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The ethics of WikiLeaks and other questions
Posted Monday, January 31, 2011 3:31 PM
When a large, lively crowd showed for the U of M debate-event “Heroism or terrorism: The ethics of WikiLeaks” on Friday, January 21, event organizer Arthur Schafer confessed to being pleasantly surprised by the substantial turnout. The wiki and its founder Julian Assange have become hot topics of discussion due to the nature of WikiLeaks’ releases.

Presented by U of M’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, the vigourous debate was moderated by Schafer, a professor of philosophy who is also the centre’s director. Cecil Rosner, head of CBC-TV, argued pro-Wikileaks, while James (Jim) Fergusson, made the case for the anti-Wikileaks argument. Fergusson is director for the Centre for Defence and Security Studies and a professor in the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

Public awareness of and controversy surrounding WikiLeaks has grown substantially with the publication of more than 76,900 secret documents about the war in Afghanistan and more recently, the publication of US state department diplomatic cables.

WikiLeaks states that its “primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and corporations.” Though it was originally launched as a user-editable wiki, the site has moved towards a more traditional publication model and no longer accepts user comments or edits.

WikiLeaks publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources and news leaks; it is an international, non-profit organization. Launched in 2006, WikiLeaks was listed in December, 2010 by the New York City Daily News as first among websites “that could totally change the news.”

Rosner, arguing the pro-WikiLeaks side, opened the debate by setting WikiLeaks in the context of whistleblowing, and how whistleblowers’ information is quashed and whistleblowers themselves are discredited by the organizations on which they are informing. Drawing a comparison to Daniel Ellsberg in leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, which made them front page news in 1971, Rosner suggested that WikiLeaks, with its preponderance of Iraq War documents, was a similar case.

The Pentagon Papers, officially titled “United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense” were a top-secret United States Department of Defence history of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam.

Rosner reminded his audience that in the final outcome of the case New York Times Co. v. United States (403 U.S. 713), Justice Black’s US Supreme Court decision upheld freedom of the press. Rosner contended that “as the watchdog [of government or the state], the press cannot be subservient [to it].”

However, according to John T. Correll’s article on the case in the February 2007 issue of Air Force Magazine, the Supreme Court decision did not void the Espionage Act or give the press unlimited freedom to publish classified documents, and Ellsberg was not acquitted of violating the Espionage Act; he was freed due to irregularities in the prosecution’s case.

The Pentagon Papers are still classified documents.

Arguing on the anti-WikiLeaks side, Jim Fergusson keyed in on the problems with individuals overriding government by “self-defining the right” to decide what should be unclassified and distributed to the wider public, and the sheer volume and, he contended, the unfiltered nature of the WikiLeaks content.

Though Fergusson acknowledged that “government obsession with secrecy” could be a problem, often the “overclassification” is justified, he said, in military issues where lives are at stake. “We give our government the legal right to make the decision to bring force,” and thus, in these cases, the “heroism” commonly attributed to such whistleblowing can become more like “terrorism” — or treason, he said, with the violation of an oath taken in military service. The other difficulty, he said, is that too often media discounts any contextual analysis and tends instead toward “tabloid sensationalism” without “proper due diligence.”

Rebuttals were centred on media and journalistic ethics and responsibility versus government accountability and transparency, and after the floor was opened for questioning, many students and faculty in the audience raised points for and directed questions to both Fergusson and Rosner. A considerable number of audience members stayed behind after the debate ended to further discuss the issue with the presenters.

The debate “Heroism or terrorism: The ethics of WikiLeaks” is one of several events and lectures organized by the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics throughout the academic year.

According to Schafer, the discipline of applied ethics has come to prominence as a field of study only in the last fifty years or so.

“Whether in biomedicine, business or the environment, questions raised by scholars and citizens are frequently ethical questions: about right and wrong, justice and injustice, fair distribution of benefits and burdens. These have serious implications for how we live our lives, as individual citizens, as members of a particular community, and as human beings who share many common aspirations and fears,” Schafer said.
For more information, contact:
Mariianne Mays Wiebe
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Related Links (Internal):
  •Wikileaks' Julian Assange: Hero or Villain?