WikiLeaks and the others – rule simply informed away Ruthless Criticism

Translated from GegenStandpunkt 1-2011

The bourgeois public sphere and its modern appendices

WikiLeaks and the others – rule simply informed away

A website and its head honcho are causing a public commotion worldwide. The website “WikiLeaks” has the declared aim of “bringing important news and information to the public” (WikiLeaks website). It provides a cryptographically encrypted electronic mailbox through which anyone can send information of any kind and origin to the website for the purpose of publishing it, while preserving their anonymity. In view of their lofty mission, the activists of WikiLeaks are not timid: “We are fearless in our efforts to bring the undisguised truth to the public” (ibid.) and their new offering on the internet promises nothing less than “to place a new star in the firmament of man.” (Founder Assange, Spiegel, 4/2011) The website then presents secret papers and previously unpublished images mainly from American government and army archives about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, reveals all kinds of previously unpublished material leaked to it about corruption in governments, large corporations or the Scientology sect, and most recently causes a furor with the publication of countless foreign policy dispatches from the US diplomatic service.

Now. it’s just not the case that the world, including its cyberspace, is not already optimally provided with journalistic organs that supply humankind around the clock with information and opinionated commentary in images and sound, on paper and digitally. WikiLeaks explicitly sees itself as “part of this journalistic public sphere” (Assange, Spiegel 50/2010), but also wants to have “minted a whole new type of scientific journalism,” whose scientificity consists in the fact that the reader can now compare the “story” with the “original documents on the net” (Spiegel, ibid.). Is this the additional, new and even more critical service that the creators of WikiLeaks are providing humankind’s search for truth? And to what extent are they actually part of the “old model” of the public sphere and its media, with which WikiLeaks “collaborates to bring news to the people” (Spiegel, ibid.)?

The normal news business: disseminating critical information and producing understanding

The fact that journalistically produced publicity includes a fundamentally critical attitude towards those who are politically powerful in the country which varies depending on the respective editorial office’s place in the spectrum of opinions is a standpoint that the professional movers and shakers of the old media certainly share with their new web colleagues as the ethos of their profession. They see this as being well within the constitutional terms and conditions of the democratic media system: Freedom of expression, freedom of information and freedom of the press, enshrined as fundamental and human rights in democratic constitutions and even in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, protect the right to “impart” and v“receive”“information” and the “freedom of people involved in mass communication with regard to the dissemination of information.” All those more or less critical spirits who try to realize the freedom of information are permitted by the free state to carry out their activities and attach value to the “intellectual effect” that “emanates” from these freedoms (BVerfG, Jarass/Pieroth, GG-Kommentar, Art. 5 RdNr. 1 und 23). The “institution of the free press,” which practices one of the foremost basic rights (BVerfG, ibid.) in a lively competition of pluralistic opinions, is entrusted with this “mediation service” in and for the democratic public sphere, and indeed in the rank of “a constitutional legal right.”

The media world bears eloquent testimony to the “intellectual effects” of this achievement day after day when it carries out the discourse between governed citizens and governing state power on every available channel and printed page. Those “people imvolved in mass communication” readily assume that there is a lot to convey in accordance with the constitution’s mission statement: In their own way, they take note of the conflicts between the people and the leadership on a daily basis, for example, when the latter promotes the growth of national wealth in the course of their government affairs and the demands of politics and capital make it difficult for the latter to survive from onth to month on tightly calculated wages and scarce social benefits. In the – in substance – hostile antagonisms of social and economic interests in the main and side arenas of society and in its force-backed political supervision by democratic governments, however, the nation’s press officers do not want to discover anything other than an ongoing, major communication problem, which it is the important and beautiful task of their profession to solve again and again. They regard the assertion of irreconcilable class antagonisms to be a false, harmful and historically outdated radical exaggeration and, on the other hand, hold the opinion that in democracies it is possible to basically reach agreement on everything, if necessary by electing a new government. The prerequisite for turning conflicting interests into an always critical but prosperous cooperation between the people and the leadership, however, is that the people are informed in the best possible way about their government’s plans and the associated national tribulations. That’s why the people in this profession are so important. They present the elected leadership team, which has thus been freed to make policies, as agents who are somehow permanently bound to instructions from the electorate, who are in any case owed accountability and clarification on equal terms by their political masters; they thus turn the relationship of rule between the state power and its vote-entitled subjects upside down in the cheapest way possible: Because the heads of democratic nations, who are accustomed to giving orders, are regularly visited or summoned by their media for information purposes about their view of things in order to be harshly but fairly questioned – what now, Mrs. Merkel?! – they are already supposed to be in the service of the audience. This is this small but subtle confusion on which the journalistic profession bases its reputation and its self-consciousness as a critical authority that constantly monitors the performance of this service and keeps its clientele informed about it. On the basis of this successful middle man role, they expand on the idealism with which journalists are continually striving to capture their readers, listeners and viewers for: According to this, the concerns of the leadership may hope for understanding, if perhaps not immediate agreement, from those informed about them, if they strive to establish a basis for dialogue with the population, represented by the free media, by complying with their duties to inform. And so the benevolent promise is made to the world that the government, if it just honestly explains what the case is and what is planned, can at any rate count on a responsible judgment by the well-informed citizens. If it fails to do so, then it obviously does not trust their ability to understand, and proves that it deserves mistrust and probably has good reason not to expect understanding.

