Julian Assange – The Criminalization of Journalism

After an arrest warrant was issued in London some days ago, Julian Assange voluntarily handed himself over to the Metropolitan Police yesterday like any law-respecting citizen of the world should. If you thought he was arrested for publishing information on toxic waste dumping in Ivory Coast by global oil trading firm Trafigura or exposing true protocols for the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, then you should have another think coming. He was not arrested for posting classified video footage on Youtube of a US Apache helicopter crew opening fire on civilians in a Baghdad street, killing between 12 to 15 people including 2 Reuters reporters; he was not arrested for exposing the lies that have kept the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on these many years; he was not even arrested for exposing over 250,000 US diplomatic cables in which US diplomats shamefully derided their hosts presidents and top functionaries of their host countries, calling some ‘lunatic’ and ‘incompetent’. When push came to shove, all they could arrest him for was rape: the rape of two women in Sweden who consented to sex but had issues with unprotected sex.

Now make no mistake about this, I am not trying to diminish the trauma suffered by women who truly are victims of rape, but everything about this shows that the world is simply throwing up a smoke screen, not wanting to hear what it rightfully should hear and just using this charge of rape to emotionalize a discourse that should otherwise be intellectual. The entire case against Mr Assange had been dropped in August by Sweden’s Chief prosecutor. If new evidence has come to their notice as they claim, would it not have been reasonable that the previous prosecutor would have been the one prosecuting the new case? Would it also not be expected, if all things were as open and honest as Sweden claims, that the case would have been revisted in Stockholm, where Mr Assange and the two women had been, and not in Gothenburg? Are we not compelled by the strange proceedings of events to accept the views of Mark Stevens, lawyer to Julian Assange that the case was only revisited after “the intervention of a Swedish politician”?

Repeatedly, Julian Assange has insisted that these allegations of sexual harassment and rape are part of a U.S orchestrated smear campaign to undermine the growing popularity of Wikileaks – and Assange. He sees in these allegations also the intent to use his case as a reference point to discourage potential leakers and whistle blowers and delay the release of the next batch of the classified diplomatic cables. Whether or not Julian assaulted those women or not is a matter best left for another day. The big issue here is the reason why Julian should be in detention at a time when his work of 4 years needs him most. That reason, is closer to Julian’s position than any moral posturing I have heard coming from Sweden and the US.

After Sweden issued an arrest warrant on Julian purportedly so that he can answer some questions arising from the rape charges against him, it is instructive that all efforts by Julian’s lawyer to arrange for a meeting where these questions could be answered on neutral ground were summarily rejected by Swedish director of prosecution Marianne Ny. Failing to secure a meeting, Julian’s lawyer sought to get details from her of the new evidence against his client. This too failed. Even then, her attitude revealed she really had motives that were very far from seeking justice for her rape victims. She insisted that Mr Assange must travel to Sweden and answer questions at his own cost. Presently, its been reported that diplomatic sources have revealed that there are ongoing talks between the US and Sweden on how Assange could be delivered into US custody to face charges for espionage and cyber terrorism (the same United states where “people as far up as Sarah Palin” have shamelessly “called for him to be hunted down by American special forces and assassinated.” Mr Assange had voiced his conviction that the United States is merely using Sweden as a stooge to kick-start its dirty work. For those who think the possibility of this is far-fetched, it will be beneficial to give attention to US-Sweden relationship in past. The United States has for some years used Sweden as a transit-stop for rendition planes flying terror suspects around the world for interrogation.

It will be very helpful if the United States could redefine for the world what its preferred definition for espionage is and draw a clear line where ‘true journalism’ ends and espionage begins. Does a journalist seize being a journalist when he publishes factual documents that embarrass powerful governments? Would the United States have had this position if the ‘barrel of the gun’ were pointing at Iraq? Would Julian be a “terrorist” if the cache of documents uncovered were diplomatic cables from Iranian embassies with conclusive evidence that that Iran is stockpiling nuclear weapons? Acting in his capacity as a journalist, Mr Assange received information which he thought his audience had a right to, and he made this information public after acting in good conscience to ensure that personal information that could lead to the loss of lives were redacted. How will the United States differentiate the position of Wikileaks and it founder from that of other media organizations who have also received and published this information? Will the editor of Times magazine, operating within the confines and laws of the United States also face charges for espionage and of course, treason? Will the DNS service provider for Guardian Newspapers discontinue their services because Guardian Newspapers have “acted in a manner that voids” their service agreement?

