Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A former senior Swiss bank executive said on Monday that he had given the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, details of more than 2,000 prominent individuals and companies that he contends engaged in tax evasion and other possible criminal activity

This piece of news in the New York Times:
Rudolf M. Elmer, who ran the Caribbean operations of the Swiss bank Julius Baer for eight years until he was dismissed in 2002, refused to identify any of the individuals or companies, but he told reporters at a news conference that about 40 politicians and “pillars of society” were among them.
According to the article, "those named in the documents come from 'the U.S., Britain, Germany, Austria and Asia — from all over,' and include 'business people, politicians, people who have made their living in the arts and multinational conglomerates — from both sides of the Atlantic.'" 1

How should one react to this new development? Obviously, 1) Rudolf Elmer has committed the gravest of sins: to violate Switzerland's strict banking secrecy laws. 2) Wikileaks has gotten more oxygen: compromising data. Should we be interested? Well, Tax evasion is 3) an illegal practice and that those caught evading taxes are generally subject to criminal charges and substantial penalties.

Many people in the right of the political spectrum are bothered by Wikileaks constant noise. Advice: They should stick to their libertarian instincts and praise an organization that actually exposes government and corporate wrongdoing. A mature democracy depends on having an educated and informed electorate. There should be consensus that the actions of government and the state, as well as the competing political interests to exercise political power, should be underpinned by critical scrutiny and informed debate facilitated by the media.
Wikileaks is part of a new phenomenon that has to do with the disappearance of the traditional press as we know it. 2 However, that should not and will not contradict the basic assumption that there is no true democracy without a free press.  

Since 2007, Wikileaks has made public an impressive series of classified documents: the so-called Afghan War Diarya controversial video of an American Helicopter strike on Reuters journalists, the Iraq War Logs and Cablegate last November. The sheer amount of information and the manner in which it has been obtained has exceeded expectations.

Take note: something must be going on when Muammar Gaddafi, a dictator of Lybia for 40 years, calls Wikileaks "an evil organization." 3

What I'm talking about can be put in terms of a balance between liberal economy and morals. If democracy is, in the words of Lincoln in his Gettysburg address, "of the people, by the people, for the people," one can make a reasonable argument that it is in the best interest of the people to know when that covenant is broken, or put into risk.

Transparency and accountability are essential for the functioning of democracy. 

1 The surprise here is that this case already has a history:  It started as a complaint filed in the Northern District of California by Bank Julius Baer & Co. Ltd. (BJB) and its Cayman Islands unit against Wikileaks, its domain Wikileaks.org, and Dynadot, LLC, a domain registrar, claiming that the defendants unlawfully published confidential and counterfeit documents belonging to the bank. The plaintiffs sought the return of the documents in question, allegedly stolen from BJB by a disgruntled former employee, as well as the removal of those documents from defendants' Web sites. Wikileaks contended that the documents revealed illegal financial transactions and tax evasion by the bank, while BJB asserted that they contained confidential information belonging to the bank and its customers and that some of the documents had been altered. What happens next is that federal district court judge Jeffrey White granted the plaintiff relief in the form of a permanent injunction requiring Dynadot, based in San Mateo, California, to lock and disable the Wikileaks.org domain name on February 15, 2008. But the court's order met criticism on several grounds, including constitutional: The permanent injunction was widely condemned as excessive, particularly because the directive to Dynadot blocked an entire Web site on the basis of a dispute relating to a small portion of its content. Critics likened the order to the Pentagon Papers case in which the Supreme Court famously refused a request from the Justice Department to enjoin publication of articles based on documents illegally leaked from the Defense Department. 2Whatever the causes for such crisis, this is how Steve Coll for New America Foundation puts it:
The rate of destruction of professional journalism -and its output of independent reporting on American public institutions and on international affairs- is far outpacing the ability of new institutions to reproduce what is being lost, particularly in its civic functions. Secular and cyclical economic forces have suddenly combined to dismantle the business models that have for decades supported independent, public-minded reporting for large general audiences about local and state government, Congress, the executive branch, and international affairs. According to one organization that tracks newspaper job losses, the industry shed an estimated 15,970 jobs in 2008 and 8,484 through April of this year. The rapid and large-scale loss of independent reporting by many of these professionals, without any prospect of its replacement by new institutions in the foreseeable future, is an urgent matter of public interest.
3 By now we should be used to the "evil rhetoric."