Democratic governments don’t like being accused of not doing their information and communication duties: that’s why they work tenaciously in relation to their peoples and in conjunction with all media on the ideological basis of a fundamental common ground, despite all the obvious contrariety, which, however, is supposed to apply only in individual questions of fact that just need to be discussed: It is the responsibility of the public sphere, and this is what it exists for, to keep the people constantly informed about the nation’s needs via the press, internet and television, to familiarize them with the deliberations of their leaders and to bully them day and night with the message that the worries of the people and those of the society are basically the same anyway – a mendacious equation that politicians, by virtue of their power to govern, admittedly make true every day: It turns the problems of state power into those of the people who are held responsible for solving them, when they are supposed to master crises by cutting their entitlements or work tirelessly to help balance the budget, while a war in the Hindu Kush is one of the costs of their freedom.

Conversely, and for the same reason, the media is also continually involved in transmitting messages that it learns by listening in on the people; it tirelessly articulates the concerns and hardships of taxpayers and consumers, single parents, rail passengers and victims of abuse, so that they are heard to be problems that can’t be ignored, that have to be publicly debated and finally somehow taken into account according to the conscientious discretion of the society’s top level managers. Audience surveys, interviews with readers or – in the case of the Bild – op-eds by readers give an unbeatable authenticity to the reporting. The audience can see itself in it and experience what it would do in the government’s place if it had something to say: media-staged statements addressed to the politicians, which can perhaps even give political influence to the public institution that knows how to report from the real life of the people in such an unadulterated way in millions of copies. This daily flow of messages of all kinds, which feeds on politics, culture, economics and the human miscellany and brings about the communicative exchange between above and below, serves the government’s need for an understanding of its actions, just as it serves the needs of the people whose leaders have to respect their efforts coping with their hardships – and in any case the needs of the media as a critical and self-responsible part of this liberal rule.

Where the public information system, with all critical distance and in full self-awareness of its systemic importance, aims to present the rule as a tireless contractor of the electorate, where transparency in government activity and information about the state of the nation are regarded as a sufficient precondition for people to make the success of their leaders their concern and critically complain about its absence, the professional informants of the media world are active as crucial co-producers of civic understanding. This is produced and cultivated in all variants of the journalistic profession, and it is always inherent in the task of the joint responsibility of leaders and led for the fortunes of the society.


In this occupation, information is not simply the publication of facts. From the outset, the look at the world of newsworthy facts is done in the light of a responsibility for the thing that one is informed about, so that the transmission of interpretations and partisan explanations works without abandoning the mode of coverage: Newspaper readers are so often told about how innocent harsh winters manage to drive up seasonal unemployment figures and sometimes even oil prices to the point that every last one is so familiar with this fact that it can be thought without any disquieting ideas about the calculations of the downsizing companies which also take the weather into account as a business condition. German regional banks experience one financial disaster after another, which shows that the reporting could have imagined a happier fate for the national finance capital, which actually has a right and a duty to succeed. In the wider world, the rise in food prices causes even more hunger, as if it were not due to the fact that under the global regime of property nobody without money becomes full; the Chinese are running out of rare earths which are so important to us and therefore also belong to us; the until recently friendly governments of North African torture states become – rarely does western diplomacy reconsider its support in the wake of destabilization by all sorts of popular uprisings – regimes, reliable presidents become autocrats and then dictators at breathtaking speed; and the media shares with their users the thoughts of correspondents, Orientalists and politicians on how to help the troubled nations become democracies that will be even more stable than their old terror systems. Statements by social, economic and foreign ministers, who have to take care of all this ex officio, are reproduced in pictures and sounds, and in interviews they are given the opportunity to discuss hunger and misery, speculation, torture and upheavals as objects of their responsibility, which they, in dealing with the world as shown by the latest news, observe on behalf of all of us. If they do so to the satisfaction of an attentive public and seem credible in dealing with the major and minor disasters, then the deficient world, as it confronts us through the public reporting system, is fine, at least in so far as its problems are in good hands.

