The release by the WikiLeaks project in July 2010 of thousands of United States military documents relating to the conflict in Afghanistan was at once a political and security problem for Washington, and a story about the new media age. The arguments over the Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010 have reflected this double-sided character, with the Pentagon’s concerns over the potential damage caused by the publication being matched by intense debate over how far the mass-circulation of classified information via the internet signals a new era in journalism.
Thus, the many issues raised by the WikiLeaks controversy include the possible danger to Afghans working with the US whose identities the documents expose; and whether the impact of this wealth of material owes more to the project’s operating model or to the fact that the release was coordinated with several leading international print publications (the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and the Guardian).
These aspects suggest that the WikiLeaks moment serves to highlight rather than transcend some of journalism’s classical concerns (such as the integrity of sources and the value of editorial judgment and/or filtering). The affair, for all its excited noise and melodrama, raises familiar professional and ethical dilemmas which other individuals and groups are also living. In this respect, the experience of the respected young Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil offers an interesting counterpoint.
A global platform
Tasneem Khalil was a journalist for Bangladesh’s English-language Daily Star newspaper; he also worked as CNN’s news representative in Bangladesh and as a researcher on projects for Human Rights Watch. His life changed on 11 May 2007, soon after Bangladesh’s military seized power in a coup, when Khalil - an outspoken critic of the military takeover - rulers was arrested by the military’s directorate-general of forces intelligence.
Khalil was subjected to twenty-two hours of torture; only the international outcry raised upon his arrest spared him from the probable fate of joining the hundreds of others killed in Bangladesh during the military’s two-year reign.
Khalil’s account of the months preceding his arrest gives a graphic insight into Bangladesh’s then fearful atmosphere: “I was fully aware that I was under surveillance, something I always considered as professional hazard or routine baggage. An event that forced me to take a pause was when I was investigating the case of an indigenous Mandi activist tortured to death by army soldiers...I set down with my wife to transcribe the audio interviews I conducted with the relatives of the victim and other witnesses. When we played the tape, at one point, a relative who prepared the dead body for funeral was describing the torture marks he saw on the body (including missing eyeballs and crushed testicles). Right then, my wife stopped taking notes and stared at me and suddenly broke into tears.”
Khalil concludes: “That was the moment we both were forced to face the true nature of the brutality we were dealing with. It crossed my mind that I myself could have been the person tortured to death by the Bangladesh army”.
After his release, Tasneem Khalil was able to gain political asylum in Sweden. There, he publishes a human-rights magazine, Independent World Report, whose combination of qualities - attractive design, provocative content, subscription-only funding in order to maintain independence - reflects Khalil’s ambition for it.
Khalil’s urge to to reveal the truth provoked the powerful in Bangladesh to threaten his life. This experience informs the mission of his magazine, which gives a platform to writers to tell important but neglected stories - such as about the plight of child-jockeys in the UAE or witchcraft in Nigeria.
Khalil offers a particular take on the issue of anonymous authorship when publishing material by human-rights workers: “As a matter of policy, we would not allow anonymity just for the sake of it...if you can not own up to your own name, it would be tricky to own up to whatever you would write. Also, from my own experience, journalists or activists or dissidents who are in the frontlines of struggle against tyranny do not really have anonymity or super-techie server-networks high among their concerns. The moment an individual signs up as a dissident journalist in China or a human-rights activist in Uzbekistan or a democracy activist in Burma he or she crosses a certain line, very much knowing what lies ahead. None of them have asked us to provide them with anonymity. They also want a global platform of human-rights journalism, and that is what we are trying to build.”
A different way
Tasneem Khalil and WikiLeaks each seek to expose information that reveals the workings of power. But they do so in very different ways. Wikileaks is a channel for hacked documents rather than a journalistic project, as revealed in its decision to hand the editorial analysis of its Afghan trove to bastions of the traditional print media. It works remotely and secretly, without accountability. Moreover, there is a disconnect between its uncovering of stories and this refusal of any accountability for them: Wikileaks may have created a “bulletproof” hosting system, but there is no such protection for those who provide the actual data it releases and no acceptance of the moral consequences of releasing it.
Wikileaks’s founder Julian Assange has been explicit on this point in describing the harm done to innocent people by some leaks as “collateral damage, if you will” - an attitude that some from human-rights organisations have criticised. The contrast here with what Tasneem Khalil and those like him are doing is especially sharp: for if exposing the secrets of the powerful is a crucial weapon in the war for rights, it is surely up to the sources themselves to decide how much “damage” they are willing to risk and to take responsibility for their actions - for then their story will have far greater value than if it is shrouded in anonymity.
Indeed, the other side of Wikileaks’s drive to enforce almost total transparency on others regardless of the consequences is the opacity of the organisation. In this respect, Assange’s international-man-of-mystery-persona echoes the style of the shadowy intelligence organisations whose work Wikileaks aims to expose. The contrast - of style, language and character - with what Tasneem Khalil is doing is profound (see Mats Öhlén, "Bangladesh-Sweden-The World", Stockholm News, 12 September 2010).
As Khalil says: “International World Report is based in Sweden, where freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed. Since moving here, what has always fascinated me is how this freedom is in the very DNA of the society and of politics. In a way, IWR is a project to share the freedom enjoyed in free societies, advanced democracies, with those where this freedom is absent and who therefore need it most.”
In this context he comments on how the coverage of the WikiLeaks story on Afghanistan has very little reference to (for example) the brave work of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (Rawa) - “from inside the country, without the security of servers in Sweden and cafés in Iceland”; and that “we are operating with full knowledge that in a technophile world, tons of profiles of Julian Assange will be written while only a handful will be on Meena Keshwar Kamal or Irom Sharmila Chanu.”
The example of Tasneem Khalil is but one case of an independent journalism that is trying to advance human rights in a global age in a way that takes professional, civic and ethical responsibility for its actions. In this it points the way to a practice that is both true to a free media’s best ideals, and more likely to be effective in realising its wider goals.