On Wikileaks

Written by  //  March 18, 2011  //  National Politics  //  7 Comments

As the Wikileaks ‘Indian Cables’ controversy erupted in Parliament today, I thought it might be a good idea to carefully scrutinise the particular cable itself and its purportedly explosive content.  The facts first. The cable was sent by the US Embassy in New Delhi to Washington and contains information collected by consular officers across the country. Written in the nature of a briefing document, its substantial points rely heavily on newspaper reports, unconfirmed stories and meetings which took place between various Indian officials and ‘PolCouns’ presumably an American consular officer in-charge of political affairs.  The points themselves concern political parleying before the trust vote on the nuclear deal. They compass a wide range of information ranging from those publicly known (fissures in the Left for voting along with the BJP on the trust vote) to the relatively less publicly known (Sonia Gandhi’s plans to meet the JD-S and JMM to secure their votes). The two exciting revelations which have provided the talking points for the last two days involve Satish Sharma’s political aide Nachiketa Kapur (though the relationship has been flatly denied) telling an unnamed Embassy Officer that Ajit Singh’s RLD MPs received 10 crore rupees each for their four votes, substantiating his point by showing him chests of cash which were lying around the house for pay-offs; and a ‘Congress party insider’ saying that Kamal Nath, the then Minister of Commerce and Industry, was also helping in ‘spreading the largesse’. It is these two pieces information which have dominated news in the country this week.

In this piece, I want to make two points. First, the alacrity with which the country was up in arms after the leaks were published demonstrates the extent to which politics in India is carried on by crass rumour-mongering aided by a largely irresponsible and sensationalist media; second, that the very idea of holding governments accountable by leaking sensitive information which Wikileaks does, is an unwise and dangerous approach to engendering transparency in government.

The perfectly responsible reporting of the Indian Cables first in the Hindu, prefaced by a carefully drafted explanatory note by the editor N. Ram soon degenerated into a crass war of words amongst politicians and a competitive frenzy in the electronic media with most channels scrambling to interview the prima donnas named in the leak, a long-forgotten politician and his completely obscure ‘aide’. What was particularly shocking in the reactions both by the politicians and the media was the complete lack of discretion and nuance in even attempting to ascertain the context in which the statements reported in the cables were made and their veracity. The statements in the cables made to American officials do little to reveal the truth. First, Kapur’s exact role in this matter is surely in question. Who is he— Satish Sharma’s aide, a former aide or a mere go-between? How is one to know whether he actually made these statements and that they are not planted at some stage? How does one know that the cash was for paying off MPs and not for some other purpose? How does one also know that this entire episode was not done with an express intent to defame?  As far as Kamal Nath’s role is concerned, the cables are of even lesser probative value since the information is provided to PolCouns by a “congress party insider’. How does one know that such a person did not have a grudge against Kamal Nath? How does one know whether Kamal Nath actually ‘spread the largesse’? Innumerable such questions which impugn the veracity of the cables can be raised. My purpose in doing so is not to say that the cables are untrue, fabricated or Wikileaks’ attempts at maligning the Indian government since I cannot back up that statement. It is merely to suggest that before the country thinks of them as major talking points it is imperative that an attempt is made to establish their veracity—both by the media in not painting it as the event of the decade, as well as by the politicians, who while understandably seeking to extract their political dividend, must not irresponsibly demand that the Prime Minister resign from his post because of what a low-level American embassy staffer in New Delhi wrote to his supervisor in Washington.

The larger point emerging through this controversy is of the entire idea underlying Wikileaks as a method for making governments accountable. The setup works through anonymous tip-offs, whistleblowers and informers. Once the information is accessed by Wikileaks it is hosted by them, without (it is claimed) any editing for content, on their websites which are hosted by servers in different countries. Then of course, they depend on the generous support of mainstream media to publicise the leaks for them. There are problems at three levels with this arrangement: First, Wikileaks as an organisation wields great power with minimal accountability. Unlike a state which has to explain its actions, Wikileaks publishes reams of material on its site, which leads to significant political repercussions, stalls parliamentary proceedings and wreaks havoc in countries. However the organisation itself is not accountable to anyone for their publications. This mismatch between power and accountability is wrong in principle. In addition it can be dangerous in practice if the organisation itself is not bona fide regarding which leaks it chooses to publish. How can one be sure that Wikileaks deliberately does not publish leaks relating to a particular country, a particular government minister or a particular corporation, especially when it wields such immense power? Further, what is to say that the person who broke the story for Wikileaks did not tamper with it to suit a personal interest? That power corrupts need not be reiterated to underline Wikileaks’ complete lack of accountability and consequently the possibility of its information being tampered with.

Second, Wikileaks may have relevance in countries with oppressive authoritarian rule marked by serious restrictions on free speech. However in countries with established democratic processes such as India, leaking documents is not the mechanism for holding governments accountable. An independent judiciary, an effective police force, a responsible and accountable media and a keen opposition in a strong Parliament exist for the purpose. What technological parvenus such as Wikileaks do, with the aid of a sensationalist media is to subvert the democratic process, create superfluous talking points and distract attention from equally relevant issues which are not headline-grabbing. This is not to say that the police, judiciary and the media work always as effectively as they are meant to in an idealised democratic system. However the panacea to a leaking system is not to supplant it by an unaccountable alternative—that, if anything would be moving from Scylla of relative inefficiency in existing accountability mechanisms to the far more dangerous Charybdis of holding a national government accountable to an unaccountable and mysterious Sweden-based internet website.