Obviously, the stream of news that the protagonists of information freedom are constantly generating has a kind of methodological accompanying text of its own which is so self-evident to them that they do not have to be aware of it: The public is informed from a serious standpoint of national interest and responsibility from which the hardships and craziness of a capitalistically managed and imperialistically ordered world simply appear as the factual news situation. The objects of political problems and responsibilities which are to be worked on by the relevant policy-makers are the continuous results of this. As clear as this message may be from the selected and prepared information, commenting on the right understanding and correct classification of the news pages is by no means superfluous: The urge for a partisan interpretation of the state of the nation is so great that – and the comment pages of the newspapers bear witness to this – in the view of the editors, freedom of opinion should have its very own appearance there, as an explicit commitment to the standpoint of concern and responsibility for the polity, neatly separated from the responsible reporting of facts, facts, facts ...

In this way, journalists perform their legally protected mediation service between the rule and its people who it refers to as its basis and its means: By attending on critically observed politicians, by addressing their clients with the concerns of those in government and by providing them with partisan information about the world, without needing any partisan-political intention for this professional practice. They cultivate, with approval and dissent toward current policies, the standpoint of civic engagement and diligently play a part in it as a resolutely democratic intelligence service, ideally repealing the conflict between the government and the governed, making sure the informed citizen is devoted to the hardships of the authorities, strengthening the connection and cohesion between the executive committee of the society and its ordinary members to such an extent that successful public relations activities make the character of rule disappear from democratic governance.

Investigative journalism of the old kind – the community-building benefits of scandals

The ruthless whistleblowers at WikiLeaks don’t want to know about the systemic relevance of the public information system to democracy. They are of the opinion that the essence of state governance takes place in secret, on the assumption that unalloyed information about it would lead not to mediation between the government and the people, but to their division, which is why the public is always only dealing with lying sham versions of reality from the government.

The idea that too much secrecy could be indicative of democratically imperfect governance has never been alien to the representatives of traditional media. They believe that the division between the state and its citizens is to be avoided through responsible information about the way things stand, for which the citizens should feel jointly responsible. These things are therefore also called public affairs, or res publica among the educated classes, as a reference to the historical venerability of the ideal of unity of people and leadership by means of an open and public discourse with well-informed citizens. That this is the indispensable basis for generating understanding toward necessary government measures and understanding between society and the state about the path of the nation is a view that had consequently earned political secretiveness a bad press long before the age of the internet. Because politicians like to have their announcements, views and language rules communicated by the free media, but on the other hand have an extensive need for secrecy for a wide variety of political, private or criminal reasons, the enlightened struggle against cover-ups and lies has spawned its own subspecies of journalism: Investigative journalism, which proudly looks back on a glorious past and numerous uncovered scandals of all orders of magnitude. On the one hand, it arms itself with the common ethos of the journalistic professions, which sees the top levels of state and society as bearers of responsibility whose distinguished task is to monitor their correct management. The noble end justifies the ignoble means. That’s why hard-nosed newsmen and women are very familiar with the rotten logic of suspicion and its investigative follow-through. In principle, in the political business and in the higher echelons of the economy, everyone has skeletons in their closet, which is why it is only a matter of catching someone in a mistake that makes the proof and high-profile denunciation possible. Journalists know how to neatly separate the omnipresence of all kinds of wickedness for achieving material or political advantages, the conflicts of political and business competition which are also smoothed out with discreet payments as human misdeeds from the political or economic system which they must rather constantly protect against the misdeeds of individuals who threaten it with their secret machinations. Day in and day out, the great Bob Woodwards and minor Hans Leyendeckers pursue suspicions of clandestine violations of the common interest in terms of reprehensible special interests, and when a scandal is successfully uncovered, success and journalistic achievement are doubly rewarded: In factual terms, untidy circumstances are cleared up, a deception of the public is ended, perhaps a bribery affair is uncovered, and prosecutors and courts can proceed to restore lawful official conduct. From an idealistic point of view, a nice scandal, the juicier the better, is a contribution to the politico-moral training of the community. The citizen’s sense of responsibility is tickled awake, the desire for republican hygiene is served with indignation about intrigues, and in general the valid trasfiguration of the politicians into responsible contractors of social utility and decency is affirmed. In the scandalization of an uncovered grievance, the exposers, with their tours of suspicion and denunciation, rise to the position of highly moral general representatives of the common good, giving their audience the opportunity to subscribe to this viewpoint and thus to make the commonwealth entirely their own cause in worthy ethical paroxsyms. The importance of general actual information and political transparency is proven anew with every scandal – they prevent behavior that is harmful to the common good, ensure clean conditions and thus acceptance of democratic politics in civic circles. Once a concealed act has become public, the process of dealing with the scandal can then begin, which usually soon ensures that the facts of the case gradually lose their scandalous character. In general, the lesson is that there is hardly any outrage or imposition in politics or business that can’t be debated in public – is five euros more for welfare recipients correct? Or would it be better at eight? the calculation mode must be disclosed! – if only its presentation is made sufficiently transparent, i.e. it is given the appearance of a comprehensible factual justification, and nothing is concealed, but in the public democratic discourse every critical con is weighed against a pro worth considering. Thus, in the end, every uncovered secrecy ends up in the fact that the scandalous thing about it ultimately consists in the deception of the public, in the breach of the relationship of trust between above and below. So anyone who shies away from the public is rightly exposed to the suspicion of dishonest schemes and the investigative efforts of pertinent journalists, since he refuses to enter into the understanding, power-free mediation connection with the citizens of civil society and is, with his striving for secret power-giving information, is then – what else! – probably out for power, which we all by no means put up with.

