Wikileaks and the new era of whistleblowers


Internet and Journalism

When Amnesty International gave the media award to an Australian computer hacker and programmer in 2008 it was defining journalism for the new millennium. Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks until then had hacked into some of the world’s most secure computer networks and acquired confidential data that could potentially overthrow governments and bring down some of the largest banks. He was simply assisting the global human rights watcher to gather data on Kenya’s extra judicial killings and disappearances, a case which had already cost the lives of many Kenyan journalists. In view of the circumstances recognition of Julian Assange as a journalist was a defining moment for media. 

Activists and whistleblowers who have laid their lives to expose the corrupt governments, oppressive regimes, underworld rackets or human rights violations have faced a lot over the centuries and there are stories of martyrs like J Dey, of which some make to the front page, and most don’t. With the rise of Wikileaks, the pen (or shall we say the keyboard) has become a little ‘more’ mightier than the sword. Though, it depends a lot on the integrity and expertise of hackers at Wikileaks to keep the identity of these brave souls from falling into the hands of those who will come looking for them. From time to time Wikileaks is been accused of jeopardising the safety of whistleblowers and innocent people involved by poor handling of highly confidential data, but hey! this is just the beginning. This was always supposed to be ‘bell the cat’ kind of job and those who volunteered for it always knew the risks. Wikileaks just promises a fragile invisiblity cloak to these relentless truth seekers.

Social media which started as a way for people to socialise had two unexpected side effects. It allowed people to share opinions and also report things happening around them. The next was the viral effect which lets things put on social media spread like wild fire. Citizen journalism never had such a reach before. The tweets from a Pakistani citizen being the first and only source of news about the American forces closing in on Osama Bin Laden in an obscure town just proves that now media can penetrate anywhere.

Anna Hazare and his team’s successful orchestration of a peaceful civil movement using social media is much appreciated, but there is something else needed for serious journalism as social media can’t always be relied as is evident from the recent London riots. We witnessed how it can also turn things ugly due to misguided motivations and can be influenced by hooliganism. Also social media can always be tracked, although difficult.  

Investigative journalism has always been a bastion of very few courageous people who have risked their lives in their quest for truth, but it has made a radical shift from the rare breed of tough nuts to highly sophisticated geeks. Of course the rules remain same. Confidentiality, vigilance, stealth, passion and courage remain as much required as ever but only that the whistleblowers have a better chance of anonymity due to advanced technology. Secure internet lines, data encryption and proxy servers are new tools for those who want to bring attention of the world to the wrongs being done around them. It is investigative journalism 2.0.

It is interesting to see Wikileaks evolve from a small hacker group to a well networked media organisation and that too, not for profit. It has partnered globally with traditional media majors such as UK’s Guardian and the The Hindu in India. To develop that credibility in so little time is phenomenal. There is probably so much first rate confidential information coming in that Wikileaks is finding it difficult to keep up, owing to their shortage of volunteers and staff they can really trust. Their website is constantly being attacked, and they sometimes can’t keep it up due to lack of funds or boycott of hosting service providers. Julian Assange’s collaborator and core team member Daniel Domscheit-Berg might have left due to disagreements to start his own rival organisation called Open Leaks. There are rape charges against the founder and has been mostly under house arrest since I have come to know of him but still, Wikileaks remains the face of new age investigative journalism and Ms. Mayawati(UP,CM) can do nothing about it. Even if she thinks that Assange is Anti-Dalit!!

One last question remains that will these new developments undermine the need to hire journalists? I would say, certainly not because in spite of Wikileaks we would still need passionate journalists to report the news in the first hand. Wikileaks just amplifies their reach and effect. On the other hand Social media lacks the seriousness and focus to become a competent source. However it might be the end of the corrupt and superficial journalists who get to ride the popularity for no reason. Maybe the era has returned when you didn’t need a degree to be a journalist. You either have it in you, or you don’t.

Written by Koustubh Bhattacharya for Image Management

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