Since the last post about Wikileaks on this blog, the site has drawn the world's attention with its release of nearly 100,000 classified military documents from the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Commentators have lined up on multiple sides, alternatively praising the site for its commitment to open information, condemning its disregard for troop security, or bemoaning the lack of explanatory discourse surrounding the data. Andrew Exum, who served in Afghanistan, criticizes the site's fusion of activism and journalism, while my friend Jeremy Wagstaff thinks that it both shows up the traditional media and points the way toward a fundamental re-imagining of journalism itself.
Let's leave for a moment the debate about Wikileaks' actions and consider its role in a broader, governance and development-related context: how applicable is the Wikileaks "model" to developing countries where the media sector is only marginally functional? In other words, can this type of unadulterated-information-dissemination model allow those countries to bypass the long and often arduous institution-building process of developing a free and open media (enabling legislation, mature advertising markets, professional journalists and editors, etc)? The idea is alluring, particularly given the fact that the traditional media model is failing in many countries, while barriers to entry in the new information space have never been lower.
My own guess is that while this may to some extent already be happening, a commitment to good governance still requires some form of media institution-building. For one thing, enabling legislation ensures that such outlets both operate within the law and are shielded from retribution and/or pressure by the government and other powerful interests. For another, raw data still requires interpretation and analysis by trusted information intermediaries, whether this be traditional journalists and media outlets, reputable bloggers, or others. In the absence of trusted and objective analysis, data is ripe for manipulation; this, in turn, may engender either extreme polarization or a wary, information-overloaded public that simply tunes out politics and opts out of the processes that govern their lives.
This is by no means meant to be a show of support for the "we're not ready for full freedom of information; it takes time to get people used to/ready for such things" argument so frequently deployed by authoritarian governments bent on retaining control of information. For me, it just means that the Wikileaks phenomenon deserves careful consideration, particularly in the context of the public sphere and quality of governance in developing countries.
Photo Credit: Fräulein Schiller (On Flickr)