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Julian Assange: the freedom of free speech

By Stuart Rees - posted Thursday, 7 June 2012


There are a few days left to appeal the British High Court's five to two ruling that Julian Assange can be extradited to Sweden to be interviewed about alleged sexual assault. Regarding that appeal, almost all the commentary since the Court announced its decision has revolved around legal nit picking on issues such as whether the Swedish prosecutor is a recognised judicial authority. Assange's lawyers can't be faulted for their focus on such technicalities but other issues will stand the test of time long after this extradition paraphernalia has been resolved.

These 'other issues' concern the WikiLeaks-Assange challenge to governments' secrecy, the barely concealed violence, which characterises American policy in regard to whistleblowers, the cowardice of leading Australian politicians over the Assange controversy and, finally, the implications of the Assange-Bradley Manning cases for any future conception of justice.

As the project for democracy evolved over many centuries, secrecy became a key means of governance. Rulers assumed, ironically, that not only was this a key means of sustaining open government, but that citizens who challenged such notions threatened the very viability of a State. WikiLeaks and Julian Assange follow a tradition of highly significant dissenters to whom we owe gratitude for key freedoms, of speech, of the press and of association. Those WikiLeaks forerunners include the 18th century English satirist Daniel Defoe who, in 1702, was imprisoned for challenging the power of Church and State but who wrote in the famous Hymn to the Pillory, 'Tell them I stand exalted there for speaking what they would not hear.' Ninety years later, in 1792, Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man was charged with sedition for questioning the secret manner in which State authority was maintained and false claims made about citizens, who dared to say that human rights represented a much higher authority than governments.

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At a time when the Nixon Administration in the U.S. attempted to cover up details of the conduct of the Vietnam War and the extent of the casualties resulting from it, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg revealed truths about government policies and in his own recent words, did no more then than Bradley Manning is alleged to have done now. In his revelations in the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg provided a key service to democracy little different in principle from that which Assange and Manning have given. If those two citizens - one in a U.S. jail awaiting trial, another about to be extradited to Sweden - could be judged, as Ellsberg was, according to the historical value of their actions, the world's media would be concerned with human rights issues. In 1971 Ellsberg was charged with conspiracy and espionage but all charges were subsequently dropped and a U.S. Supreme Court, in covert praise for Ellsberg's courage insisted, 'Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.'

There is justifiable fear that so great is the U.S. government's desire for revenge against anyone who dares to challenge their authority, that the utterances of US leaders should be listened to very carefully. We might begin by comparing U.S. Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich’s comments last week that his government was not interested in Assange with the anger of other U.S. leaders and commentators. The latter includes a Presidential hopeful Mike Huckerbee who said, 'Whoever leaked that (Wikileaks based) information is guilty of treason and I think that anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.' Republican Sara Palin wanted Assange 'Hunted down like Bin Laden' and a Fox News anchorman commented, 'It may be illegal but I encourage any concerned U.S. citizen to get their gun and shoot the son of a bitch.'

The idea that violence of almost any kind is the best response to dissenters like citizen Assange should make Australian leaders repudiate the U.S. 'revenge is sweet' culture. There has been ample opportunity for the Australian government to ask whether a grand jury in Virginia was attempting to concoct charges against Assange and to insist that it would use every means to prevent such a citizen being extradited to the U.S.

The Australian Prime Minister at first inferred that Assange had committed an offence, a claim subsequently disproved by the Australian Federal Police. Subsequently the Attorney General said that he'd need to consider confiscating Assange's passport, even though no charges had been laid, let alone any conviction recorded. It's as though the mantra about the value of secrecy in a war against terrorism ensured that leaders of an important democracy too easily forgot their responsibilities to sustain openness, to demystify the games played by secret agents of a State, and did not consider whether the best service they could provide to their ally the U.S. was to say that violence or threats of violence have no place in government.

A lesson from the Assange controversy is what we may learn about the nature of justice.

Regarding the value of various Wikileaks revelations about the conduct of governments, such as the diplomatic cables about the conduct of the Afghan war and the collateral damage video showing U.S. marines 2007 murder of eleven civilians including children in a Baghdad street, the Australian Prime Minister confessed in an ABC Q & A program, ‘I don’t get it.’

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The people protesting on behalf of Julian Assange on Sydney and Melbourne streets last week do ‘get’ the value of Wikileaks releases, they do understand that a superpower has no more entitlement to seek revenge than ordinary citizens. Those protesters’ conception of justice includes an insistence on the right to protest and a demand that powerful institutions and individuals should be held accountable irrespective of governments’ claims about a need to protect national sovereignty

Professor Noam Chomsky knows the significance of Julian Assange’s actions. On my way to London last year, to award Assange the Sydney Peace Foundation’s ‘occasional gold medal for human rights’, Noam Chomsky penned the following message to Julian. ‘I would like to thank you for fulfilling your responsibilities as a member of free societies whose citizens have every right to know what their government is doing.’

When the dust has settled on the legal technicalities and the political inanities, the real issues of openness and accountability as the cornerstone of democracy will remain. Assange needs to be supported because of the service he does to the presentation of human rights and democratic governance.

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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