Third, governments, whose misdeeds Wikileaks strives to expose need to function in a manner which cannot always be maximally transparent. It is imperative that negotiations between officials are held in private, with a press conference at its conclusion, highlighting the key discussions for public knowledge and dissemination. With the Damocles’ sword of the private conversation being leaked hanging over it, there is every possibility of a sanitised meeting, playing to respective national galleries and little in the way of actual meaningful discussion. Which raises the issue relating to the right to privacy of the individuals in question. Perhaps, one is inclined to forget (and civil liberties activists, particularly vociferous about privacy in India seemingly are), that the persons whose conversations are being leaked have the right to privacy too. The silence of these activists when a flagrant violation of privacy serves their pet theme of transparency, in contrast with when, for example, it actually seeks to empower citizens by providing them an identification number (and that too without any ostensible breach of privacy), seen as a grand design to create a panopticon state, points to a hypocritical, results-oriented activism shorn of principle.

It is trite to say that unethical behaviour in governments must be revealed, as Wikileaks does on its homepage. But as the controversy over the India Cables shows, to jump to a conclusion on the basis of a cable littered with hearsay, purportedly reporting a conversation regarding an incident which may or may not have happened, whose primary characters may or may not be telling the truth, that certain behaviour in question is unethical is itself unethical to the core. This is the hypocrisy which Wikileaks actively fosters. And it is high time that people realised this and pushed Wikileaks along into the murky but tremendously entertaining world of tabloid journalism, which is where it rightfully belongs.

About the Author

Arghya is currently doing the doctorate in law at the University of Oxford. Dithering between academia and litigation for a future career but sanguine in Oxford with his current researcher status.

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7 Comments on "On Wikileaks"

  1. Sudeshna Sengupta March 19, 2011 at 10:13 am ·

    Excellently penned. A very discerning piece.

  2. Ahish March 19, 2011 at 3:23 pm ·

    At the cost of being pedantic, a couple of mistakes:
    1. …mysterious “Swedish” based website… Its Sweden based.
    2. …grand design to create a “panoptican” state … Its “panopticon”.

  3. Arghya March 19, 2011 at 8:42 pm ·

    Thank you. Changes made.

  4. Arghya March 19, 2011 at 8:42 pm ·

    Thank you.

  5. Harini Viswanathan March 24, 2011 at 6:45 pm ·

    First, the article is wonderfully written but I have a few concerns. When you are talking about wikileaks subverting the democratic process the assumption you are making is that in the democracies we live in, there is no conflict of interest between what the powers that be want and what aids the people. As is witnessed by all the recent scams in our own country, we find that often times the interests of the government and the citizens don’t coincide. I am not seeking to generalize this to all government actions but would like to stress that the space which has been filled by wikileaks and the reason why people are interested in the information that is provided is not just about sensationalism it is also because they feel shortchanged by the governments they have elected. I understand that diplomatic dealings need privacy and hypocrisy to function but once in a while its good to wash the dirty linen in public and let the people who are purportedly the focus of governance get an insight into what their leaders are actually giving up in order to negotiate. I understand your concerns with legitimacy but the NYT and the Hindu have set up rooms where their editors pore over reams of cables and cross check for authenticity. With all the concerns you raise I still think the world is better for what Assange did, even if nothing else it reminds the diplomats and leaders that ultimately it’s the people whose wishes are paramount and ivory towers are not completely impenetrable.

  6. Arghya March 25, 2011 at 7:49 am ·

    Dear Harini,

    Thank you for the comment. I agree with you completely that interests of the government and the interests of citizens may not always coincide. In fact, it is a fundamental premiss of constitutional democracies that the first step is for people to come together and form a government to control them; the second step is to set up mechanisms to control the government itself. Now when this disjunct becomes apparent, the most classic example of which is corruption by government officers, there must be ways of identifying and punishing the guilty. Where we disagree however is the relevance of Wikileaks in this process of identifying and punishing the guilty. This task, in a healthy democracy, I strongly believe should be done by accountable institutions- the judiciary, the police, the media (Again that on merits in India they may or may not perform this task well is a different matter). In principle, basing the drive for governmental accountability on, as the Prime Minister said, ‘unverified and often unverifiable cables’ is a wrong approach. Practically too it has dangerous consequences since the legitimacy and credibility of Wikileaks is in question, and will continue to be so, especially as it becomes more and more powerful. The other part of the problem is not Wikileaks itself but what people do with the cables. Certainly you are right, that the cables should be published and those in power must know that they are ultimately servants of the people. But people shouldn’t treat it as the truth on the basis of which governments should be toppled and parliament held up. And this reaction is a reflection of the sad state of our media which jumps at any story without a moment to reflect on its veracity. Wikileaks has its place in a democratic system yes, just not one which becomes the subject of parliamentary debate and calls for the PM to resign.

  7. Arunabh April 30, 2011 at 5:45 pm ·

    Hey Arghya, excellent article. And sorry for a late comment.

    What I extract from this is that the unaccountability of Wikileaks has to be checked and doubled checked by the media itself, rather than jumping towards sensationalism. Indeed, a more responsible media would and should have held a public debate both on the issues that the cables bought (and continue) to bring to light and the veracity of the cables themselves.

    I disagree with you that Wikileaks should be pushed into tabloid space. Should a responsible media be able to provide a correct counterbalance to some of the bogus information that is an inherent risk with whistleblowers, a lot of value can be extracted from Wikileaks’ disclosures.

    And now, with the drafting of the Jan Lokpal bill, it will be interesting to see how that institution will react to such instances of whistleblowing.

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