Does Pakistan need an Assange of its own?

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By Huma Yusuf

KARACHI/WASHINGTON, DC: A week after the recent WikiLeaks disclosures, two local non-profit organizations held a seminar in Karachi called, “Freedom of Information: Access to Information, Using Freedom of Information for Advocacy”. Participants in the discussion called for better enforcement of Pakistan’s freedom of information laws to enhance transparency and government accountability. While the timing of the seminar was probably a coincidence, it was the right discussion to be having in the wake of “Cablegate”.

Inflamed rhetoric about national security, espionage and treason have dominated the reactions to WikiLeaks, but the United States and the international community should consider this a teachable moment.

WikiLeaks says as much about the role of journalism in public policy as it does about US foreign relations and diplomacy. As many have pointed out, if any of the classified cables had been uncovered and released by the press, no one would have cried treason. After all, in fulfillment of its watchdog role, the press is required to publish that which governments would rather hide from the public. Attacks against WikiLeaks are therefore being perceived as attacks against the practice of journalism itself and, by extension, the freedom of the press.

For this reason, 19 Columbia University School of Journalism professors sent an open letter to US President Barack Obama requesting that WikiLeaks not be prosecuted.

As the dust settles on the leaked cables, governmental officials are willing to acknowledge that there may be positive outcomes to the WikiLeaks scandal. The US public now has a better sense of the complexity of international relations, and hard evidence of how active and informed its diplomats are.

The US government also has impetus to improve its cyber security and information access protocols, thereby keeping pace with technological advancements in this online age. This could make classified information more secure in the future.

In the same spirit, a measured response to the disclosures by governments implicated by the leaks should be seen by the US government and international community as an opportunity to reiterate an international commitment to the freedom of the press.

The announcement last month that Washington would host World Press Freedom Day in 2011 — which came as the US Justice Department brainstormed ways to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — led many American bloggers to accuse their government of hypocrisy. Historically, governments have invoked arguments relating to national security and national interest to censor the press and keep the public ill-informed. Cablegate should not be allowed to become another example of that troubling trend.

Instead, in the interest of transparency and accountability, governments and media organizations should emphasize certain facts that have been lost in the brouhaha surrounding the disclosures. Firstly, WikiLeaks did not leak the cables; it simply published leaked information — this is routine practice for journalists and therefore should not be criminalized.

Moreover, WikiLeaks shared the cables with reputable news publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC in December, Scott Shane, the National Security Correspondent of The New York Times, explained that these newspapers carefully combed through the more than 250,000 cables, consulted with the US State Department about which ones would go to print, censored names and details where they could endanger lives or destroy diplomatic agreements, and even redacted those cables that could genuinely threaten national security. As such, the disclosures are a testament to the responsibility, professionalism and ethics of journalism, which aims to balance national security imperatives with the citizens’ right to know what their government is doing.

It is this aspect of the WikiLeaks that foreign governments such as Pakistan should be paying attention to. In the disclosures lies an important lesson about the intrinsic value of journalism for ensuring transparency, accountability and coherent government policy.

Ironically, while some were bemoaning the death of secrecy in the wake of the WikiLeaks, news broke in Pakistan of a nearly $7 million “secret fund” maintained by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Although the ministry refused to say what the fund was used for, the opposition’s politicians alleged the money was used to manipulate public opinion by keeping journalists on the payroll and — in the words of Pakistan Muslim League-Q’s member in the National Assembly, Riaz Pirzada — “buying the conscience” of people who could create problems for the government.

Clearly an Assange-type of figure needs to emerge from among the Pakistani public to promote citizens’ right to information and encourage the freedom of the local press. The fact is, freedom of information improves governance because it makes bureaucracies and policymaking more transparent, and keeps government officials accountable for their activities.

If for no other reason than to set a precedent and reinforce its support for better governance in emerging democracies, especially Pakistan, the US government should not clamp down on WikiLeaks.

Huma Yusuf is a journalist and researcher from Karachi. She is currently the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews),

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