The issue of national security has been thrust into the limelight as the recent attacks on Paris, Nice, and Munich are added to a growing list of terrorist attacks. The security systems in Nice is called to question when policewoman Sandra Bertin alleged that she had been told to alter her report to cover up lapses in the security force. Germany’s Interior Minister proposes tighter security measures after a spate of attacks in the country. A little closer to home, Southeast Asian countries are under a ticking timebomb as it was reported that terrorist activities are brewing in the region, with countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia are target countries for the recruitment and transit of Islamic militants. Jakarta was attacked early in January and Malaysia experienced the first terrorist attack on its shores as Movida, a nightclub in Puchong, was bombed.
It is in this state of high alert that the Prime Minister of Malaysia introduces new security measures to beef up efforts against the threat of terrorism. Last year, the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed, and only recently, the National Security Council (NSC) Act was launched. The National Security Council has the power to declare security areas – zones that are perceived to contain security threats, and that will be subject to martial law – and the council is chaired by the Prime Minister himself. The act allows the military full authority to seize properties and make arrests without warrants.
Many human right activists sounded the alarm that such wide-ranging and unchecked powers could lead to potential abuse, and that the crackdown on terrorist threats is done at the expense of civil liberties. Josef Benedict, the Deputy Director for South East Asia and the Pacific of Amnesty International, even asserts that “There is good reason to fear that the Act will be yet another tool in the hands of the government to crack down on peaceful protests under the guise of national security”. The Prime Minister’s response to such allegations is that the safety and security of the Malaysian public must be prioritised.
The contentious debate surrounding the trade-off between security and civil liberties germinated as skepticism towards governmental surveillance emerges. The American Civil Liberties Union asserts that “[h]istory has shown that powerful, secret surveillance tools will almost certainly be abused for political ends and turned disproportionately on disfavoured minorities.” The stakes got higher as the advent of the Internet made it easier and easier for state secrets to be leaked and disseminated. When whistleblowing website WikiLeaks burst into fame in 2010 for releasing data on the Iraq War, it was hailed as a shining example of fulfilling the watchdog mandate with which the media is entrusted. In a 2010 Al Jazeera article, it was claimed that had WikiLeaks existed pre-9/11, the fatal attack that had left such an indelible scar on American consciousness might never even have taken place.
The whistleblowing website epitomizes the power of transparency, and it has emboldened and enabled journalists to be more radical in their disclosure of information. The calls for greater transparency has never been louder. The Foundation of Free Press, set up by a group of journalists, advocates for more freedoms to report news. More than that, it was not solely the journalists and media reporters who opined that transparency must be upheld at all costs. A Pew Research survey in 2015 discovers that 54% of Americans stated that they disapprove of the government’s collection of data in the name of national security. As John Cusack, a journalist at the Guardian, once wrote, “People know they have a right to know what the government is doing in their names.”
Yet a survey in 2016 by the Pew Research Centre also observes a trend back towards a “security first” mentality, as terrorist attacks occur the world over. Public opinions are now shifting back towards maintaining greater security, even if that comes at the expense of privacy, civil liberties, and the ideal of transparency. In the very same society that hailed Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, a hero, there is also a tremendous amount of unease and fear at the thought of having national secrets made publicly and internationally known.
“You can’t handle the truth,” goes the famous line from A Few Good Men. Parodied countless times, the quote has become stale and even hammy. yet when one hears the monologue of Colonel Jessep (acted by Jack Nicholson), who tries to justify the murder of a soldier in the name of national interest, one cannot but hear the disconcerting truth in his diatribe:
“You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”
Now as society has been thrown into a debilitating sense of instability, the value and benefits of indiscriminate leaking of state secrets are questioned. WikiLeaks, once seen as the exemplar of fetterless and fearless journalism, became the subject of much heat and public outrage when it published the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) emails without redaction, disclosing private information such as Social Security Numbers and addresses. Other than revealing the DNC’s attempts to undermine Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the emails did not disclose any outrageously reprehensible dealings of the DNC. On the other hand, WikiLeaks has been accused of allowing Russian authorities engineer the US elections by leaking documents in order to wage a smear campaign against Hillary Clinton. The organisation is later embroiled in another scandal when it promised to leak emails from the server of Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This it did in bulk, but the sheer volume of the documents made news outlets unsure as to exactly how incriminating or relevant the content of the leak is. Meanwhile, the indiscriminate leaking has actually allowed for the publication of the personal info of over a million Turkish female voters, jeopardising their security.
