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Me, Assange, and the Arab Revolutions

September 8, 2012

Did Julian Assange and Wikileaks inspire the Tunisian revolution and thus contribute to the Arab Spring? I don’t know, and I’m not sure my work speaks to this question. Picture by Age of Chaos. Used under Creative Commons license.

I stumbled–literally–on an on-line paper that cites me to make an argument that I’m not sure my work supports.

The paper is entitled “What has WikiLeaks done for the benefit of the Society as to call it ‘Journalism’?” by C.S.H.N Murthy and Reetamoni Das, and it was published  in an on-line journal called Cyborg Subjects: Discourses on Digital Culture.

The basic argument stems from an interview that Assange gave to the Hindu newspaper in which he is said to have claimed

  1. that wikileaks is a new form of digital journalism and
  2. wikileaks started the revolutions in North Africa

Murthy and Das assume that these two statements are linked. Journalism is understood as a public good, and initiating the revolution in North Africa is the proof that Wikileaks has contributed to the global public good and can therefore be justified with the claim of being journalism.

If, on the other hand, Wikileaks can be shown to have not started the Arab revolutions or some comparable benefit to human history, it does not deserve the dignity of being labeled “journalism” and, in fact, is probably just troublemaking.

Two of my works, Connected In Cairo and an on-line paper on “Egypt’s Experimental Moment” are marshaled to prove that Assange and Wikileaks did not in fact start the uprisings in the Middle East.

[Two quick asides:

First, I have a tremendous admiration for Assange in general. Far too much of what purports to be democracy is conducted in secrecy, and Assange’s efforts to force transparency by making it clear to the powers that be both in the public and private sectors that their secrets may be exposed at any moment is pretty damn cool.

At the same time, people like Assange who put principles ahead of people, allow for no attention to context, and follow principle blindly can also be quite dangerous, and he was. It was obvious to me that Wikileaks would eventually be silenced by the Man, and it has been.

Second, Murthy and Das’s assumption that journalism is defined by its contribution to the public good is a classically Indian notion that dominated news media practices in the subcontinent from the independence movement into the 1990s, as I documented in my PhD dissertation. Over the past two decades, news has come to be more and more seen as a commodity.

Obviously, given the vast scope of writing from the 18th century to now, across the world, the definition of journalism is probably flexible enough to encompass Wikileaks regardless of its public benefits. But for this post, I’ll take Murthy and Das’s argument at face value.

So back to their paper.]

The chief problem I have with this paper is that it uses me to explain why Assange did not start the Egyptian revolution, and hence, by synecdoche, the Arab revolutions in general.

I am perfectly willing to be cited as evidence that we do not need Assange and Wikileaks to explain the Egyptian uprising.

But the Tunisian uprising was certainly a crucial catalyst for the Egyptian revolution, and I have read several times that the Wikileaks revelations in Tunisia played an important role in confirming public opinion about President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family and cronies as corrupt, uncaring rulers exploiting the country for their own gain. And nothing in my work speaks to that.

This is the second time I find my work cited to support positions I just don’t think it supports. It is an interesting, frustrating and dismaying experience.

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