Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Patron Saint of Free Speech?

The exponentially disproportionate condemnation of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange emanating from the United States government and its allies has become so strident as to prompt the simple question “why?” While his arrest has been based upon the allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden, there is little doubt that the intensity of the effort to pursue and capture him has been driven by the Wikileaks episode. It’s easy to believe that his supporters may be correct when they claim that the charges are politically motivated, and are nothing more than an attempt to ensnare Mr. Assange in a process which will ultimately see him delivered to the jurisdiction of the United States, where some consider him to be such a threat to national security that he should be killed. If there is a genuine allegation of any sexual offence, it should of course be investigated and dealt with. However, that is a completely separate matter from the release of classified United States diplomatic documents.

So why are the United States and her allies so angry at an individual who is after all only the middle man. It was not Julian Assange who actually leaked the documents in the first place. He has merely published the contents, just as countless newspapers and media outlets around the world have done countless times before. If, instead of giving the material to Wikileaks, the original leaker put all the documents in a big cardboard box and sent it to the Washington Post, wouldn’t the Post have done exactly the same thing? Of course, the Post, or any other media outlet, would have fallen upon the material with great glee and enthusiastically examined it, harvesting every salaciaous story it could from the contents. And if Wikileaks is in some way out of order in publishing the material, isn’t every other media outlet in the world also out of order for endlessly republishing it?

The great irony of course is that Western democracy in general, and especially the United States, is supposed to be founded upon principles of freedom which include freedom of speech. In fact, the Americans make such a big deal about free speech that it is specifically protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, along with the freedom of the press. By both standards, Julian Assange has done nothing more than exercise his right to speak freely and to publish. And yet the nation which not only claims to defend freedom and individual rights, but was actually founded upon those principles, is the very same nation which is so aggrieved by the idea than anyone might actually have the audacity to exercise those rights.

The reality, however, is a little different. Mr. Assange and his organisation have angered a significant number of very powerful people, and that is always a dangerous thing to do. Further, it is clear that he can expect very little support from the established media, partly because substantial sections of it are very cosy with the authorities, and partly because old media interests tend to view the so called new media as a major threat to their own existence. Traditional media is struggling to remain relevant and viable in the face of citizen journalism and social media, while also wrestling with their own attempts to make the transition into the digital world. While he has a large number of supporters, and some of them are also powerful and influential, even they may be powerless to help him.

Even if we choose to view Mr. Assange as the patron saint of free speech, there is a real risk that he will become a martyr in the process.

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