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How free is the virtual world?
The last few weeks have seen one of the most extraordinary global debates in the wake of the Wikileaks controversy. Julian Assange, who has thrown governments - especially the US - into a spin by publishing classified diplomatic cables is, according to Time magazine, a frontrunner for the title of person of the year: "He is a new kind of whistle-blower : one made for the digital age. . . in founding WikiLeaks. org, Julian Assange gave himself the freedom to publish virtually anything he wants, whether it's the true nature of Iraqi prisoner abuse, the double role Pakistan plays in Afghanistan or the personal e-mails of Sarah Palin. Assange's site, which he started four years ago, has made public a trove of secret and classified documents - close to 500, 000 pages on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone. But in the process, governments he has targeted (like the US's ) claim he has put the lives of informants and soldiers in jeopardy. " The revelations made by Assange's website are damning and spare none. The cables also put big corporations in the dock. ABC reported, " Big corporations have long been accused of throwing their weight around in third world countries. But the latest WikiLeaks revelations have now shed light on how the practice actually works. US diplomatic cables reveal the influence that the oil company Shell has over the government of Nigeria. Shell claims it has staff in all the main ministries of the Nigerian government, giving it complete access to decision making in the oil-rich Niger Delta. "
The leaks have also generated much anger towards America, as the cables have revealed the arrogance and condescending attitude adopted by the US administration in dealing with even allies. Maria Antonova of the Sydney Morning Herald reported, "Vladimir Putin on Thursday led a growing band of international leaders voicing support for WikiLeaks' boss Julian Assange, describing his detention in Britain as "undemocratic. . . Why was Mr. Assange hidden in jail? Is that democracy? As we say in the village: the pot is calling the kettle black, " Putin said in response to a question on Russia's undemocratic image in US embassy cables leaked by the website. " Putin has also called for Assange to be considered for the Nobel Peace prize.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Nebehay of Reuters reported, "UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay voiced concern on Thursday at reports of pressure being exerted on private companies to halt financial or Internet services for WikiLeaks. Pillay said that taken together, the measures could be interpreted as an attempt to prevent WikiLeaks from publishing, thereby violating its right to freedom of expression. " Joann Loviglio of the Associated Press reported on the help Wikileaks is getting after big companies like Amazon, eBay and Paypal cut ties: "A tech startup based in Philadelphia says it is taking donations for WikiLeaks, after several U. S. -based companies cut ties to the website in the face of government pressure. Mobile-tomobile payment provider Xipwire (pronounced Zipwire) says on its website that "while people may or may not agree with WikiLeaks . . . anyone who wishes to support the organization through a donation should be able to do so. "
Help is also coming in for the beleaguered Assange from other quarters. AFP reported that "Mirror sites are keeping WikiLeaks up and running despite the loss of its original wikileaks. org address, shut down by an American provider: welcome to the Barbra Streisand Effect. The elusive, intangible nature of the internet has allowed the whistle-blowing website to keep a step ahead of its enemies. For after its original web address was shut down, it was able to move to a second home at a Swiss address. And in less than 24 hours, dozens of mirror image sites were up and running. . . Some were set up by WikiLeaks, others by computersavvy sympathisers determined to keep the information the website is leaking online. "
Anne Weisman commented on the furore on Huffington Post: "Contrary to some suggestions, WikiLeaks is not a whistleblower. Decades ago a whistleblower by the name of Daniel Elsberg, motivated by a desire to inform the public of illegal governmental misconduct, leaked to the New York Times and Congress a copy of the Pentagon Papers. The newspaper published the papers after discussions with the government to aid public debate on issues of great national importance. WikiLeaks, by contrast, seeks to advance an agenda of self-aggrandizement at the expense of U. S. interests, with reckless disregard for the consequences of its actions. "
Calls for Assange's head to roll are growing shriller in the US establishment and there is much confusion over just how far the White House can go against the whistleblower. Michael A Lindenberger of Time magazine had this to opinion to offer: "... efforts in either direction will likely run into the same obstacle: The First Amendment. Thanks to nearly a century of cases dealing with the clash between national security and the freedom of the press, the Constitution provides enormous protection for publishers of state secrets. Those who leak the secrets in the first place - government officials, even soldiers, for instance - can and are prosecuted, such as Army private, Bradley Manning. . . Putting someone like Assange in jail for publishing documents he did not himself steal, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thing that First Amendment makes difficult. "
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