Say goodnight to the bad guy: The uncertain future of Julian Assange and Wikileaks

About a year ago, in what seemed like a scene out of Sidney Lumet’s Network, Tom Flanagan appearing on CBC’s Power and Politics exclaimed, “I think [Julian] Assange should be assassinated…I wouldn’t feel unhappy if Assange disappeared.”

Flanagan, an American-born political scientist at the University of Calgary and conservative political activist, later retracted his absurd rant and apologized.

While this is an extreme case, it was at vanguard of an oncoming wave of hostility that would soon descend upon Julian Assange and his much maligned, secret-spilling organization WikiLeaks.

Launched in 2006, WikiLeaks is an international non-profit organization that publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous sources. Their anonymous format helps ensure whistleblowers and journalists are not jailed for emailing sensitive or classified documents. Rather than leaking directly to the press and risking exposure, whistleblowers can leak to WikiLeaks, which then leaks to the press for them.

Julian Assange is generally considered its founder, editor-in-chief, director, and spokesman. For all intents and purposes, Assange is the face of WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks and Assange became a household name in the spring of 2010 when they released a video of two Reuters employees being gunned down by friendly, American Apache helicopters in Afghanistan, 2007. The pilots mistook the journalists’ cameras for weapons and opened fire. The video became known as Collateral Murder. US Army Private Bradley Manning is alleged to have leaked the video to WikiLeaks along with various other cables, and is now being detained in military prison.

The legality of whistleblowing is extraordinarily complex. However, WikiLeaks’ activities, as frustrating as it may be to governments, are for protected by freedom of speech. Accordingly, WikiLeaks has yet to be convicted of a crime, and the American Justice Department has not even pressed charges over its disclosure of confidential State Department communications. Nonetheless, the financial industry is trying to shut it down.

Beginning towards the end of 2010, financial intermediaries, including Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, and Western Union, have refused to allow donations to WikiLeaks to flow through their systems. Wikileaks has since been forced to subsist off of dwindling cash reserves.

As a result, the organization has had to suspend its activities, and to turn its attention instead to lawsuits it has filed in the United States, Australia, Scandinavian countries and elsewhere, as well as to a formal petition to the European Commission to try to restore donors’ ability to send it money through normal channels.

Though banks do indeed possess the legal prerogative to deny service to potential customers they deem high risk, such as potential money launderers, this sets a dangerous precedent for democracy. A bank’s ability to block payments to a legal entity shouldn’t be taken lightly. A handful of big banks could potentially bar any organization they disliked from the payments system, essentially shutting them down.

What’s more troubling is the timing. The “financial blockade” against WikiLeaks came shortly after Assange announced they had received significant cables detailing the corruption of the financial sector. From this precedent it is not unreasonable to imagine banks bullying troublesome bloggers, journalists, and maybe even newspapers and publications that threaten to air any dirty laundry.

Then there’s Assange himself. Recently, Assange has been at the center of rape and molestation allegations. He and his legal team have been fighting an extradition back to Sweden where the allegations have been made. Those involved defend his innocence and maintain the investigation is politically motivated by WikiLeaks’ enemies.

Alleged sex crimes aside, Assange remains a highly controversial figured, evidenced by Flanagan’s homicidal musings. Others in the media have labeled Assange a terrorist, nihilist, narcissist, megalomaniac, hypocrite, and a plethora others. Jonathan Kay of the National Post writes, “the world will be a better place if WikiLeaks never publishes another document.”

For his part, Assange asserts, “We support a cause that is no more radical a proposition than that the citizenry has a right to scrutinize the state.”

Many whistleblowers and secret-spillers have been criticized as attention seekers. Nonetheless, whether or not it is true, it isn’t germane to the information they are leaking. Bradley Manning and Julian Assange each have documented character flaws – ironically, Assange is notorious for keeping the financial details of WikiLeaks shrouded in mystery – but that shouldn’t detract from the potential insight their privileged information could provide.

For example, WikiLeaks is often credited for playing a major role the revolution in Tunisia.

On November 28, 2010, WikiLeaks leaked hundreds of thousands of cables from various US embassies from around the world. In regards to Tunisia, the cables detailed rampant corruption, especially on behalf of then president of over 20 years Ben Ali. After the cables were leaked, thousands gathered outside the US embassy. Various dominos would soon fall until the now famous Arab Spring began, ultimately leading to the overthrow of not only Ben Ali, but also Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi.

Of course, there had been much dissent in Tunisia before the cables, and Ben Ali’s corruption was widely assumed. However, the timing of the cables and the subsequent protests indicate that WikiLeaks acted as a catalyst. While assumption and speculation are like timbre for the fire, leaked cables are the sparks that can light a revolution.

Official documents legitimize the claims of protestors. We may all suspect that a government is guilty of wrongdoing, but it isn’t until we get hard evidence that we can move forward. This is especially so in corrupt states like Tunisia where elections are compromised.

On the Colbert Report, Assange explained, “free speech is what regulates government and regulates law. That is why in the US Constitution the Bill of Rights says that Congress is to make no such law abridging the freedom of the press. It is to take the rights of the press outside the rights of the law because those rights are superior to the law because in fact they create the law. Every constitution, every bit of legislation is derived from the flow of information. Similarly every government is elected as a result of people understanding things”.

And that is why WikiLeaks is so important; it facilitates the flow of information, and information empowers the public. We should therefore be skeptical of those, like Tom Flanagan, who would be happy to suffocate it.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on November 21, 2011.

2 Responses to “Say goodnight to the bad guy: The uncertain future of Julian Assange and Wikileaks”

  1. It is unfortunate that despite your positive take on Julian Assange you are perpetuating the lie that he has been “charged ” for rape and sexual misdemeanours. There is a world of difference between legally “charged” and mere “allegations” made by complainants. The hostile MSM has had a field day with spinning “charges”. Please do make necessary corrections!

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