Edwy Plenel, Editor-in-Chief of Mediapart and a former editor of French daily Le Monde, argues here that the furore over the release of US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks has opened a worldwide battle over the future of freedom of information. At stake is whether the alliance of economic interests and national powers-that-be can snuff out the future of democratic ideals spurred by the tools of the digital age.
The WikiLeaks saga could be summed up as an affair which pitches the no-frontier freedom of the internet against the might of the world's most powerful state. Its operations, impeded in the United States where private companies buckled under pressure from the administration, but relayed across the world thanks to the multiplication of ‘Mirror' sites (see Mediapart's WikiLeaksMirror site here), the daily disclosure of confidential US diplomatic cables has been continuing in the manner of a kind of Chinese torture. Totalling 251, 287, they have been released at the rate of a little less than 2,000, day after day, drop by drop.
In this battle, Mediapart is naturally on the side of WikiLeaks. The daily, and sometimes anecdotal, twists and turns in the continuing saga have obscured the main issue. WikiLeaks, a symbol of the radical democracy born from the digital revolution, places itself within the context of quite ancient ideals to which it intends giving a boost of youth.
"The publicity given to political affairs is the safeguard for the people", proclaimed in 1789 Jean Sylvain Bailly, a French astronomer, first president of the French Third Estate and one of the leaders of the first hour of the French Revolution. That was a time of political invention common to revolutions in both France and North America. The First Amendment of the American Constitution which forbade all laws against the liberty of the press, came two years later, in 1791, and was included, almost word forword, in Article 7 of the Second Declaration of Human Rights in France, which was part of the French Constitution of 1793.
WikiLeaks stands on this principle; on matters that concern public affairs, publicity – or open coverage – should be the rule, and secrecy the exception. Revealing to the public what is of public interest is always a legitimate act. Every document that concerns the future of peoples, nations and societies deserves to be made known to the public in order that people can form an opinion, make a judgment according to the evidence, choose to react, play a part in world affairs and on the policies of governments.
If the people are sovereign in a democracy, then the policies led in thepeople's name should not become the prerogative of experts and specialists, of elites and professionals, as if they are the only ones to whom legitimate information can be addressed – acting as if they are the private owners of public property.
The WikiLeaks project – a concept over which it obviously has no monopoly – is to give its full meaning to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by The United Nations General Assembly in Paris in 1948. (One of those who helped draft the Declaration, Stéphane Hessel, now 93 years-old, has recently met with huge success in France with a book invitingus to do our duty and stand up in indignation over current social, political and financial injustices, Indignez-Vous!).
In its ‘About' explanation of its project and actions, WikiLeaks reminds us that Article 19 of the 1948 Declaration "states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression" and that this fundamental right "includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
In a Blogposting in December 2006, Julian Assange wrote an entry titled 'The non lineareffects of leaks on unjust systems of governance', in which he gave a justification of the later ambition behind WikiLeaks: "Only revealed injustice can be answered; for man to do anything intelligent he has to know what's actually going on." It was an inaugural reflection on the organization of massive, public leaks, and was intended to demonstrate how the current digital revolution could help and accelerate a universal concretisation of that utopian vision of 1948.
At a time when media have become personal tools, it is society itself that is now able to directly demand this, and without delay. The liberating potential of digital technology, offering a return to the original promise of democracy, in all its radical and authentic form, allows strategies that allow the weak to no longer be the subject of the domination of the strong. It is not the technology itself that is liberating, but the social use to which it is applied; the practices applied to it, the rights claimed to it and the resistance organized with it so that it remains within the control of those who use it.