Over the last three weeks, the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, has brought the entire global diplomatic community to its knees by publishing secret cables between the US State Department and its missions around the world. Now, in Uganda we know President Yoweri Museveniâ€™s private thoughts about his colleagues; Muammar Gaddafi, Joseph Kabila, Isias Afeworki and Robert Mugabe.
I was initially tempted to fault Assange for the arbitrary way in which he leaked these secrets. I was holding unto the old journalistic principle that to publish such classified government secrets there must be an overriding reason for the â€œpublic to knowâ€. This means that publishing such information can help people make informed choices. However, Assange seemed to publish the information simply because he had it â€“ not because there was an overriding public â€œneedâ€ to know.
However, upon reflection, I think we may be witnessing a revolution in media freedom. Politicians in the USA, Canada and Western Europe have been openly calling for the assassination of Assange; many others have suggested that he be tried with â€œterrorismâ€. Now the poor man is facing charges of rape in Sweden â€“ one woman claiming he had sex with her without a condom while she was â€œasleep.â€ Conspiracy theorists claim these charges are fabricated; the victims are tools of security agencies like the CIA to shame and humiliate Assange.
In spite of all these threats and outrageous outbursts, mainstream media in the West have not rallied to the defence of Assange and his right to publish the information he has. This may be partly because Wikileaks is a competitor. But I think the main reason is that Assange has exposed the symbiotic relationship between government and the mass media in the West. Western governments are largely controlled by multinational corporations. The mainstream media in the West have over the years grown into big business too; so their interests are consonant with those of their governments.
I have been arguing with colleagues in the global media about the tendency of media organisations in the West to articulate the position of their ministries of foreign affairs. For example, Iran is the most democratic nation in the Islamic Middle East. Whatever the weaknesses in its democracy, it holds competitive elections and its women have more rights than we find in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Yet Western media keep reporting about Iranâ€™s â€œdictatorshipâ€ while remaining almost silent about its neighbours. The reason for this is obvious: the western journalist and her media house are actually actively campaigning for their governmentâ€™s interests. In such a case, the government and the press are one and the same.
Media freedom in the West has only been possible because of the confluence of interest between media owners and government. If Western media were more focused on holding their governments to account, they would confront similar problems as we do in developing countries. I was almost tempted to make this argument in my acceptance speech in New York in November 2008 when I was given the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
While introducing me, CNNâ€™s Christiana Amanpour said that she was inspired by my many arrests in Uganda yet I kept going. She said she felt lucky to live and work in a country (USA) that does not jail journalists just â€œfor doing their work.â€ The temptation was strong on my lips to say â€œYou (meaning Western journalists) are not doing your work. You have become part and parcel of the power structure.â€ The temptation lasted only a few moments and I dropped the idea in order to be civil to my hosts.
It is this symbiosis between government and media that Assange has broken hence the uproar we are witnessing. It explains why journalists in mainstream media are not defending Assangeâ€™s right to publish this information. Instead, most of them are condemning him. The facade of a free press through large media conglomerates in the Western world is collapsing in our eyes. Assange is exposing this fundamental flaw.
I am beginning to suspect that business success (even us at The Independent seem headed to a similar direction â€“ so I plead guilty) may not be a strategic way to promote the role of the press as a platform for popular causes. Money seems to capture us, not to liberate us.
The growth of the internet is the technological basis for democratising the mass media and liberating it from control by a few shareholders. It is also the way to promote mass participation in this industry that had been captured by corporate interests. For here, anyone with a computer can launch a media house: With a printer, you have a newspaper; if you add on a micro-phone, you have a radio station; put on a webcam and you have a fully fledged television outfit.
The Wikileaks phenomenon also makes it possible for the public to punish those who try to stifle this platform and therefore defeat big business control over communication. The group called Anonymous has proved extremely effective in this response by attacking all websites that are blocking Wikileaks from rising money. By mobilising so many fragmented individuals on laptops into one whole, it has been able to launch volleys of information to websites of Visa, Pay Pal and Amazon who had accepted government demands to block people contributing money to Wikileaks. This move has created traffic jams to these sites â€“ thus rendering them unworkable.
The solution to the new internet revolution is not to hand over full control of media to masses of individuals. Rather it should be to shock the complacent mainstream media that has become big business from its romantic embrace with government. This is not to say that government should be seen as the enemy to be fought. Rather it should constantly be held to account when it fails to meet its promises.
It would be dangerous if media were controlled by public sentiment. The best solution to such a tension was best captured by the German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel: that whenever there is a thesis and an antithesis, the best result is the creative intermarriage of the two i.e. a synthesis.