The heroes of the fourth estate and their self-consciousness

Ensuring public awareness is the profession of reporters, commentators and correspondents of all kinds. Their ability to work freely and without impediments gives them a simple and unmistakable means of distinguishing between good and bad governance, between freedom and domination. The fact that in exercising their profession they go through the world as personified dipsticks for the adequately democratic substance of a society has not been without consequences for the self-consciousness of the profession: A journalist doesn’t need to know much about the world, the interests at work in it and the determinations of all the conditions he finds interesting or fascinating because he can already distinguish good from evil in it pretty much by how he himself is treated by the responsible authorities. He demands access to every secret as a matter of course, plus the inviolability of his professional personality, and does not know many greater crimes than the obstructiin of free reporting and assaults on himself and his colleagues. After all, they represent at home and around the world the ethos of free societies made transparent by unfettered information, and claim a kind of secular sanctity in return. They see themselves as champions of a human right to information whose contribution to the success of democracy as the best of all worlds and to the destruction of all deviant models they want to see honored: Quite apart from what else is at stake in more or less free states and societies, from the interests that produce poverty and powerlessness as well as wealth and power, they see participation in the social communication environment to be an abstract but indispensable means of sustenance for the individual and the community. People are integrated into their political environment only when they are informed – and this should not be confused with the quite superfluous comprehension of what is being communicated – about whatever democratic public relations work considers newsworthy, and where this is lacking, they are excluded, cut off from their life context. That’s why journalists, by continually providing the members of society with their responsibly manipulated facts – about whatever – see themselves as the mediators between man and his circumstances, which they consider to be a value in itself. Those who obstruct this process – see above – do not want to face people at eye level, have authoritarian ambitions and detract from the society’s freedom: In democracies, as goes the affirmative message of this critical profession, sometimes unpleasant things happen, but journalists as the personification of the free public sphere bring everything to light and thus heal all damages, while dictatorships lack precisely this healing process. Absence of a public sphere thus harms not only the people, but also the stability of the polity. That’s why journalists are, even if some governments do not realize it, actually the custodians of the rightly understood interests of the rulers which, if well governed – see above – are also those of the people. In this way, they guarantee that the authorities have no chance at all of governing badly if they only face up to the journalistically mediated public debate without any secrecy.

The virtual community and the freedom of communities

A large part of capitalistically civilized humanity has now, on the basis of the technical opportunities offered by the internet, taken the information system, which journalists so commendably meddle with, into their own hands. Many users of the worldwide web see their need for all-round, round-the-clock information satisfied by its availability via powerful online connections and only consume newspapers, radio and television – if at all – as a supplement to their digital news sources. In any case, they no longer necessarily need the old media for the delivery of news, which is why these have now, without exception, supplemented their previous forms of appearance with an internet presence with which they offer their old services of providing interpretative information about the course of the world and awakening and cultivating civic understanding with newer technology.