Transparency for transparency’s sake has become dangerous for wider society, especially as the global community is gearing up to combat terrorism. Edward Snowden, famous for exposing the National Security Agency’s unethical surveillance programs, is more careful in publishing leaked documents, preferring to go quietly to reputed news establishment to give the inside scoop. He has come to criticise Julian Assange and WikiLeaks for their “hostility to even a modest curation” of leaked documents.
A TIME article claims that WikiLeaks is getting scarier than the NSA. A WIRED article lambasted WikiLeaks for having served its own personal agenda and interests, and very astutely, the writer reminds us that the humans behind WikiLeaks are just that – humans. Humans with biases, prejudices, and motivations. Journalists may have different opinions on what type of expose constitutes national interest, but they must have a justifiable reason for thinking so. Acknowledgment of one’s biases is more honest, more frank, more beneficent to the free press movement than harbouring what The New York Times claim Julian Assange as having, a “noble cause corruption”, which is a conception that celebrates vigilante justice even by morally dubious means.
The WIRED article concludes by calling WikiLeaks a “damaged filter”. Chris Blackhurst uses the similar term “unqualified filter” in an article lamenting how news establishments has become a dumping site for all sorts of leaked documents and dirty laundry. Glenn Greenwald has criticized Blackhurst’s journalistic ethics on the grounds for not wanting to publish stories because he was told to by authorities. But one cannot ignore Blackhurst’s question about publishing hacked state secrets, “Where is the story?” In trawling through the myriads of top secret official documents, we have gotten so caught up in the details that we lose the plot. The implications of the documents need to be at the forefront driving discussions, not the sensationalism surrounding the notion of leaked documents – a phenomenon not unlike the gossip mill. We need journalists who play their role as the government’s watchdog, not a channel for publishing anything remotely top-secret for a surge in sales or pageviews. We need journalists who pick out stories to highlight wrongdoing, not ones who produce mere chatter.
We should laud the journalists who, as Roy Greenslade defends, “have trawled through the documents in order to ascertain which of them were in the public interest”. However, we must also be wary of his unqualified assertion that society should “revel in the opportunity to increase transparency”, even if that should come to “journalistic law-breaking”. If the government is to be faulted for its unscrupulous dealings in the name of “national interest”, what makes it more acceptable when media outlets and journalists do the same? The role of the journalist, the lengths to which reporters would go in the name for public interests must be re-examined.
In delivering a lecture at Durham University’s St Cuthbert’s Society, journalist-turned-writer Ted Gup notes that the public does not want transparency. What they want is a government that would be discriminatory and scrupulous about how they handle sensitive information. In short, they want a government they can trust. The media is not excluded from this remarkable responsibility of being vanguards of public interest. They are placed in that unique position of selecting and filtering what information is absolutely imperative for the public to know.
Even there exists a tug-and-pull between security and transparency, there is one common overlap: trust. In the aforementioned 2016 Pew Research piece, it was found that members of the public are less opposed to government surveillance activities when explained that it was done for “national security”. Ultimately, the public wavers between the two, for essentially, trustworthiness involves both keeping and disclosing information – but in a discriminate manner. Is it right for governments to infringe upon our freedoms in the name of national security? The crux of the matter is not one of transparency, but of trustworthiness. For this, context matters. Governments who have track records of serving their own interests instead of the public, who have motives other than the greater good of society, are less likely to be trusted even if they claim that they are prioritising the safety and security of the public.
The anti-establishment faction would not like this, for it means placing their trust in bodies that wield great power, and that may abuse that power. However, all the more, it calls for greater judgment, as it requires the public to observe the character of security officials and media journalists. It requires the public to stress great importance on being fastidious with whom they select as the vanguards of both the public’s security and their freedom. The question we should ask ourselves is no longer to what extent is someone transparent, but rather – how much can I trust them, given what I know about them?