Technological advances have chained distance, compressed the world into a global village and introduced unimaginable access to information to and from every part of the world. As remarkable as this new world order maybe, it has also raised a challenge in finding a balance between freedom of information and expression and state security and confidentiality. In 2005, the world was thrown into a major crisis because of the publication of a Prophet Mohammed (may Allah bless his soul) cartoon which was demeaning and viewed as a sacrilege by the Muslim world. This same cartoon was praised as a manifestation of freedom of expression by some individuals in the western world.
There seem to be no acceptable standard or scope of freedom of expression when it relates to state security and confidentiality.
Recently, WikiLeaks started a publication of United States’ confidential diplomatic cables. The publication of these cables is one of the most embarrassing leaks that have confronted America since the 20th century. The leaks have revealed confidential information made on the understanding that it remains confidential. It has revealed personal opinions of diplomats made in the course of developing a policy for government. It has revealed deeply personal information or individual assessments by diplomats. Most embarrassingly it revealed discussion and castigation of various governments in very informal settings.
The question that is out there right now is whether or not WikiLeaks was right in publicising this very explosive document. Most freedom of information fanatics insist that there is nothing wrong in what WikiLeaks did. The people are entitled to know how decisions concerning them are made and how government works. Another school of thought argues that there is a limit to how freedom of expression can be exercised and that in this particular case, WikiLeaks overreached itself and their actions cannot be justified under the ambit of freedom of expression or freedom of information. They argue that the information in the first place was obtained illegally.
It is a very tricky exercise to try to impose limits on freedom of information and expression especially as it relates to government documents or official secrets. In the first instance, it is a difficult exercise to determine what actually is objectively confidential government information? In most cases, governments hide under state security to block the public from having access to their misdeeds. Nixon during the Watergate scandal tried to protect his misdeed using executive privileges. Leaving government with the discretion to determine what is secret or not technically erodes almost all the benefits of the freedom of information and expression. On the other hand allowing the public to publish government confidential documents without lawful and objective limits poses security risk. Furthermore it erodes the decision making process of the protection it deserves and may discourage honest opinion from government officials. Finding a balance between these opposing positions is a task both government and civil society will have to address.
Under the extant law in Nigeria and in some other countries, one can justify pushing out information to the public on the basis of the fact that such information is true; however I would argue that truth should not just be the yardstick. Truth must be handled with a sense of responsibility. To that extent, if it doesn’t add any value to the society or expose illegality, then such information must be treated with caution. WikiLeaks revelation has more than any other thing weakened the trust and goodwill amongst nations.
The ancient Greeks offer us an interesting perspective on how to handle information responsibly. Socrates during his time was once confronted with a similar situation of measuring whether or not particular information should be given. He then propounded the three tests: Is the information true? Is it good? Is it useful? As simple as this tests may sound, they are very broad and very germane to examining the WikiLeaks action. The Rotary Club further enlarged this test into a 4 way test which includes: is it true? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendship? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? These tests are not principles of law but they offer an objective qualification to the exercise of rights and freedom. Freedom must be exercised with a sense of responsibility and with fidelity to the common good. Freedom of information and expression must be premised on the expression of self and responsibility to the common good and in this instance the coexistence of nations. Freedom is not a blank cheque for the holder to do whatever he or she likes. Accepted that there are limits to freedom of expression and information, however the legal qualifications does not necessarily mean that everything that is legal is right. Common good may not in all cases be captured under the law but places an obligation to a holder of information to use it for the betterment of society.
WikiLeaks did not reveal any illegality but rather has exposed confidential information relating to decision making process. It has pitched countries against each other, eroded the foundations of trust necessary in diplomatic communication and revealed personal opinions of leaders and diplomats. Revelations about Saudi sentiments regarding Iran, opinions about German Chancellor and China’s contingency plans about North Korea only weakened the basis for international relationship especially as it affects peace and trust.
One is wont to ask what WikiLeaks set out to achieve. The objective balanced against the embarrassing implications of this leak in my opinion is questionable. This does not in any way an attempt to trivialise the very important nature of freedom of information and expression especially as it relates to a democratic society built on transparency and openness. The ability of citizens to access information and to question government activities cannot be challenged. However such exercise of right must also respect the decision making process, the ability of diplomats and governments official to air opinions, question assumptions and also make mistakes. Such information should not be open to public consumption except when absolutely necessary and expedient for public good. Such urgency is not shown in the release of the WikiLeaks document. Declassifying illegally obtained government documents should not just be for the sake of sharing information. It must have some probative value and must be an unavoidable public need.
The argument about freedom and how it is exercised cannot be resolved by this write up. However this write-up argues that the Socrates standard provides a guide to resolving this debate. Freedom has to be used for individual wellbeing and for the common good. Without these two attributes, the essence of the right is sorely missed.