Does the state have to disclose everything?

This week I was asked by German Tageszeitung to give a statement redarding transparency of government and freedom of information. For those of you who read German, it is part of a longer debate which you can read online here. My quote goes like this:

Die Server von Wikileaks stehen in Schweden. Einen Grund dafür sieht der schwedische Kommunikationswissenschaftler und Blogger Christopher Kullenberg im dortigen Pressefreiheitsgesetz – dem ältesten der Welt. „Transparenz macht Institutionen öffentlich überprüfbar“, sagt Kullenberg im Streit der Woche in der sonntaz. „Mit dem ständigen Wissen im Hinterkopf, dass er für seine Handlungen zur Verantwortung gezogen werden kann, handelt der Staat auch dementsprechend.“ Auf diesem Weg könne Demokratie zu jeder Zeit praktiziert werden, sagt der schwedische Blogger.

The quotes originate in a longer article that I wrote in English. I publish it here below:

"Does the state have to disclose everything?"

Recently Julian Assange, spokesperson of the whistleblower organization Wikileaks, has made several appearances in Sweden explaining why they have chosen to place servers in a remote Scandinavian country. One reason goes back a long time in history, more precisely to 1766, and the world's first Freedom of the Press Act, which in modern versions gives a strong legal protection for sources of the press by making it illegal for authorities to even try to reveal their identity.

Moreover, the Principle of Publicity states that only with certain exceptions, all public records created by state institutions must be easily available to journalists and citizens.

However, the picture of the seemingly ultra-transparent state quickly fades in the light of recent surveillance legislation. Sweden has introduced a wiretapping law allowing the National Defense Radio Establishment (FRA) to monitor internet traffic, and with the coming implementation of the Data Retention Directive, the 250 year old laws of freedom of the press are weakened severely.

The original idea of creating a radical transparency of the state, was to prevent corruption and abuse of power. This mechanism functions i two ways. Firstly, it makes institutions reviewable by the public, and not only by other agencies within the state. Secondly, knowing that such transparency is always imminent, the state will choose to act as if it were held accountable for its actions. This way, democracy can be practised at any given moment, rather than during the elections every three to five years.

In the European Union we see diametrically opposed ways of decision-making. Only recently, it took several leaks of the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA) before the parliament finally made the proposed documents public. Documents that will impact the legislation of internet infrastructure in the member states. Without the numerous leaks of the negotiated documents, the ACTA may very well still have been kept secret, not only from the elected parliament, but more importantly, to the citizens of Europe.

A domain which always has been classified is military intelligence. It is argued that its information must be kept secret as a tactical maneuvre, for preserving strategic positions and advancing national security. This may be true on the battlefield. But equally true is that these battlefields in today's conflicts consist of the homes of civilian people, whose lives are tragically lost, in Iraq, Afganistan, Mexico, India and Sudan.

The records of wars barely ever become public to the generation affected by it. They remain classified until history already has been written, leaving people in doubt as they can not know what happened to their friends and relatives. The "Afgan War Diary", released by Wikileaks only a few weeks ago, makes the history of war, for the first time ever with such magnitude, accessible to anyone with only moments of delay.

Ironically this new situation was brought about by an American technology of the cold war - packet switched computer networks. Or to be more precise, we know it by the more familiar name of the Internet. When contemporary citizens are able to communicate freely, without needing to pass the gate-keepers of traditional media, state interventions can be scrutinized and made public instantly. When freedom of information no longer is guaranteed in law, internet activists in transnational networks guarantee it with technological means.

Making warfare public, communicating what has been kept a state secret for far too long, is a civilization process. The civilian casualties portrayed in the Afgan War Diaries, are no longer exclusively represented by official figures of a government agency in clean graphs and tables. Instead we are able to read about the cruel chaos in minute detail, thus enabling us to make the involved parties accountable for their decisions.

In every corner of the world the whistleblowers are under threat, even in the countries such as Sweden, where the tradition of freedom of speech has been very long. The accellerating surveillance of the Internet, in Europe and elsewhere, has made leaks more difficult and dangerous.

Four years ago the bittorrent file-sharing site The Pirate Bay was shut down by the Swedish police, who fell for the pressure of the Motion Picture Association of America. Only three days later the site was up and running again, rapidly doubling their user base. Whether or not the parts of Wikileaks that are hosted on a Swedish location will remain or not is yet to be seen. It is a challenge to our legislation, and a challenge to whether or not we are able to deal with the free flow of information concerning a war that even our own armed forces participate in.

There can be no state secrets, since the purpose of the state is to empower and secure its citizens. Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza argued that obeying the state is valid as long as the it fullfills these purposes. In order to evaluate whether or not these purposes are met, transparency is a necessity. Thus, we must guarantee it both in law and in practice.

With the exception of Iceland, who recently passed maybe the world's strongest laws concerning the freedom of information, the rest of Europe is heading in the wrong direction. Then it is up to the civil societies to disclose and make state secrets public.