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City Desk
6 August, 2009  
The world of WikiLeaks

Journalism by-passed as WikiLeaks lifts the lid … Its leaks played a big part in outing Turks and Caicos corruption scandal … Court forced to lift injunction in British outpost … Stephen Keim has the story

My email in-box receives frequent missives from WikiLeaks.

According to Wikipedia, WikiLeaks is ...

“a website that publishes anonymous submissions and leaks of sensitive governmental, corporate, or religious documents, while attempting to preserve the anonymity and untraceability of its contributors. Within one year of its December 2006 launch, its database had grown to more than 1.2 million documents.”

imageAmong the impressive list of internet scoops achieved by WikiLeaks was the publication on March 19, 2009 of the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s blacklist of sites to be banned under Australia’s proposed internet censorship regime.

A recent burst of information from WikiLeaks brought to my notice a Caribbean protectorate of the United Kingdom, the Turks and Caicos Islands (pic, unusual coat of arms).

The CIA World Factbook says that this overseas territory of the United Kingdom consists of two island groups, north of Haiti and south-east of the Bahamas.

The islands were part of the colony of Jamaica, but were excised when Jamaica obtained its independence in 1962.

From 1965 to 1973, when the Bahamas obtained their independence, the Governor of the Bahamas also governed the Turks and Caicos.

Since 1973, the islands have remained an overseas territory of the United Kingdom with their own resident governor.

imageThe population is estimated at just under 23,000. The governor is Gordon Wetherell (seen here with Mrs Wetherell) and the premier is Galmore Williams.

Cabinet consists of the governor, the premier, six ministers appointed by the governor, and the attorney general.

There is a House of Assembly of whom 15 are popularly elected.

Members of the house serve four year terms. The Turks and Caicos have a system of government that brings back memories of pre-1851 New South Wales.

The events which brought the island nation to the attention of WikiLeaks concerned the report of the Auld Commission of Inquiry into corruption allegations.

The report made adverse findings against a number of politicians including a former premier, a former deputy premier and a former minister.

Litigation prior to the release of the report (chiefly brought by the developers who were alleged to have received government favours from the corrupt politicians) resulted in the governor ordering the redaction of findings against and the names of a number of the principal players.

The posting of the redacted report on the internet made the old “control Z” software mistake.

Although a PDF file was used, anyone who knew the software was able to restore the redacted passages with a few keystrokes.

The effect of the orders made in the litigation meant that the local press could not report the restored details of the report.

That is where WikiLeaks stepped in.

By releasing the unredacted report on its website, WikiLeaks soon made sure that, for just about everyone in the island nation who had access to the internet, the injunctions preventing publication were ineffective.

imageIn the circumstances, the Chief Justice, Gordon Ward (pic) had no choice.

On July 18 he lifted the injunctions.

On 23 July, he published his reasons.

After citing passages from Lord Goff’s speech in Attorney General v Guardian Newspaper (No 2) [1990] 1 AC 109 at 289 (the Spycatcher case) and the warning of Eady J against courts’ attempting to play King Canute in an internet world in Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2008] EWHC 687, the Chief Justice said:

“Now, however, the information has been released and is already widely available. Confidentiality has been lost and can never be restored. I am satisfied that the point has already been reached where any prolongation of this order would serve no useful purpose in the protection of the rights of the applicants. The only real and practical effect of continuing the order would be to restrict the media from commenting on something which is clearly in the public domain here and abroad and on which, in consequence, they have every right to report.”

imageSome may think that corruption in a tiny Caribbean nation of less than 23,000 people is akin to a storm in something resembling a saucer.

Some may also think that the court’s processes should have been respected and that WikiLeaks should not have published the full report when a court order was in place.

However, it is significant that WikiLeaks managed to bring to world attention the details of a scandal that powerful people wanted suppressed as long as possible.

The role of the UK Foreign and Colonial Office and its former resident governor in allowing corruption to fester has been brought into focus.

Hard bitten news editors say that news is what some powerful person doesn’t want published.

In this sense WikiLeaks has an eye for news that many mainstream news organisations lost long ago.

Today, my Microsoft Contacts brought a new email. This time it was entitled “The Spy Who Billed Me Twice”.

The articles gives details of an intelligence operative hawked by her contractor boss to the Washington State Patrol as an expert in “isolation techniques” at Guantánamo.

Another operative had gone from military to highly paid contractor and back over a period of years, at great expense to US taxpayers, without ever leaving the building.

These highlights come from a confidential 1,525 page file of correspondence released to the public by WikiLeaks.

The material gives plenty of disturbing insights into the privatisation of intelligence operations in the United States.

WikiLeaks does not get mentioned very often in the Australian media despite breaking Senator Conroy’s censorship list.

It is, however, an important force in world politics and world media. It is probably time that we took notice.

Stephen Keim SC