Yesterday Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, was arrested in London on charges of sexual misconduct in Sweden. He denies the allegations and friends, family and supporters claim that he has been set up and that the arrest is politically motivated. And so it would seem. His arrest, almost immediately following the Wikileaks release of about a megaton of sensitive information consisting mostly of cables between US foreign diplomats and Washington, as well as the fact that the USA and Sweden are currently undertaking ‘talks’ about his extradition to the US would certainly seem to underline a political motivation.
There are a couple of issues here, however, that need to be stated. Or stated again, as the Twittersphere is already alight with comments surrounding these issues, but they are deserving of articulation in more than 140 characters.
First is the response of the Australian government. Assange is an Australian citizen. Australia, it must be said, does not have a good track record in supporting its citizens in recent years (Mamdouh Habib, David Hicks), but Prime Minister Gillard’s response to the latest Wikileaks releases and the Assange witch hunt is an extraordinary dereliction of responsibility owed by a country to one of its citizens. Gillard described Assange as ‘criminal’, the release of the US documents as ‘illegal’ and has refused to open the door for his return to Australia. The Attorney-General has since leapt to the defence of his leader, explaining that Assange would have access to consular assistance ‘the same as any other Australian’, but the damage was already done with Gillard’s curt and uninformed dismissal. Significantly, she (a lawyer) has not indicated which laws have been broken or why Assange is a criminal. At the same time as reportedly negotiating with the Indonesian government for the release and repatriation of Schappelle Corby, a convicted criminal, Gillard denies Australian government support to Assange, an Australian who, notwithstanding the pending Swedish charges, has broken no laws in making public documents that expose the USA as a posturing global bully. Without the support of his government, Assange is now at the mercy of that bully. This morning the former Republican governor of the southern state of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, was reported as saying that any punishment short of execution would be too light. It is doubtful that the bully will play fair.
The second issue at hand here is that of free speech. This is enshrined in the American Constitution as a basic right and is accepted in Western democracies, including Australia, as fundamental to the functioning of the democratic system. Freedom of speech in the US, however, is entirely dependent upon who is doing the speaking. In 1988 Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses earned the author a fatwa from a distinctly unimpressed Ayatollah Khomeini, who declared the book blasphemous. Amidst the cries of righteous indignation from Americans (and others) against the overreaction of the Ayatollah, the voice of Yussuf Islam, the Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens, dissented. Yussuf stated that the Ayatollah had every right to act in what he saw as the interests of Islam, which is, after all, the job of the Ayatollah. Americans, outraged at this exercise in free speech, burnt their Cat Stevens records in the streets and denounced the former singer as a sympathiser with terrorists and islamists. Apparently it doesn’t do to exercise freedom of speech against the tide in America.
Along with free speech is that of a free press. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers. Not only has Assange broken no laws in respect of the leaked documents, under the auspice of the UN, he has every right to release them into the public domain. This view is not shared by the paranoid cyber-moguls, who have shut down not only the Wikileaks site, but also any access to donating to Wikileaks. It is possible to make an online donation to the Ku Klux Klan, but not to Wikileaks.
Fortunately, the view of the paranoid cyber-moguls is not shared by the public. A straw poll on the Sydney Morning Herald website, asking the question is Julian Assange a menace or a benefit to democracy, has, at time of writing, drawn 22,812 votes, 91% of which regard him as a benefit to democracy. As one of the Twitterati put it, if he had been operating in China he would have been called a dissident and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
This morning the latest US diplomatic document release in the so-called Cablegate affair revealed that the former US Ambassor to Australia reported back to his Washington bosses that the former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was a gaffe-prone control freak who made snap policy announcements without consulting his government. Given the events and subsequent forensic analysis thereof of the past six months in Australian politics, this is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. Sadly for Kevin Rudd, this just confirms what his parliamentary colleagues and staff knew and the Australian public learned after June 24th. His time is past.
For Julian Assange, however, the time is now. Democracy needs transparency and if western democracies can’t lead by example, how on earth do they think they are going to export democracy to places like Afghanistan?
Ghandi, Mandela, Lu Xiabao, Assange. Democracy and freedom needs those who will expose tyranny.