In the meantime, however, a minority of several hundred million people worldwide has also radically personalized their need for mediation with the society, i.e., adapted it to their own needs and thereby disconnected from professional journalistic services. This is logical insofar as many of them are disinterested in or even reject the civic-constructive purposes of the journalistic information system because they do not feel that it serves them well enough in their efforts to make themselves at home in the conditions imposed on them by the state and capitalist competition. As members of their respective communities and active friends of a comprehensive communication system in which they want to appear with what is important to them, they simply take care of the creation of their virtual social connection themselves: they no longer want to be simply recipients of information, passive recipients of delivered news, and do not want to wait to have their say at some point. Rather, the technology of the internet gives them the opportunity to easily establish themselves as interactive sources of news that they, together with others, find really interesting. So they develop an extensive internal traffic within internet-based communities that create the content of their news system themselves. In millions of discussion forums, internet users debate the quality of consumer goods, inform each other about computer problems, cheap vacation spots, and rate the latest movies or the behavior of celebrities. As bloggers, they comment on the world and have their comments commented on, and network their diverse and disparate expertise into a wiki encyclopedia which, because so many have contributed to it and everyone is allowed to and everyone can correct everyone else, they consider to be the appropriate and optimal source of modern knowledge about the world. Working out the lexical truth from the discourse of the users is what they consider to be the realization of the ideal of free information, which is immune to the dogmatism of anonymous experts thanks to the possibility of correction at any time. The many views no longer permits a lack of transparency, at least as far as it can be clarified via the internet, which the phony doctor in the Ministry of Defense had to find out painfully after the spontaneous founding of the debunking site GuttenPlag Wiki: none of his political dirty tricks were ever recounted to him as thoroughly as the forged pages of his dissertation.

The problem, which political and other journalists like to handle professionally, of managing the mediation between the members of the community and its powerful leadership in such a way that differences and antagonisms between them dissolve into a critical-understanding togetherness, of course doesn’t exist in the friends circles of the internet. The interactive communication relationship itself and the topics of discussion raised there without any commitment make up the entire content of these communities, in which anyone can weigh in as he likes and needs no more than a website or a profile to practice equal membership, to be heard by whomever and to acquire countless friends on Facebook or other social networks. The organizing companies, which make a lot of money on advertising and the data of their users, have given the members of their networks a sense of community that is only imagined, but all the freer for it: the democratic public sphere’s ethos of creating out of conflicts a community based on insight and free will by means of an all-around communication connection is known to them only as the reality of their fictitious internet life. The internet provides the guarantee of a community free of contradictions in which rule is really not an issue, and thus provides a great deal of opportunity for the small shift in some users’ consciousness that the virtual community they themselves so freely cultivate is their actual living environment and purpose, and of a thoroughly higher rank than the coercive state relationships to which they also belong.

On the one hand, and serious feature articles complain about this, this sort of modern escapism is somehow suspect; and the vulgarity of this new freedom, which allows people to contribute to a community of their own choosing with the most florid nonsense and the most banal stuff for a message, posted on the internet entirely autonomously, may not appeal to them either. On the other hand, the social networks represent for them the state of the public information ideal with the new means of technology in a highly authentic way: if the state of mind of whole sections of the population is digitally occupied to this extent, it is important and interesting again as an object of public observation and as a source of authentic information, especially when the internet community has an impact in real life as a political force beyond the virtual relationship economy: If the state unexpectedly encounters them in the world of freely floating data, for example in the form of legal regulations that seek to control the use of network technology and the freedom of access to undesirable content, this community is also willing to become defiant at times. Their representatives apply the standards of freedom they are used to in their fictional communities to real life and the legal power of real life politics that prevails there, and complain about encroachments on their essential rights that they do not even want to tolerate for the protection of innocent children from pornographers. And some of them set up a small Pirate Party that is supposed to counter this threat as an electoral association and part of the system that threatens their beautiful rule-free internet world.

On the occasion of the unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, where the internet and social networks are used for organizing demonstrations, there are compliments: Western observers approvingly credit the Facebook youth of these countries with a militant, pro-democracy idealism that is said to have grown out of the liberal customs of these communities. That’s true in some cases. In these countries, the subversive internet generation has yet to encounter their new, in whatever way democratized rulers and their demands on public discourse which so far, as far as can be seen, have replaced a common political and social interest through their networking.

