Wikileaks and FoI - an American perspective

Here's a useful insight into the Wikileaks saga from Maher Arar, a Human rights advocate:

Let me state at the outset that governments have indeed legitimate reasons to keep some information confidential and out of public reach. But it is also important to mention that this should be the exception rather than the norm. Unfortunately since 9/11, Western governments have become more secretive and less transparent especially when it comes to foreign policy and national security.

Have you tried recently to get information from your government through the Freedom of Information Act? Good luck!

When the so called National Security label is attached to these documents you will mostly end up receiving heavily redacted documents 3-5 years later. I have experienced this first hand with both the Canadian and the U.S. governments while fighting to obtain information about what happened to me. So it is in this context that people should understand the emergence of web-based media like WikiLeaks willing to publish information from whistle-blowers.

What I found disturbing is the animosity shown by various mainstream media outlets towards this small and young organization. Since WikiLeaks published what appeared to be State Department cables some media outlets have decided that focusing on the person of Julian Assange, spokesperson and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, makes more sense than discussing or publishing the content of these cables.

As a concrete example of this vendetta, the Toronto Star published an article entitled "10 things you don't know about WikiLeaks mystery Julian Assange." The title itself is extremely sensational. How can this be explained? Is it jealousy, naivety or complicity? I really do not know. If anything, it shows that many of these mainstream media organizations have lost touch with reality. They have completely forgotten the purpose of their existence.

When I was a kid I used to hear stories around me about some political reformers in Syria who were detained by the government because "they allegedly engaged in illegal trade" or because "they allegedly had affairs with some women".

It was common belief among the population that the Syrian government circulated these rumors in order to damage these people's reputations. Bingo here we are but this time we have Western governments, who claim to support free speech, resorting to the same tactics.

Let's for a moment suppose that the leaked documents belonged to the North Korean government in which information is revealed about this country's nuclear ambitions. How would the U.S. government have portrayed Mr. Assange? I can assure you that he would have been invited to Oslo last week to receive the Nobel Peace Award.

When Salman Rushdie insulted over one billion Muslims by writing Satanic Verses, every Western government came to his rescue after Khomeini issued his fatwa calling upon Muslims to assassinate him. I do not remember seeing a list of "ten things you don't know about Salman Rushdie".

To this day he is portrayed as the darling of free speech. Another example is that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of the House of Representative in the Netherlands. Her screenplay entitled Submission, which the majority of Muslims considered offensive to their religion, led to various death threats.

Again this was considered by all Western countries as an attack on freedom of speech (not to mention the various free speech awards she has received). Again we did not see any press coverage about "the ten things you don't know about Ms. Ali".

This is despite the fact that she was found to have obtained political asylum by lying to authorities. When this fact became public she was forced to resign from her post. A few months later she immigrated to the U.S. where she was immediately welcomed and hired as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.

What I am trying to say is that WikiLeaks is filling a vacuum that governments have themselves created. So instead of blaming WikiLeaks, governments should blame themselves.

The solution is for these governments to become more transparent, more accountable, to uphold the principles of fundamental justice and to ensure that citizens of the world are treated equally regardless of their race, color or religion. Only then will WikiLeaks and its future clones be deprived of the audience they are looking for.
Enough Hypocrisy: WikiLeaks Is Filling a Vacuum (Huffington Post, 14 December 2010)