There are three main theories and principles to look at when discussing the ethical issue arising from the release of the Afghan war documents. They involve Kant’s theory of categorical imperative, consequentialist theory and the regulatory environment.
Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives involves the notion “are obligations that bind usregardless of any consequences or circumstances or special interests” (Gray 2007) and it can be argued that Wikileaks felt a moral obligation to release these war documents. “Kant’s freedom cannot be derived from state or organisationally imposed rules; his freedom can only be derived morally…” (Breit 2007). This idea can be applied to Wikileaks’ right to release the documents and it can be look at in two different ways. Wikileaks does not work for corporation, they are freedom based non for profit media association; but they also have placed a moral responsibility upon themselves to “obtain, publish and defend such materials, and, also, to fight in the legal and political spheres for the broader principles on which our work is based” (Wikileaks.org). “Freedom can only be derived morally and by applying Kant’s theory of ethics the contemporary journalist should be pursuing freedom” (Breit 2007); This statement is in accordance with Himelboim and Limor’s proposal that “as a social institution, the media are charged with criticizing the government on behalf of the citizens and society… [and] responding to the universal need for distribution of information and opinions” (2008). Wikileaks claims that “oppressive institutions and corrupt corporations should be subject to pressure” by upholding this belief they falling into Kant’s four categorical imperatives, the most important of which is number one; “act only on that maxim through which you can concomitantly will that it should become a universal law” (Kitcher 2004). This is what wikileaks is aiming for and possibly one of the main governing reasons behind releasing the military documents. “A journalist motivated by duty rather than outcomes is an ethical journalist” (Breit 2007) and Himelboim and Limor argue “information about government activity is recognised as an essential condition for the press’s function as a watch dog…” (2008).
According the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy “consequentialism [is] about moral rightness of acts, which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act” (2006). In the case of the Afghan war documents there are both positive and negative consequences; here I will be looking at the case in terms of the negative outcomes. “An action, intention or principle should be judged by the overall immediate outcomes… every action is approved or disapproved according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish happiness on the party whose interest is in question”(Breit 2007). For the parties involved in the release Afghan war documents has not had a directly positive effect, there has been backlash against the American government and military, as Wikileaks and the Afghanis. In the release the names and locations of many informants in Afghanistan were released, who said if they were discovered the Taliban would kill them. The documents also revealed secret military strategies and it has been suggested information in the documents has been damaging to relationships with key allies. It is important to remember that once released the documents were accessible to everyone, such as The Taliban. These are just some of the major examples of the negative outcomes produced from the release of these documents. If you’ll look at appendix four you will see Channel 4’s consequential reasoning against publicising this information onto their network.
One of the ethical principles to look at in regards to the Afghan war documents release is the regulatory environment Wikileaks is working in. There are three types of regulatory environments; self regulation, semi-regulated or co-regulated and absolute government regulation (Breit 2007). Wikileaks is working in the ‘self regulatory’ environment. They “enact [their] own standards of behaviour through the creation and maintenance of codes of conduct, ethics, standards or principles” (Breit 2007). “Journalist associations outside of the media organisations” are able exercise more “freedom of the press” (Himelboim and Limor 2008). In this context the association is encouraged to impose limitations (voluntary ethical codes) on themselves (Himelboim and Limor 2008). However the issue of Wikileaks’ conduct environment and code of ethics is a difficult task to look at because there are many arguments against the ethical boundaries Wikileaks has voluntarily created. But to say that they have no ethical code or a weak one would be false, many government and media institutions disagree with Wikileaks (this is evident through numerous attempts to ban the website), however the ethical code they follow are ideas are nearly every journalists aims at, “integrity, truth and objectivity” (Himelboim and Limor 2008). By releasing to sensitive information they can be seen as the ultimate objective party, by refusing to redact they are entirely truthful and releasing documents regardless of whom it affects can be seen as integrity.
Kant’s categorical imperative has very little limitations in regards to the Afghan war document release because this it is a rare case where the media association in questions has no organisation to answer to. Wikileaks is an Australian made company that are international based, this means the freedom of information laws they should follow are unclear. The categorical imperatives are defined by interests that are separate from an organisation. In regards to consequentialism we can see one major limit which is: not all the results of this release have been negative. As I mentioned above, in a consequentialist act a decision is right if it produces good outcomes but “Classic utilitarianism seems to require that agents calculate all consequences of each act for every person for all time. That’s impossible” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy), Some positive outcomes include: releasing these documents may prompt reinterest in the war which the media have been moving away from, a return of public interest in what is happening in Afghanistan as well as provoke positive anti-war action from both the government and public. Finding a sufficient regulatory environment for releasing the afghan war diaries is difficult because there are many different parties involved. Himelboim and Limor state “government hope to ensure that public interest, however they define them are protected against misuse of media power” (2008). The release of the Afghan War Documents meant Wikileaks made a decision against the established ethical reasoning of organisation but within their own voluntary code. This result in questioning the effectiveness of the regulatory codes in journalism, however I will not be discussing that here. The release of the Afghan war documents is a deeply complex issue that has many ethical arguments, while I have not been able to talk about all of them in this space I have aimed to show you a few indepth while showing you the significant impact Wikileaks is having in the journalism world.