10 January 2011

Nigeria: Wikileaks - An African Perspective


Mike Ekunno who was Senior Speechwriter to the immediate past Nigerian Minister of Information and Communications, assesses the impact of Assange's wikileaks intervention on countries with weak institutions...

Passing judgment on Wikileaks is supposed to be a very tricky business. I have read editorials and opinion pieces that are full of equivocation and cant. That's because we have all been consciously or sub-consciously intimidated by the pervasive Human Rights' lobby. This makes it politically incorrect to take a stand against an act which presumably seeks to extend the vistas of the freedom of information. There is also the Non-Governmental Organisations which see the ways of governance in pejorative terms. It is hip to align with these trends and schools and I must confess that condemning Wikileaks is not a very sexy venture. Members and sympathisers of these two groups are using Wikileaks to fight a proxy war. But in using something so morally bankrupt, they expose their otherwise worthy causes to ridicule. I subscribe to the true ideals embedded in Freedom of Information and transparency in governance. This is why it is tricky for me to criticise Wikileaks. I presume many other people are facing this dilemma of how to separate the baby of transparency from the bathwater of Wikileaks.

But getting a philosophical handle on how to evaluate Wikileaks and its nerdy founder, Julian Assange, is not so difficult once we can reverse the charge. Reversing the charge puts Wikileaks squarely on the same pedestal with Watergate, and Assange, with Richard Nixon. This enables us to see Wikileaks for what it really is - an uncouth invasion of privacy. Pray, what makes government's invasion of individual privacy reprehensible but individual invasion of public privacy, laudable? Nixon had merely wiretapped his political opponents and was made to pay a heavy price for it which was almost like capital punishment. If the internet and allied technologies had been available then and Nixon used them for the same purpose instead, would he have gone scot-free as many insist Assange should? Or is Wikileaks to be indulged, even hailed, based on the fact that governments are the ones at the receiving end? How else is double standards spelt?

We begin to get a handle on Wikileaks by revisiting the subject of secrecy and confidentiality. Are secrets necessarily evil? Can the individual live without secrets? Can public affairs be conducted without confidentiality? Does government have a right to violate individual privacy and vice versa? A secret is not necessarily evil or dark as the phrase, "dark secret" suggests. Secrets are in the nature of things in ordinary life just as the actions and inactions of mankind. A country keeps its military strength a secret or overstates it for strategic purposes. The police keeps its crime-fighting strategies secret in order not to compromise them. Examination questions are kept secret before exam day to give a level playing field to all candidates. In our private lives, a partner may keep a secret because its disclosure may do more harm than good. We keep our passwords and Personal Identification Numbers secret because we want to maintain the privacy of our bank balances, computer files and SMS content of our phones. In all of these, secrecy does not come with a connotation of evil. In fact, the need for privacy can be said to rank among the primal needs of modern man. Whenever bits of this need have had to be surrendered to the State for overriding public interest, it has been challenged and resisted every inch of the way. A case in point is the x-ray machines at airports for full body scans. While on the subject of confidentiality, sharing the story of a minor personal incident may suffice here.

I had gone to pick my daughter as schools were closing for the last Xmas break. While at it, our family friend called for me to help with their daughter in the same class as mine. At the school, I had to collect family friend's daughter's exam report in loco parentis. School policy forbids the collection of the report by the student. I went through the formalities, signed, and was given the enveloped report. In deference to the girl and as a show of respect for her privacy, I handed her the envelope intact and went about hauling their boxes into the car. It was only on our way home that I asked the girl what was her position (my daughter who came third was in the car). She politely told me she did not look at the position when she opened the sheet of paper in the envelope. End of discussion. Here we are talking of a pre-teen. It was not until I reviewed the incident that I realised what huge embarrassment I would have caused my young guest by opening the envelope to see her position. In our African setting this would be very normal and done matter-of-fact. On reflection, even I did not realise the full weight of my sensitivity till the prospective victim showed it by declining to disclose her position voluntarily. If I had taken her for granted, I would have inadvertently hurt a little girl who can not complain on account of the foster parental status I had over her. This truly is the nature of privacy. It is the party whose privacy has been violated that knows it. The words of the great reggae singer rings true : who feels it knows it. The violator of privacy is often in all kinds of denial to squelch any tug of conscience or good judgment. In my own case, reasons wouldn't be lacking - need to confirm envelope did not contain explosives or somebody else's report; being the one who signed for it; owner seeing me open my daughter's own in her presence and, of course, being in the "public interest".

Returning to our subject matter, it is the thousands of victims of Wikileaks that know where it hurts. For Assange and his gang, it is okay to revel in some warped sense of frontiersmanship. They gloat in having pioneered a new technology or at least having applied an old one to new means. They must derive some sadistic joy at seeing so many government officials flinch like gazelles caught in full headlights. Assange even dares to court martyrdom and hero status on account only of causing others embarrassment. It shows how depraved the world has become that the equivalent of a Peeping Tom is being lionised and celebrated. In decent societies, Peeping Toms are disdained and made to hide their faces in shame. They do not go about gleefully sharing what they saw through the keyhole with decent members of society. On the contrary, one over-indulged nerd has got the rest of us craving to know what transpired between two adults in confidence.

Defenders of Wikileaks have tried to justify it on the basis of the principles of the right to know, freedom of information or transparency. Nothing could be more erroneous about these lofty ideals. These ideals speak to the public interest remit in the conduct of governance. They are not a call to anarchy of for public affairs to be conducted in the market place. They are not anti-confidentiality. Neither do they mean that public officials should not harbour personal opinions and perspectives on official matters. What defenders of Wikileaks are doing is trying to graft the principle of public interest behind these noble ideals onto a slightly similar but antithetical ideal - licentiousness. Can their cell phone carriers publish the transcripts of the discussions of the President, Chief Justice or army Chief of Staff and claim it is in the public interest? However, if someone has been indicted in a crime and the court needed access to some cell phone discussion, there would be a clear public interest cause that can be used to over ride that of individual privacy. Anybody who says that the public has an interest in knowing the details of the President's conversations on his phone is stretching public interest to private limits. It will be dressing up personal curiosity in the toga of public interest. The fit will be over-sized.

Confidentiality has never been more maligned in all of history than now. Western society and values are the chief culprits. Western society is waking up perhaps too late to the limits of a runaway libertine ideology. It has encouraged a warped form of transparency which is given literal interpretation in female wears. The paparazzi has morphed into a professional sub-group of photo-journalism devoted to the harassment of celebrities and tearing open every personal aspect of their lives. Junk and gossip magazines are incorporated as vehicles for this warped taste. Internet sites that purvey gossip may be brimming with visitors while the printed magazines sell like hot cakes, but pray, has anyone conducted a survey to ask patrons if they would rather not be fed salacious details of another man's/woman's life? How about asking the consumers of junk journalism if they would like their lives to be the ones on the slaughter slab of public scrutiny?

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