The emergence of WikiLeaks has rightly been lauded by many progressive and liberal commentators over recent months. As a non-profit organization committed to free speech and exposure of corruption and maladministration, WikiLeaks rightly claims the high moral ground of speaking truth to power. It is interesting that comparisons have been made between WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange and famous whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, the US military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, and thereby revealed much of the dark truth of the Vietnam War to the American public.
Yet there is an important difference between Ellsberg and Assange, in that Ellsberg was a whistleblower and not a publisher, whereas Julian Assange is a publisher. Given this difference, it is useful to consider the ethical constraints which apply to Wikileaks as an online publication.
The first ethical constraint is the obligation to avoid undue harm and danger, both to individuals and to collective groups, due to the publication of information. The harm can be in the form of harm to reputation or actual physical danger. Given that the documents published often pertain to armed conflict, the concerns to avoid harm and physical danger are not merely hypothetical. Of course, the danger to national security is a constant theme in the attempts to repress the truth, and it is very difficult to quantify whether a person may have been placed in the way of harm due to revelations. The fact that this obligation is abused does not mean, however, that it should be ignored.
The second ethical constraint is the imperative to respect privacy. It has been said that there is a difference between genuine public interest and what the public may be interested in. Given the increasing celebrification of politics and indeed of all public life, we may feel that we want to know more about the personal foibles of our leaders and indeed of public figures. After all, it makes us feel more comfortable to know that our leaders are flawed human beings like the rest of us. Yes, political leaders work in the public domain. Yet the question needs to be asked as to whether opinions about the habits of a PM ought to be considered the proper subject of public scrutiny.
The third ethical constraint is the imperative to respect the overarching confidentiality of international diplomacy. There are times when confidentiality is important. For instance, it would be wrong if the confidential deliberations between Julian Assange and his lawyers were to be published. So too, international diplomacy works on the basis that confidential discussions between parties will not be published. Confidentiality is often an important component in conflict resolution – parties can speak frankly and openly, without having to worry about pleasing an external audience or constituency.
The ethical constraints on telling the truth are perhaps best summed in a famous essay by the German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer, 'What Does It Mean to Tell the Truth?' Bonhoeffer comments that we are always taught from an early age to tell the truth, although not generally taught what this means. Bonhoeffer declares that there is a difference between always telling the truth and telling all the truth. There are times when, acting in good faith, we need to exercise discretion as to what we disclose. The circumstances for Bonhoeffer were not merely academic. As an active member of the German resistance against the Nazis, he was thinking of his ethical obligations in what he disclosed to the Nazis about the resistance.
Of course there are exceptions to the above constraints. The publisher may properly consider that there is an over-riding public interest which justifies the release of information. However the important point is that a careful judgment needs to be made about what is placed in the public domain. It is simply not acceptable to say that all documents should automatically be available to all. An informed and considered judgment on the part of the publisher is called for.
Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks collaborators will no doubt continue to be seen, and rightfully so, as highly courageous - exhibiting what Bonhoeffer called civil courage. However it is useful to remember that the new media, such as WikiLeaks, are indeed online forms of publication. And just as there are ethical obligations incumbent on traditional media, such as newspapers, to disclose information with discretion, so too it needs to be remembered that this obligation to publish with discretion also applies to the new online media.
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