State & media relations after WikiLeaks & The News of the World

smallnowcopyRelations between journalists and government officials have changed, but not in the way perhaps that we would all have hoped, indeed even expected.

The introduction of freedom of information laws in more than 60 countries is only a start, but they remain an unfulfilled promise. To make them work, they need to be put to intensive use, tested almost to destruction, which is probably the only way for citizens’ groups to identify their weaknesses.

Before this happens we need a change of culture. Citizens need to get in the habit of demanding information; officials need to get in the habit of giving it out.

In Tunisia, officials unprepared for the expected arrival of a freedom of information law, responded by clutching hold of a draft clause that would excluding material classified ‘secret’ – and closed off everything by giving everything the ‘secret’ classification.

In fact, a lot of problems are due to this kind of unpreparedness and a perhaps not unreasonable fear of journalists – both professional and unprofessional – on the part of the officials themselves.

I worked in Iraq for some time from the 2003 invasion onwards for Index, researching the methods of media regulation being applied there, be it by the military, occupation authorities or the Iraqi government, supporting Iraqi journalists in their demands for fair access to official information, among other pressing free expression issues.

There we found that the main issue was not so much that officials wanted to hide information, but that they lacked the training and experience to confidently manage their relations with Iraq’s highly combative media. Thus we ended up working with UNESCO, and in particular with the United Nations Development Programme, training officials in just these skills.

As we heard from Borja Bergareche earlier, the United States – which in my view has genuinely tried to address the issue of so-called “over classification” of supposedly ‘secret’ data – is still a ‘monster of classification’.

There will always be officials we just can’t reach or those who will not listen. Information is still classified unnecessarily, despite the calls for declassification. People like this are trying to buck a trend going the other way, and not just due to the legacy of the WikiLeaks revelations.

As we’ve heard repeatedly today, information tends to be free. The power to monopolise information has been weakened and we’ve seen the ability of individuals and activists to disrupt agendas in the way the media more or less exclusively were able to do.

We’ve seen the transformative effect of rapid information sharing, from citizen journalist on mobile phone to mainstream media on satellite – and back again. And we’ve seen the internet provide more and more varied means for journalists to access information, and essentially, also to verify it.

As journalists of all kinds get better at processing information, citizens get better at demanding it and activists better at digging for it, the information landscape will change permanently. This is the point I think where governments will want to permanently change the terms of engagement, and try to exercise more control over its media.

There are many ways of doing that: by law, everywhere. You heard earlier of the scale of the police investigation into the News of the World phone hacking charges in the UK, and a raft of new laws that can theoretically put a British journalist in jail just for doing his or her job, and the risk of a chilling effect on legitimate investigative journalism.

You’ve also heard how the Obama administration is going after more whistle blowers that ever before. Jane Kirtley warned how the US government has been slowly, but strategically crafting a legal framework that will allow them to target whistleblowers or activists supporting them.

Elsewhere the core principle of self-regulation of the media is under challenge from governments, who are demanding ‘responsibility’ from Wikileaks or tabloid journalists alike.

The WPFC’s own Rony Koven wrote an excellent article for Index on Censorship a few years ago highlighting this bad habit; those who shout loudest for responsibility in the media include the people most determined to silence it, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

But I find the US military’s approach to the problem most instructive and worrying; the way they look at the virtual information sphere as terrain – an area to be captured, held and defended from enemy counter attack. The US military theatres of operation cover air, land and sea, space and now cyberspace.

This strategy involves more than blocking viruses. Hillary Clinton has shared her view that the US is losing the so-called Information War to alternative media. To restore the balance we are seeing tremendous US investment in strategic communications, old-school cultural diplomacy upgraded for an online world.

This communications empire in the making is bumping up against an equally large investment in so-called Information Operations, the use of news and information for military purposes.

I leave you with that thought, as a question: What will happen when governments get to be good or at least as innovative, in running information in the public sphere as WikiLeaks and the News of the World used to be?

Taken from my notes for comments to a panel on Government-Media Relations after WikiLeaks at a conference on The Media World after WikiLeaks and News of the World at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, 16-17 February 2012.

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