Liberty leaks into repressive regimes

A diplomat, it was once said, is an honourable man sent out to lie on behalf of his country. That’s no less true today than it was in the past.

A diplomat, it was once said, is an honourable man sent out to lie on behalf of his country.

That’s no less true today than it was in the past.

The definition has been expanded in the past generation to include honourable women like Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright in the United States, and Flora MacDonald and Barbara McDougall in Canada as well.

With the release of more than 250,000 stolen American diplomatic cables by the organization WikiLeaks in the past week, readers have been exposed to the corruption of government operatives around the world.

On the whole, this is a good thing. Information is power. The more closely that governments contain the flow of information, the more likely they are to abuse the public trust.

When ruling politicians know that how and why they make decisions affecting voters is likely to be revealed, the more careful and honourable they will be in making them.

That fact, of course, makes it immeasurably more difficult to govern in open societies than in repressive ones.

One big story emerging from the leaks this week is the cosy relationship between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi.

Released American diplomatic cables indicate that Putin offered Berlusconi personal kickbacks on energy deals between Russian and Italy.

The more Italians know about the blatant corruption of their prime minister, the less likely they are to re-elect him, and the more likely they will be to select a replacement who wants the job to serve public needs.

The same cannot be said right now in Russia.

It’s true that the release of this information will not diminish Putin’s grip on power in the short term.

However, the more broadly that information is made available to all citizens, the better it is for democracy.

Russia is slowly emerging from generations of despotic, repressive government. Its democratic institutions remain fragile and prone to corruption.

But the one technology that made WikiLeaks possible — the Internet — is changing Russia and every other country on Earth as well.

The Internet makes secrets harder to hide.

The more citizens know about what their government is up to, the more they demand a say in shaping its policies.

Repressive countries like North Korea, China and Myanmar continue to choke the flow of public information and suppress their citizens.

But the long-term tide is irreversible. As more people in closed societies learn through the Internet about freedoms that their neighbours take for granted, the more they will demand liberty for themselves.

The release of Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi three weeks ago, after almost 20 years of house arrest, is an encouraging example of the slowly growing trend towards freedom and rule of law.

Because of Internet-generated publicity, the military thugs who rule Myanmar decided she was more of a liability for them under house arrest than as a free citizen.

Those Burmese generals are far from giving up their chokehold on power, however. There are still about 2,000 mostly anonymous political prisoners in Myanmar.

Around the globe, there are tens of thousands more.

One of them is Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabao, who will miss his induction ceremony in Norway next week because he is serving an 11-year prison sentence in China for seeking an end to one-party communist rule.

Broad global public knowledge about Liu’s history protects him as it did Suu Kyi, and as it does for scores of other current and former prisoners.

They include distinguished former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler and his assistant Louis Guay, who were kidnapped in Niger two years ago while on a mission for the United Nations’ secretary general.

Those two Canadians were held captive for four months by an al-Qaida-linked group. News stories about their plight helped preserve them.

Democracy is messy to be sure. But publicity through channels like WikiLeaks helps it grow.

And that’s no lie.

Joe McLaughlin retired after 25 years as managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate in 2009.

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