Clearly the United States is biting more than it can possibly chew in this case, for there is no way they can criminalize Wikileaks and Julian Assange without also criminalizing every journalist who publishes factual information received from a secret source. It has been an established legal principle that media houses have the right to publish documents that come to their notice without government interference. In the words of the US Supreme Court, the government has a “heavy burden” for engaging in “prior restraint” of even secret documents. This principle was established since New York Times Co vs. United States Government when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers. If the government could not establish a case against the New York Times then, I see no reason why they should expect to have a case against Wikileaks using the same set of laws. Whether the US likes it or not, Wikileaks is a media entity and Julian Assange a journalist.

Maybe it is this certain weakness in the prospect of the US getting the redress they want from legal sources that has prompted the call for the extra-judicial disposal of Julian Assange and the Gestapo-Style muzzling of the affairs of Wikileaks witnessed this past week. As rightly pointed out by internet Guru Clay Shirky, “When authorities can’t get what they want by walking within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is they can’t get what they want.” Current US laws criminalizes the leaking of secrets but not the publishing of leaked secrets. Julian Assange was not privy to the secrets leaked, and most certainly was not responsible for keeping them secret. He has always acted in tandem with the Wikileaks motive: to bring truth to light. If the US has realized lapses in their current laws and would now prefer to criminalize the publishing of confidential information, their democratic responsibility would be that of seeking a change in their legal framework, through democratically defined avenues. Of course, it need not be said

that such a law would not be retrospective. By unburdening themselves of the constraints imposed on them by law, the US has ridiculed greatly their status as a champion of democracy in the world, setting an example for dictatorships around the world. Going after Wikileaks domain name, their hosting provider and even their access to cash sets a precedence for embarrassed governments the world over which cannot easily be reversed. Clearly, then, the United States is set to become the beginning and the end, the best and the worst thing to happen to free speech worldwide.

Juxtaposing the current position of the US on Wikileaks and its Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange with the position of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a speech she gave on internet freedom at the Newseum in Washington D.C this past January shows clearly that it is no longer safe to consider the US a champion of free speech for the rest of us. She started her speech with the remark: “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” She concluded her speech with the words: “The United States is committed to devoting the diplomatic, economic and technological resources necessary to advance these freedoms… and I’m proud that the State Department is already working with more than 40 countries to help individuals silenced by oppressive governments. We are making this issue a priority in the United Nations as well, and we’re including internet freedom as a component in the first resolution we introduced after returning to the United Nations Human Rights Council… Both the American people and nations who censor the internet need to know that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.” [Italics Mine] It is my opinion that the irony presented by this situation needs no elaboration.

This is the time when journalists and media houses all over the world should rally around and make sure that Julian Assange is not given as a token from Sweden to the United States to help the US safe face. The precedence set here will have far reaching consequences on the practice of journalism all of over the world. Most of all, the United States need us to help her not to act in a way that will lose her the moral integrity to speak up when “oppressive governments” try to silence the truth, repress liberty or censor access to information.

The whole of this business reminds me of the short story by Lore Segal titled ‘The Reverse Bug’ published in the New Yorker in 1989 and later collected in Lore Segal’s book Shakespeare’s Kitchen. In this high tech short story, the reverse bug is quite the opposite of what we know as the electronic bug. A bug relays to people outside a room something inside that the people inside would not want them to hear. The reverse bug, however, forces people inside a room to hear sounds from outside a room that they do not want to hear. In the story, the reverse bug is planted in the new theatre of the Concordance Institute where a symposium with the theme ‘Should there be a Statute of Limitation on Genocide?’ was scheduled to hold. All efforts by sound engineers to locate the location of the bug failed, so participants in the symposium are forced to hear the sound of torture coming from half way around the world. Julian Assange has become a metaphor for the bugged conference theatre in that classic story, dismantled and buried fifteen feet under in the deserts of Arizona, where the screams of the world’s tortured could go on and on, unbidden.

Written by
Yeremi Akpan
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  • Hmmm…this is an interesting read. Mr Yeremi Akpan, I would suggest you post this as far as possible. It is good food for thought…

  • Quite true, Yeremi. Clear case of double speak from the United State. I’m sure when Clinton made that policy statement, she did not see Assange coming…