If I were to name anyone who had a strong impact on international diplomacy and the public policies of various countries in 2010, I would go for the Australian WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.
This is not an endorsement of the WikiLeaks approach, to which I am ambivalent.
While I support the view that governments should be transparent, I believe that every government is entitled to keep some matters confidential unless there is an overriding need to make them public.
In its continuing release of US government documents, WikiLeaks has not demonstrated that it is in the public interest to make each of these documents publicly available.
The public’s right to know is important, but it has to be balanced against the imperative that all kinds of entities – individuals, private organisations or governments – are entitled to keep some of their businesses confidential unless there is a compelling public interest to release them.
Despite my reservations, I believe Assange not only had an enormous impact on diplomatic communications, but he also exposed sloppy governance in the American system.
Various Western governments make thousands of documents electronically available to many government officials, but these documents are not downloadable.
The reason the American documents were passed on to WikiLeaks is that the US government had failed to make them secure.
In this case, Assange has indirectly done the US government a favour by reminding it that it ought to take sensitive diplomatic communications more seriously.
Had the US government used a more secure storage system, it would have made these documents available to the same number of officials without a fear that they would be passed on to unauthorised individuals.
Apart from exposing laxity in the American government storage system, Assange’s activities have encapsulated a relentless struggle in universal principles of governance, namely freedom of expression, which includes Press freedom, versus the desire by governments to exercise control.
In the past few decades, Western governments have undermined Press freedom with impunity, but the mainstream media have not challenged them.
Take, for example, the embedding of journalists with the military during the Afghan and Iraq wars.
This ensured that journalists gave the public only the account of events that the government had approved
The embedding of journalists has not only eroded Press freedom, but it has also eliminated any room for differing interpretations of how the war is being fought.
Unfortunately, senior journalists in some Western countries have abetted this practice.
It is this lack of contestation of viewpoints that often tempts some government officials to leak information to WikiLeaks and other sources.
Thus, Assange has demonstrated that efforts to eliminate room for the contestation of ideas or viewpoints are doomed to fail.
Prof Makinda is a professor at Australia’s Murdoch University. firstname.lastname@example.org