The virtual community as an anti-government standard for good government – Conspiracy as government action

The organizers of the investigative site WikiLeaks have decisively turned around the praxis of the free flow of information in the worldwide social networks, the true freedom that is considered the standard there, and repurposed the net into a political weapon. In comparing these self-determined sender-receiver communities of the www with the real world, they have discovered a need for political action that is very one-directional and radically critical of rule: complete freedom of information and a comprehensive informing of society is far from having been realized. If WikiLeaks, as a representative of the global internet community, takes its standard from the demand that every kind of information is available to everyone at all times, then there can be no question of a democratic mediation of people and leadership that is free of domination in the real existing relationship between civil societies and their governments, given the latter’s notorious secretiveness. This is something that urgently needs to be repaired, and WikiLeaks is the spearhead of this need for liberal reform.

The creators of WikiLeaks declare their solidarity with the ethos of the bourgeois public sphere; on the other hand, they proclaim the need to use the means of modern information technology for a decisive further development of the critical relationship to official politics which no longer has a regard for the previous conventions of journalistic illumination. Where the bourgeois media constantly informs and comments on the shared responsibilities of citizens and authorities, the founders of WikiLeaks basically pursue their idea of a public sphere that is fully informed and informing, which they view as the successful form taken by a community free of domination: They see themselves in a front with their colleagues from traditional media when they opt for “open government” without secrets from the citizens as “the most effective method to promote good government” (WikiLeaks website). And with the old warhorses of investigative journalism, they believe they agree in every respect on the multiple healing powers of uncovered scandals: “Revealing facts ... empower citizens to bring feared and corrupt governments and corporations to justice.” The schemes of those who fear exposure will be the same and they will also be “forced to consider the ethical implications of their actions”! Who, the Assanges ask themselves in their inimitably practical Anglo-Saxon manner, would still bother to act “unjustly” in secret, if it would soon come out anyway and it would therefore be much “easier” to act “justly” right away? [1] In general, “transparency would be improved, and this transparency creates a better society for everyone” in the form of “stronger democracies.” For this we need a “healthy journalistic media” and: “We are part of this media.” (ibid.)

But what the democratic media are currently able to do in terms of providing information and enlightening citizens, the creators of WikiLeaks do not consider to be desirable at all, but rather an extremely defective state of affairs which can only be remedied by a new and more radical approach in the field of information acquisition, given the continuing resistance of governmental sources of information. As well known, the problem is: we simply don’t know enough about what they are doing up there! And they do not voluntarily hand over information to a sufficient extent.

What politicians communicate, what they do year in and year out in the wake of their announcements, how they justify their intentions and interpret their successes and tribulations, how they place facts with the full impact of their public power of interpretion into contexts that suit them in such a way that they are barely recognizable anymore: All their deeds, the steady stream of their public announcements, the ceaseless drumfire of their agitation, is to the people of WikiLeaks nothing more than either uninteresting or untrue, apparently outside of the secrets that “feared governments and corporations” guard from the public and therefore urgently need to be revealed by WikiLeaks. They focus their attention on what they consider scandalous and what is therefore really important to them: precisely the secrecy in the actions of governments and corporations, the knowledge of which a truly free and completely informed society is unquestionably entitled to.

Traditional newspaper and radio editorial offices, as advocates of the free information system, sometimes also cultivate a certain understanding for the discretionary needs, sometimes even the lies, of politicians and policy-makers, and decide to weigh responsibly [2] between the public’s information demands and possibly even higher-ranking social interests on a case-by-case basis about sensitive disclosures. The publishing radicalism of WikiLeaks and Co. comes from a different world: Because knowledge about basically everything is the principle of their virtual world and thus the all-important criterion of a free, communicatively mediated, global community, and because in their point of view the self-confidence of IT specialists who can't be fooled by anybody is combined with the journalistic claim to unreserved information, which they are entitled to as “part of the media” anyway, they imperiously demand that the rest of the analog world must also comply with these principles. Closer inspection has shown that in this crucial question, organizations of force that act in the real world, such as governments, often function in an “authoritarian” manner, quite differently from the free-wheeling chatter of an internet community, and that the suppression of information is not an occasional but a constant and permanent component of ordinary government practice that is simply decided according to expediency. If one then sorts the world according to the abstract criterion of free and unfree, namely according to whether and where access to any information is open to everyone, then the distinction between “open governments” and “authoritarian rulers,” between good and evil, is quite simple.

