‘We’ve exposed the worlds secrets. Been attacked by the powerful. For 500 days now I’ve been detained without charge, but that hasn’t stopped us’ (Julian Assange in the opening to The Julian Assange Show).
The Assange story has fascinated people around the world – so much so that we now have documentaries, shows and books that tell his story. However, with much media coverage increasingly focusing on Mr Assange’s presence at the Ecuadorean embassy in London (and accusations that he is an ‘enemy of the state’ in the US), it is possible that our attention has been diverted away from what he has sacrificed his personal safety and security for.
While the issue of freedom of speech and information remains in clear sight – by focusing so heavily on Assange’s current situation we also potentially ignoring the fact that WikiLeaks has revealed some very interesting information about our governments, military interventions overseas and democratic practices.
It is easy to get lost in the enormity of all that WikiLeaks has released to the public. Over the years WikiLeaks has presented us with images of alleged war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, crimes against humanity, documented widespread corruption, state sanctioned torture, and evidence of spying within governments.
In particular, the reality of military actions in Iraq was shockingly revealed in 2010 when it was leaked that more than 15,000 civilians had died in incidents that were previously unknown. US and UK officials had insisted that there was official record of civilian casualties during this period, but the WikiLeaks logs records 66,081 non-combatant deaths out of a total of 109,000 fatalities.
WikiLeaks also released cables that exposed the extent of US spying on its allies in the UN and incidences of US government corruption. For instance, ‘The Global Intelligence Files’ present emails which document ‘the revolving door that operates in private intelligence companies in the United States’. The claim is that government and diplomatic sources from around the world give Stratfor (an Intelligence Organisation) advance knowledge of global politics and events in exchange for money (WikiLeaks, The Global Intelligence Files).
There are a number of debates that swirl around WikiLeaks – the obvious one is the validity or truth of the files. (For major newspaper The Guardian, WikiLeaks files are considered a form of ‘data’). But perhaps there are more pressing questions we now face about what we are permitted to know in regards to our own governments, our involvement in other countries affairs, and finally, what this all means in the context of democratic participation.
The content and digital mode of delivery of the WikiLeaks ‘cables’ has had a number of outcomes. In taking up the responsibility of sharing important information WikiLeaks has given people around the world the opportunity to engage with and understand their social and political reality in different ways. Seumas Milne (for the Guardian) suggests that WikiLeaks has provided fuel for the ‘Arab uprisings’. WikiLeaks hasn’t just delivered information for people to hold their governments to account, but has ‘crucially opened up the exercise of US global power to democratic scrutiny’.
While Assange’s personal case is significnat and steeped in issues of freedom of speech, as we witness him effectively under house arrest in London, our focus is drawn away from the secrets WikiLeaks offers.