One man has taken the world by storm. The most powerful country in the world, the United States, stands almost helpless over the issue. The (in)famous man of the moment, Julian Assange, has leaked 250,000 top secret US government cables through his website – Wikileaks – and shaken the diplomatic circle embarrassing several governments, the US in particular.
The 39-year-old Australian has even been credited to have started a cyber war. He has divided the world into two groups. One group regards him as the messiah of a new world order while the other, the US government included of course, sees the act as disrupting world peace, endangering bilateral and multilateral diplomacy and even endangering people’s lives. The episode has also spurred a global debate on the role of journalism.
In the process, Julian Assange has become a household name with the google search engine showing more than 29.2mn results to his name which is more than the combined search results of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, China Premier Wen Jiabao, Russia president Vladimir Putin and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.
Similarly, Julian Assange’s website – Wikileaks – show 275mn search results on google. The US government may frown at the astounding figure because it is more than the combined search results of US president Barack Obama with 150mn; the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, with 14mn; former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, with 26.6mn; and former US president, George W. Bush, with 19.7mn.
Assange is also currently embroiled in an unrelated issue of sexual assault allegations involving two Swedish women. His supporters see the issue as an attempt of character assassination.
Julian Assange has triggered several debates worldwide and the editor in chief of Wikileaks has asserted his work as “scientific journalism,” challenging the conventional role of journalism. His assertion has its merits in this digital world where technology is making the flow of information easier by the day and newspapers are closing shop.
A spokesperson for the International Federation of Journalists, in an interview with Aljazeera, declared that Assange is not a journalist but just a whistleblower. Some quarters have described him as an anarchist and also a terrorist. His supporters, however, see him as a hero of free speech and the torchbearer of freedom of expression.
The CNN has reported that US Attorney General Eric Holder has “authorized ‘significant’ actions related to a criminal investigation” involving WikiLeaks furthering reports that he could be charged under the US Espionage Act. This month, a US Senator introduced the Shield Act, which would amend the Espionage Act to make it illegal to publish the names of military and intelligence informants.
Against the backdrop of this global tantrum, Bhutan saw a two-day media dialogue this week where different sections of the society, including journalists, reviewed the role of the media in a new democratic setup.
The seminar received a boost when the prime minister and three other ministers showed up in the second day to participate. The prime minister asserted the importance of an independent media and assured that his government will never interfere in any way to undermine media’s independence. This gesture is welcomed by the media.
After two presentations by two international media experts on the conventional description of the media as the fourth estate, the prime minister said that his government saw the media through a slightly different lens as the “fourth branch of governance.” The intention of the prime minister was noble and he reasoned out that the media should be accountable and transparent.
He also made clear his expectations from the media saying the role of the media is akin to the role of the three branches of the government “and that is public service,” he said.
But the description of media as the “fourth branch of governance” should not be equated to the “fourth branch of the government.”
The media cannot be a branch of the government or else, its functionality as an independent institution outside the government machinery, can be questioned. Moreover, governance is not a prerogative of the media. The media can report on governance issues, can analyze it and offer different perspectives and thus offer a platform to facilitate governance, but cannot be an institution of governance.
Therefore, we understood the prime minister as transcending the description of the media as the fourth estate to mean a “responsible and accountable fourth estate” when he described it as the “fourth branch of governance.”
It is notable that this elected government has been hugely supportive of the media. However, the elected leaders have more than once asserted that the media has not reciprocated by supporting the government and also accused the media as been very “critical.” This status quo represents a healthy atmosphere. It shows that the media is doing its job of being a watchdog.
However, efforts should be made to better understand each other. Thus, it was refreshing to note the idea floated by the education minister, Lyonpo Thakur Singh Powdyel, for creating a “third space” for the government and the media to interact and bridge differences, if any. While the topic needs more debate and discussion, it may be the first step toward creating a Bhutanese model for the media which may be crucial at a time when more questions are being asked about the role of the media than ever before.
(This post first appeared as an editorial in Business Bhutan on December 25)