In a crystal clear analysis, the WikiLeaks inspectors share with the readers the result of their observations, namely that “we (see) conspiratorial collusion among the political elite the main planning method for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening authoritarian rule. Authoritarian powers keep their plans hidden. This is enough to define them as conspiratorial.” (Conspiracy as government action, J. Assange, The WikiLeaks Manifesto, 2006) Authoritarian rule is characterized by its conspiratorial behavior, which serves the purpose of its own continued existence in the form of further conspiracies. With the acerbic conclusion that what wrongdoers conceal can only be wrongdoing, the fronts are sufficiently clarified. The vicious circle of conspiracy and authoritarian rule can only be perceived as an attack on a highly developed, internet-based community – technically and in terms of net morality the form of existence of a kind of free world society – which has its civilizational common denominator in a globalized being in the know about everything. Against the most important bastion of bad government, conspiratorial secrecy, the freedom-building network of global communication fortunately already has a resounding means at its disposal: This very network itself, the internet, offers the powerful lever and the historic opportunity to put an end to the relevant abuses once and for all. The WikiLeaks people have “thought further ahead than those before us” and have “recognized technological changes” that “reduce the risk of transmitting important information” (WL Manifesto, website, ibid.). Since then they have been hitting the mark and publishing for all it’s worth every bit of material from the realms of politics, military and business that is thrown, for whatever reasons, into their cryptographically impregnated internet mailbox, neatly anonymized in terms of data technology. They pride themselves on the seriousness with which they research their material and on the fact that their acts of publication are not morally unprincipled, but rather “principled” in the best sense, so that at least nobody who is innocent will be endangered, and also on the fact that their material is selected by globally recognized newspapers of the world for the purpose of verification and wider distribution.


In their struggle against the worldwide conspiracy of authoritarian rulers and for good governance, they have to take what they get more or less by chance, but this doesn’t harm their self-imposed mission at all. There is nevertheless something comparable inherent in the whole jumble of leaked material that WikiLeaks proudly refers to on its website, even if one no more than glances at reports about Guantanamo, the Iraq war, Kenyans contaminated by toxic waste, presumably highly exciting documents about negotiations between German government agencies and highway toll collection companies or about the future of private health insurance in Germany as well as those about international tax evasion techniques in Switzerland and England: It’s all secret material! So these are documents about conspiracies by authoritarian governments and corporations against the citizens’ right to see them published, which WikiLeaks is doing on their behalf. It is about publishing revealing facts, otherwise they would not have been kept secret, so they had to be published just because of their secrecy. The Assange people are showing off with a colorful bouquet of the best conspiracies from all over the world. They simply claim that their revelations about pharmaceutical companies, which surprisingly do not like to do research on malaria due to lack of return on investment, will soon defeat this disease: [3] “The antidote is good government, born of strong media” (WikiLeaks website, ibid.); or their secret material about the Afghanistan war will “not only change our view on this war, but on all modern wars” [4] (Spiegel online, 7.26.2010). In doing so, they transform the whole world and its more or less impressive messes into nothing but commensurable cases of socially damaging conspiracies and the unbelievably salutary effects of a pepped up Wiki-like public sphere.

That the unmasking effect of the facts documented by them and all the whistle blowers before them has always been rather limited, given that it is not facts that take effect in people’s minds, but rather the conclusions one draws from them, or the interpretations of trustworthy authorities that make sense to one in all partisanship: one doesn’t need to seek them out. They insist that transparency must first destroy the means of rule in modern times, the suppression of information, and break through the shielding of rule from the powerful community of inquisitive and information-entitled citizens.

Even the objection that the elimination of authoritarian rule requires political action in the real world, by people who draw practical consequences from the publicly known skullduggery of the leading elites, is also settled in advance by the program of curing the society – including malaria sufferers – through strong media: They and the public sphere that they create are the very special revolutionary subject of the WikiLeaks militants who will expose every conspiracy and knock out every bad governance once people know everything that has been kept from them until now. “Publishing” is what “creates a better society for all people” (WikiLeaks website), and that’s what they are all about, in explicit agreement with the jurisprudence of the US Supreme Court which, like them – “We agree!” – has also upheld the free press against government machinations on many occasions.

