Last week, the British police entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London and arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after Ecuador withdrew his asylum. While some are arguing for his release, others are defending his arrest. Still others are asking, is Mr. Assange a journalist and WikiLeaks a news organisation?
Whistleblower and former Central Intelligence Agency contractor Edward Snowden said that the charges pressed by the U.S. against Mr. Assange are incredibly weak. He tweeted that the arrest is “a dark moment for press freedom”. One of the leading thinkers of the world, Noam Chomsky, said “the Assange arrest is scandalous in several respects”. He argued that WikiLeaks was “producing things that people ought to know about those in power”. In an interview to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Mr. Chomsky said: “People in power don’t like that, so therefore we have to silence it. OK? This is the kind of thing, the kind of scandal, that takes place, unfortunately, over and over.”
Why should Indians worry about the arrest of an activist by the Western powers? Isn’t the general election a bigger media issue than the arrest of a person who irresponsibly leaked unredacted documents in the public sphere? And are the sexual assault charges against Mr. Assange less significant than the issues that link nation states with the Official Secrets Act? Jess Phillips, a Labour MP, argued that Mr. Assange’s case made it clear that women’s rights are still secondary to political games. She wrote in The Guardian : “The truth, if you wish to see it in the case of Assange, is that the first and most pressing case he should answer is the one where he has delayed and therefore denied possible justice to two Swedish women. The U.K. government should support his extradition to Sweden before they even begin to consider any pressure from the U.S.”
It is important to remember that former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was jailed in March for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. Ms. Manning said she refused to testify because she objects to the secrecy of the grand jury process, and already revealed everything she knows at her court martial. I think there are valuable lessons to pick up from her stand. The larger question here is what the role of WikiLeaks has been in the last decade and a half. The answer is that it opened up the space for holding people in power accountable. As an editorial in The Observer points out, WikiLeaks has “been invaluable in allowing whistleblowers to safely publish documents that the authorities would rather have kept hushed up, from the truth about the commodity trader Trafigura’s devastating dumping of chemical waste in Ivory Coast to videos of U.S. helicopter attacks on Iraqi civilians. It is, or certainly was in its early days, an important tool in cutting down to size those in power who would abuse their power.”
Pertinent to India
In the case of India, this newspaper was part of the series of stories that were mined from the information generated by WikiLeaks in 2011. The Hindu became the first Indian newspaper to offer readers a broad spectrum of articles and reports based on a first selection from 5,100 India cables, aggregating six million words, made available to it by WikiLeaks. In an interview with Mr. Assange, then Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu , N. Ram, posed the following question, which revealed the political environment in India: “The cables we have worked on so far expose the venal and sordid underbelly of India, which is corrupt, non-transparent, and vulnerable to manipulation by the big powers, in particular the United States. But first on the issue of corruption: you have cash-for-votes as ‘a way of political life’ in South Indian elections, you have cash-for-votes in a parliamentary confidence vote in 2008, you have sops and cash for chemicals — the manoeuvres of Dow Chemical Company, heir to Union Carbide’s Bhopal liabilities, to get its plants cleared. And you have the contradictory and, in fact, to some extent corrupt responses from powerful politicians on this issue too. What does this say about corruption?”
It is in this context that we have to understand that the U.S.’s indictment of Mr. Assange poses a threat to all journalists and potentially undermines press freedom.