Just when we started to forget about Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange, the activist organization is back in the news. This time it isn’t the covert tactics of the National Security Agency, Guantanamo prisoners or the touchy nature of the federal government’s overseas relations that Wikileaks is fingering, but the Australian government.
On Tuesday Wikileaks released information about a gag order that prevented Australia’s media from informing the public about investigations into a multi-national graft case. In addition to publishing the information on its website, Wikileaks also released notice of the gag order to the Guardian in the U.K.
According to the Guardian, the Supreme Court of Victoria said it placed the ban “to prevent damage to Australia’s international relations.” What has critics particularly concerned, however, is the nature of the gag order, which prevents Australian media from even acknowledging that there is a ban in place.
“Who is brokering our deals, and how are we brokering them as a nation? Corruption investigations and secret gag orders for ‘national security’ reasons are strange bedfellows,” asserts Wikileaks.
According to its website, the gag order relates to the “secret 19 June 2014 indictment of seven senior executives from subsidiaries of Australia’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA).” Those indictments and the ongoing investigations are linked to a scandal that surfaced in 2012 concerning alleged payments between RBA staff and government officials in Asia.
Wikileaks: Gag order ‘threatening every Australian’
But it isn’t the discussion of RBA’s alleged scandal that is kicking up the controversy. That’s old news. The concern, says Wikileaks, is that the gag order prevents the public from knowing the depth of the investigations into the banking scandal, which involves Australia’s largest bank and now has the potential to engulf high-ranking officials from Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
“With this order, the worst in living memory, the Australian government is not just gagging the Australian press, it is blindfolding the Australian public … Foreign Minister Julie Bishop must explain why she is threatening every Australian with imprisonment in an attempt to cover up an embarrassing corruption scandal involving the Australian government,” says the Wikileaks site.
Indonesia’s president demands statement from Australia
Not surprisingly, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who learned of the ban from the leaked document, has demanded an explanation from Australia. He has also called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s office to “issue a statement that both [former Indonesia President] Megawati [Sukarnoputri] and my names are unstained, and so they do not defame other Indonesian officials. We want to hear directly from Australia,” said Yudhoyono. So far, no such statement has been released by Australia.
The leak not only raises questions about the ethics of public information bans, but has also forced the Australian government to look at the implications of such steps when international relations are at the center of a multi-national investigation. Interestingly, little consideration seems to have been given to the far greater damage that could occur if the ban was leaked to the press.
Information bans not unusual
But no matter what Assange and his team wish to imply, this isn’t just a story about a government cover-up or the ramped-up use of such information bans by the courts in Victoria (which included 644 such instances in 2011 by the Victoria courts), but also about the value that is gained by creating such controversies.
Information bans are not really such an unusual tactic in courts, even in Western countries. In the U.K., such “double bans” have their own legal name: superinjunctions. The U.S. has used this approach as well, to the ire and dismay of librarians who found themselves unable to discuss investigations launched under the sweeping powers of the Patriot Act after 9/11.
And government bans on information during ongoing investigations are common in many countries, including the U.S., Canada and the U.K. They afford investigators the ability to complete investigations without the constant publication of sensitive information that is still being investigated. Of course, they also help limit embarrassment to the government when initial allegations prove to later be wrong or inconclusive.
But releasing information about a gag order of this breadth and controversy is a valuable move when it comes to underscoring the limited rights of otherwise well-informed voters. Its impact on public sentiment is instantaneous and creates plenty of chatter when it comes to the rights of citizens and the assumed limitations of governments.
Wikileaks traffic is up
And it’s good for Wikileaks. According to analytics firm Alexa, Wikileaks readership was in freefall until last month when it released its latest leak. Since then, its ranking has climbed almost 2,000 points.
The question that needs to be asked at this point is what its proponents really want to see when it comes to ensuring there is a stable environment for international commerce. Will leaking documents that are designed to offer law enforcement agencies the ability to investigate high-ranking officials diplomatically, thoroughly and safely really ensure a better, more transparent economy? And will such ill-timed releases about international scandals that impact small businesses as well as large governments really make it a safer world? Or are there other, less damaging ways to make their point and change laws?
The answer to that question has yet to be seen. For now, getting to the bottom of just who benefited from Australia’s worst banking scandal may now take a lot more time as well as effort to resolve.
Image credit: Wikileaks