So, on the one hand, the creators of WikiLeaks adhere to the ethos of the bourgeois public sphere in their efforts to perfect democratic publicity with the means of modern internet communication: Free media make the citizen into the perfect critical supervisory authority of his government, which, knowing this, becomes all by itself an ethically reflective, open governing body in the service of a better society that responsibly serves all people fairly. In the struggle for the realization of these principles by means of the unlawful disclosure of government secrets, the sabotage of official policy and the destruction of its good reputation with the citizens and with other states, and by means of a technology that ruthlessly cracks into legally protected areas and at the same time is supposed to remove the anonymous perpetrators from the grasp of state power, the difference to the old media becomes apparent: The people of WikiLeaks want to decide solely according to their own standards what they consider to be justifiable in the means of fighting authoritarian, conspiratorial governments, gained from their critical idealism of a worldwide free, internet-based communication community which they feel committed to and which they regard as a model and guarantor of a community free of domination. In the anti-conspiratorial rage to make people aware, they do not want to accept the standpoint of an occassionally deferential balancing of responsibility toward the real state community, which the old media of the bourgeois public sphere practiced, and earns those who so overbearingly embrace this media many distancing statements from their side. On the part of the governments concerned, the WikiLeaks people are met with deep-seated hostility anyway. Because they don’t like it at all when a rabble band of hackers disrupts their control over the management of disclosure and secrecy in the name of an invented global internet community which is supposed to be more important from a moral point of view than compliance with the law and national cohesion.

The empire strikes back

Governments sometimes have a problem with the endless professional curiosity of their media representatives, whose constitutional freedoms they have to get along with as long as modern democracy is supposed to exist. And in their ongoing news production and sensationalism, they can’t discover anything of the bourgeois public sphere’s community-building function anyway, but instead a lot of reporting and opinion-making that all too often defines political responsibility and its successful execution by the government quite differently than they do themselves. The pluralism of the media world, however, gives criticized government agencies plenty of opportunity to circulate their news, their view of things and their interpretations of events; after all, their actions and statements are the main material of political reporting. They make extensive use of this, since the good reputation of the governing parties and, in the end, perhaps their re-election depend on it. And where it is particularly important for them to control the news, for example when it is a matter of public acceptance of a war and the international implementation of the relevant image of the enemy, they stage their own publicity, as the example of the government-organized journalistic support of the last Iraq war by embedded journalists with all-round military supervision shows.

The public struggle for the correct view of things and the outcome of the pluralistic mediation process of information and opinions, which has to be carried out anew for every topic, is disrupted by WikiLeaks publications, such as those about hitherto non-public war events in Iraq or Afghanistan, news or pictures about U.S. massacres there, but also about non-public news from the diplomatic sphere: The publication of unofficial, disrespectful remarks and judgments about, of all things, figures in international political intercourse who are otherwise, as persons, official addressees of diplomatic expressions of respect between nations is annoying, to say the least, and has prompted U.S. diplomacy to make nice clarifications about the content, for example that the cable dispatches this time were in fact only dispatches, and by no means cables.

The U.S.A., as the main target of the indiscretions, simply takes it seriously that WikiLeaks explicitly wants to sabotage the secrets of the affected states: For such hostile efforts, it has its criminal law provisions in the area of high treason, which is, not just in American law, a crime against state security to be severely punished. It considers Assange & Co’s appeal to the ethos of global data freedom to be nothing more than a justification for anti-American incitement and the sphere of its enemies’ actions, a cyberanarchist scandal so far apparently still beyond the reach of the state. The U.S. in particular locks up WikiLeaks whistleblowers like terrorists and puts the founder of the tell-all venture on its hit list. They try to get hold of him by all means, even, as the person concerned suspects, with the help of conspiratorial Swedes. You can see: A democracy can’t be so strong that it wouldn’t react unkindly to the critical struggle led by WikiLeaks to create strong democracies.

[1] “If acting in a just manner is easier than acting in an unjust manner, most actions will be just.” (WikiLeaks-Website)

[2] “Le Monde believes that it is its duty to take note of these documents, make a journalistic analysis of them, and make them available to its readers. Being informed, however, does not prohibit acting responsibly. Transparency and sensitivity are not incompatible – and that is undoubtedly what distinguishes us from WikiLeaks' basic strategy.” (Le Monde, 11/30/2010, on the publication of the cables leaks)

[3] So, in any case, in Kenya, where WikiLeaks believes the report influenced the election and led to constitutional changes, which in turn will contribute to a more open government and, WikiLeaks believes, perhaps in the long run, a reduction in malaria victims in Kenya... (as read on the WikiLeaks website)

[4] So a little bit, anyway: Spiegel: “Aren't you expecting a bit much there?” Assange: “There is a general feeling that it would be better to end the war. These files alone won’t do that, but they will influence political will.”