Friday, March 1, 2013

Syria and the right to know

Syria and the right to know

Recently there has been controversy about research which may have revealed some of the Syrian opposition's supply sources and routes.  How do these revelations weigh against the obligations of journalists and the public's right to know?

The specific professional obligations of journalists can't have much weight here:  journalists like everyone else are supposed to do the right thing.  Their professional obligations and their moral obligations, in this case, converge on the right to know.

When it comes to Syria you have to ask, whose rights are we talking about?  Normally the right to know is considered important because it allows the public to be informed participants in a democratic process, or at least in some sort of political process. If we're talking about Syrians, that sounds silly.  There are no political processes any more; there is a battlefield.  Syrians aren't going to be voting anyone out of office and when the government greets peaceful demonstrations with heavy weapons fire.  So deep concern about the Syrian public's right to know seems inappropriate.

Well, maybe what's important is the right of citizens of the various countries involved to know - Croatia, the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan.  But don't any such rights to be weighed against the harm done to Syrians?   Presumably no one would say that 'our' right to know would justify publishing the names of Syrian government officials planning their defection.   My right to know doesn't trump the right of innocents not to die under torture.

How harmful are the revelations?  That depends on at least two things:  (1) would the information be something Syrian military intelligence might like to have? and (2) would the governments involved be likely to shut down the routes were they made public?

Unless you're pretty sure that Syrian military intelligence already knew about the routes - and how would you be sure of that? - the answer to the first question has to be a firm 'yes'.  Syrian intelligence services are huge, powerful and sophisticated, more than capable of disrupting supply routes abroad.  They would want to disrupt those routes.

The answer to the second question is probably also 'yes'.  Presumably if nation-states didn't want their arms supply moves concealed, they wouldn't have concealed them.  And since all the countries involved could expect domestic and/or foreign opposition to the supply moves, they would have good reason to shut the routes down if made public. (Given Croatia's reaction to the revelations, it's virtually certain that if there was a supply route, they have in fact closed it.)  Yes, the nations involved could discretely establish other routes, but this would probably take a lot of time and severely weaken the supply effort.

Perhaps the revelations about arms supplies are defensible.  Perhaps the revelations weren't detailed enough to expose the routes, or the supplies weren't important, or the routes were bound to be exposed soon anyway, or other routes are easy to set up.  But it will be a lot harder to establish those claims than to arm-wave towards 'the public's' right to know.  It won't be enough to say that the story was put together from publicly available information:  most intelligence work derives from such sources.  And as disturbing as the issue itself may be, to dismiss it with platitudes is more disturbing still.

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