. They tell half-truths, dissemble, twist facts, spin and tell outright lies. Little wonder, then, that when important information leaks out into the public domain it is pounced upon by citizens hungry for the truth and perhaps less cautious than they might otherwise be about who might be harmed in the melee.

The more governments and authorities covet information and withhold it from concerned citizens the more desirable it will become, the more people will leak it and post it irresponsibly, the more innocent people will be hurt.

August 2010

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There are several chapters in The News Manual dealing with how to assess leaked documents, how to handle them and what legal and ethical issues should be considered. The main ones are:

Chapter 18: Media releases
Chapter 39: Introduction to investigative reporting
Chapter 40: Investigative reporting in practice
Chapter 58: Pressures on journalists
Chapter 59: Sources of information
Chapter 60: Sources and confidentiality
Chapter 62: Privacy and public interest

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Uriah Mitchell works for community Radio Gbarnga in Bong County, Liberia, and is looking for friends in the media to help him strengthen his capacity. He writes to The News Manual: “I am thirty-five, working with a community radio station in the central province of our country, Liberia. I developed interest into this profession nine years ago and have attended a series of journalism workshops and some specialized training in human rights and conflict reporting. I produce three programs at my station. I will love to achieve some more training in different areas of journalism with specific emphasis on investigative reporting.” Anyone who wants to contact Uriah can do it via the Contact Us page on this site.
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