Careful what you say and do - Outside View by Sidharth Bhatia

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Careful what you say and do
Dec 1, 2010

About four years ago, I was invited to speak to a group of very senior army officers about how the defence forces could engage better with the media. Though the overall image of the army, navy and air-force was quite good and positive, the forces felt that they were not completely understood; in fact, they were aggrieved that they were misunderstood. This was not confined to technical or operational matters, but extended to the forces in general. I recall lecturing them about the need for them to change to take newer media outlets - specifically television - into consideration instead of functioning in the old style of trying to get a general interviewed by the local paper. For instance, if a TV reporter called for a comment, the officer on the other side of the phone could not say he would revert by the end of the day; speed was of essence. I distinctly remember ending my talk by talking about blogs, which were relatively new around then; how would you cope with a disgruntled soldier writing an anonymous blog or worse, leaking secrets, I asked.

I thought of that lecture when I read about the posting of thousands of classified American documents on Wikileaks, the website for whistleblowers. An American private is accused of downloading a lot of very confidential cables from US embassies around the world and passing them on to Wikileaks which has then put them online. There is nothing very seriously damaging in these cables - unlike the last time this happened when Wikileaks posted operational details of US troops in Afghanistan -- but still enough to embarrass the US government and its top officials. The candid assessments of international leaders about their peers - the Saudi king’s comments on Asif Ali Zardari for example - are out there for everyone to read.

The US government has sharply criticized the leakage of these documents, and with good reason. Diplomatic messages are supposed to be totally confidential, being opened years later and that too selectively. Putting them out in the public domain a year or two after they were written could create a problem. At the very least, will sources trust American (or any) diplomats ever again?

Here in India, we have had our own set of leaks. Telephone conversations between a high-profile lobbyist Niira Radia and powerful Indians - businessmen, bureaucrats, politicians, fixers and journalists - have been splashed all over the Internet. In these conversations Radia discusses cabinet formation and how it would be beneficial to her clients if A Raja became the telecom minister. Two of her biggest clients are the Tata group and Reliance Industries. Even while speculation rages about the source of these tapes finding their way into the media (mainly online), Ratan Tata has asked for a court injunction on publishing any more tapes, claiming they violate his right to privacy.

There are many ways to look at this turn of events. Though Mr. Tata certainly can claim that he did not know that the conversations were being recorded and thus should be banned, there is also the question of public interest. The wider public - shareholders at the very least - needs to know how their companies are run and the kind of backroom deals that take place in power circles. As far as the media is concerned, the role of a few top journalists in playing middle-men (and women) in political matters is definitely cause for concern. Wheeling and dealing is not part of a journalist’s job, nor is batting for one side or the other.

But while we debate all these points and worry about ethical matters, it is best that everyone, especially the powerful realizes that the world has changed. Information is a key currency of power; those who hold information have an edge over the others. But if all information gets out fast, a level playing field is created. The second lesson for the power elite is that the number of eyes watching them has increased exponentially and each one of them has the potential to harm them. What happens if an unhappy employee of a company collects documents over the years and posts them on the internet? Or takes the innermost secrets of a corporate on a small pen drive and walks across to the competition? It may be industrial espionage all right, but a whistleblower may be motivated by more than just money; he may want to correct a wrong, for example. The law can always be applied, of course, but there are enough technologies to post info online in a way that it escapes any detection.

These are complex questions. Issues of privacy, confidentiality and ethnics are involved. But there is also wider public interest. Does the public have a right to know that a bribe was paid to a minister? Obviously yes. But equally important is the name of the person/company that paid the bribe. So far such things were hidden; now the chances of that information coming out have gone up.

Everyone, from politicians to bureaucrats to businessmen to journalists will have to be careful about what they say or do. This is not to suggest that they are always up to something shady; far from it. But if and when any of them do, the possibility that it will be found out and disseminated have gone up multifold. Like everything, this is a double-edge sword, since it can be damaging to innocent people. But if it helps in transparency and thus accountability, it can only be a good thing.

This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia. Sidharth is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television. This article was first posted on Personalfn.

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