Revealing or repressing the archive as a litmus test for a healthy society: An analysis of #WLfind cables + #Archives

We take for granted that there exist, somewhere in society, macro-actors that naturally dominate the scene… The problem is that these entities could not exist at all without the construction of long networks in which numerous faithful records circulate in both directions, records which are, in turn, summarized and displayed to convince.

– Bruno Latour, Visualization and Congnition: thinking with eyes and hands, Knowledge and Society, 1986.

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behaviour as conspiratorial.

– Julian Assange, ‘State and Terrorist Conspiracies’, iq.org, November 10, 2006.

Recordkeeping and power are inextricably bound together. The act of making a record and how it is kept can shape the current and future reality for an individual or group – in some cases to oppress or control, in some to liberate. This was strikingly evident in the stories emerging from WikiLeaks’ latest batches of cable releases where they touched on recordkeeping and archives.

Here are nation states choosing to open or restore the archive in pursuit of more open societies, while others seek to close or corrupt it – their actions correlating closely with the extent to which they exert oppressive and unjust power over the citizenry. We see these macro-actors using Latour’s ‘long networks’ of recordkeeping to propagandise their oppressive practices, or indeed to strike agreements with other states or the remnants of former police or security organisations on the management and protection of records and archives, in pursuit of Assange’s concept of concealed, conspiratorial plans. Here are a few examples.

Historical revisionism

05YEREVAN769 (Armenia)
Released: 26/08/2011

“The Turkish Parliament held hearings in mid-April on the Armenian issue and issued a
statement not only confirming their own revisionist efforts, but also blatantly calling on third
countries (such as the UK) to revisit, review and revise their own archives.”

10ASHGABAT132 (Turkmenistan)
Released: 26/08/2011

“During the era of Perestroika in the late 1980s, Turkmenistan’s Archives published material from 19th century police records that showed, for example, that Ashgabat was a multi-ethnic city. Soon after independence, the Turkmen Government stopped publishing this material, probably because it did not support the government’s ideas about Turkmen national identity.”

Intimidation against the opening of archives of reconciliation and restitution

04BRATISLAVA300(Slovakia)
Released: 26/08/2011

“On the night of March 23, Jan Langos, the head of the Institute of the Memory of the Nation and former Czechoslovak interior minister, was attacked by three apparently well-trained, muscular men. The group knocked Langos down and beat him seriously… The IMN’s role is to collect, maintain and open the intelligence archives from the Nazi and Communist era (1939-89), to prosecute Nazi and Communist crimes, as well as crimes against peace, human dignity and war crimes, including all forms of politically-based repression… Parliament elected Langos Chairman of the Institute Board in April 2003. The day before the vote, Langos’ wife Gabriela was beaten and seriously injured in Prague, where she resides… Although the above incidents might be construed as random acts of violence, they bear the unmistakable hallmark of the former Communist Intelligence Service.”

Information sharing without accountability

08ISTANBUL439
Released: 26/06/2011

“Iranian President Ahmadinejad led an Iranian delegation to Istanbul August 14-15 for a bilateral “working visit.” Five agreements – on security cooperation, the environment, transportation, tourism, and archives – were signed.”

Opening of the archives prevented by vested interests at highest level of government

06TIRANA506 (Albania)
Released: 26/08/2011

“The government is unlikely to engage in the thorough unearthing of facts and data that would be necessary for truly bringing to light the full damage caused by Communism. Such analysis would require an opening of State archives which heretofore have remained sealed and few doubt will ever come to pass given the prominence of many former Communists, including the current PM, throughout the political class. This is not a new issue nor is it likely to be resolved any time soon.”

In 2010 the International Council on Archives issued a Universal Declaration on Archives. It confirms “the vital necessity of archives for supporting business efficiency, accountability and transparency, for protecting citizens rights, for establishing individual and collective memory, for understanding the past, and for documenting the present to guide future actions.” It further “identifies one of the vital roles of archivists as making these records available for use, and pledges that archivists will work together in order that archives are made accessible to everyone, while respecting the pertinent laws and the rights of individuals, creators, owners and users.”

If this and other statements from the archives profession are more than lip service then surely these and other abuses of the archival process deserve our attention.

This post originally published on WL Central: WikiLeaks news, analysis and action on 29/08/2011.
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About Cassie Findlay

Digital archivist and recordkeeping professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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