Information That's Not So Free


"WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism," wrote WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in The Australian last year.

"Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?"

Ironically, the very founders of this so-called "scientific journalism" are making it impossible for anyone to verify their latest leaks: no one outside Fairfax is able to access WikiLeaks’ recent cables.

As part of a deal between WikiLeaks and Fairfax, WikiLeaks is to publish cables concurrently with Fairfax’s stories, and Fairfax is then bound to make the cables available on its websites, as well.

But WikiLeaks has been sloppy in getting its latest cables online — we get it, Assange is a little preoccupied, but surely someone could do it — and Fairfax is taking no responsibility for getting the documents to the public. Other publications with the same deal — The New York Times and the Guardian — managed to promptly post the cables themselves.

The latest WikiLeaks exclusivity debacle may have greater ramifications than journalists fighting over a scoop. The Indonesian media has been reluctant to dig into the latest cables that concern their government as they have no primary source to help them.

A story published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on Friday revealed secret US Embassy cables from Jakarta in which staff say Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono influenced prosecutors and judges to pressure his adversaries and to protect corrupt allies.

One such ally was Taufik Kiemas, husband of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri. Taufik had been accused of misusing funds in infrastructure projects worth billions of dollars. The cables say he used his wife’s position as head of Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI-P) to evade prosecution.

They also claim that Yudhoyono was receiving money from controversial business tycoon Tomy Winata, and that first lady Kristiani Herawati and her relatives had been trying to profit from their political position "specifically targeting financial opportunities related to state-owned enterprises".

The president has been lucky the allegations have not caused the usual backlash.

Instead, 60 protestors gathered outside the US Embassy this week, tearing up copies of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and tossing them in bins labelled "Junk News". The Indonesia Federation of National Enterprise United Workers Union is suing the papers for $1 billion, claiming that the stories have ruined the pride of Indonesia, giving the nation a reputation for corruption.

The Corruption Eradication Commission has said it will not investigate the allegations, and Fairfax reported yesterday that Indonesia Corruption Watch, the country’s leading anti-corruption NGO, has also said it will not investigate the claims because there were some factual errors in the cables.

But the truth is, no one in Indonesia knows whether there are errors or not. It has been six days since Fairfax published the stories, and Indonesian journalists are still waiting. They are reluctant to go to town on SBY on unsubstantiated information that has gone from Jakarta, to the United States, to Australia and back to Jakarta again in a summarised form in a foreign language.

There is a lot at stake here for Indonesia. If the cables are true, they could rock the foundation on which Indonesia’s democracy was so recently built. Yudhoyono is Indonesia’s first democratically elected leader, and he won the hearts of the people twice with passionate anti-corruption campaigns.

The allegations have infuriated the Indonesian government, which claims The Age did not give it ample time to comment, and the US Embassy has, with its tail between its legs, apologised and said that the cables are unsubstantiated.

Unsubstantiated or not, the allegations must be investigated. Already those made against former Vice President Jusuf Kalla have proven to be at least partially true. The cables alleged that Kalla bribed Golkar Party member to gain control of the party and contest the presidency in 2009, which he did, losing to Yudhoyono in a landslide defeat.

He admitted to spending up to three billion rupiah ($340,000) on plane tickets and hotel rooms for 3000 members.

"Almost every political party does it. It’s not a secret. I used my own money, not corruption money," he told local media, defending his actions unconvincingly.

If accusations against Kalla are true, other cables may be as well, and they must be investigated. This will only happen if the public demands it, and they will only demand it when they know exactly what was said.

Fairfax and WikiLeaks should examine the impact their exclusivity deal has abroad. It is not the first time they have held cables close to their chest.

Offering Fairfax first run of a story is fair enough, but to withhold cables beyond a broken story goes against the very spirit of WikiLeaks — the spirit of freedom of information and Assange’s so-called "scientific journalism".


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