The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 6 December 2010

Wikileaks as self-fulfilling prophesy

Much has already been said and written about Wikileaks, not just about the diplomatic cables themselves but indeed about the very notion of divulging such large amounts of sensitive information to the public.

The cable containing a list of vital US facilities has been described as the most controversial of all the leaked documents. Frankly, it's hard to disagree with Malcolm Rifkind, the former British Foreign Minister, that this degree of irresponsiblity borders on criminal.

However, it could be argued that there is another - perhaps greater - danger in releasing this kind of information into the public domain in that it will change peoples attitudes and probably not for the better.

Using the highly publicised example of Arab states urging the US to attack Iran, anyone with a basic knowledge of Middle Eastern politics will probably not be surprised. It is hardly a secret that Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its main rival in the region and vice-versa.

However, when these positions are laid out so starkly in the public domain, is there not a real risk that positions will harden on all sides? Will Iranian hardliners - and perhaps even the Iranian people - see enemies all around them and react like a cornered animal? Will Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab states involved, redouble their efforts to cut off the head of the snake in the fear that the snake will strike first? Will warmongers in the US and/or Israel attempt to use these Arab states to apply even more pressure on their governments and militaries and force them to strike Iran?

In short, by releasing these documents have Wikileaks made a military strike on Iran more likely? Have they created a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Did the people at Wikileaks ask themselves any of these questions before divulging all that information? If not, why not? If yes, then how do they justify their actions which can only cause heightened tensions and reduce the chances of a diplomatic solution?

The truth is that with information comes responsibility. Wikileaks obtain and release masses of information, apparently without thought to the consequences and certainly with no responsibility or accountability. Unlike investigative journalism for example, there are no corroborating facts, no second opinions, no explanations of context. They simply dump huge amounts of information for people to digest, usually through headlines and at-a-glance summaries.

This is not freedom of information or freedom of speech in any real sense and the consequences of such recklessness are not likely to be good.

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