Don’t shoot the messenger

WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, surrendered himself to UK police on Tuesday, after which he was arrested formally for alleged sex crimes. Mr Assange was denied bail and will remain in custody until a fresh hearing on December 14. According to the London Metropolitan Police, Assange “is accused by the Swedish authorities of one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation, and one count of rape, all alleged to have been committed in August 2010”. Mr Assange’s lawyer called these charges a “political stunt” and many believe that he is being persecuted because of the sensitive documents his website has been releasing in recent months. More recently, WikiLeaks published US diplomatic cables that have rattled a lot of countries besides the US government. The timing of the charges against Assange and Interpol’s Red Notice for two cases of consensual sex that allegedly turned into abuse are highly suspicious. What is interesting is that the rape and molestation charges were dismissed by Sweden back in August but the case was reopened again in September after an appeal. Julian Assange denied the allegations and said it was a “smear campaign” against him and WikiLeaks. Rape and molestation are definitely serious crimes and one cannot condone them but those supporting WikiLeaks founder are of the same view as Mr Assange – that the sole superpower as well as other countries are not too happy with the work of his whistleblower website and may well be influencing the course of events in the case against him.

It is pertinent to mention here that as long as WikiLeaks was only exposing authoritarian regimes in Asia and elsewhere, the west did not have any issues with it. As soon as WikiLeaks started exposing the US and other western governments, the equation changed. Now its work is being called unethical. On the contrary, we believe that WikiLeaks has revolutionised the medium of information. Mr Assange is only the messenger while the real message behind these leaked documents is being ignored. Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said that Assange, an Australian, was not responsible for the “unauthorised release of 250,000 documents from the US diplomatic communications network; the Americans are”. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard said that any journalist in Assange’s position would have done the same thing if he/she got hold of confidential information. Thus it is highly disconcerting to see that not only has the WikiLeaks website been shut down across the globe, its finances are also being blocked. The pressure is obviously from the US, the ‘champion’ of freedom of speech. Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the freedoms of the internet. She said, “Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable…[the US] stand[s] for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.”

When Facebook was banned in Pakistan following the creation of the ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed [PBUH] Day!’ page on the social networking website, we were called a backward, retrogressive state that was clamping down on freedom of expression. We did not support the ban on Facebook back then and similarly, we condemn the attack against WikiLeaks now. It seems that the ‘backwardness’ of underdeveloped countries like Pakistan has now spread to the developed world. Governments in the west claim that the WikiLeaks expose has endangered the lives of foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but these sound more and more like self-serving arguments of governments that like to cloak themselves in a veil of secrecy. The internet has democratised access to information beyond the imagination and it must be preserved. In this time and age, internet censorship itself is a crime against humanity.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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