Wikileaks, Assange and freedom of speech

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President Trump did not grant him a pardon. A British judge did not uphold the substantial grounds for his appeal against extradition, but denied it on the grounds that he could not be prevented from taking his own life in a United States prison. In the high security prison where he is now held, he is not allowed access to a computer. These bare facts obscure the significance of the questions raised for the kind of society we wish to create.

Main image: Julian Assange appears at Westminster Magistrates Court (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

A recent and stimulating book brings the focus into a broadview. Comprising a series of contributions by his supporters, A Secret Australia reflects on Assange’s contribution to journalism and public life. It sets it against the need for and the threats to ensuring an informed citizenry on which democracy rests. As the contributors to A Secret Australia show, and particularly Assange himself in the text of his conversation with Scott Ludlam, Assange had an unrivalled practical knowledge of internet technology, saw early its contrasting possibilities to enlarge or to limit personal freedom before the state, and set out passionately to use it to keep citizens informed about what governments and corporations were doing in their name.

Wikileaks was an elegant means to that end. It allowed citizens to assess the match between what governments knew and were doing and what they publicly claimed to know and were actually doing. To this end it provided new possibilities for journalism. Instead of relying on leaks from politicians and civil servants, they could have access to huge dumps of documents provided by people appalled by the corrupt or mendacious behaviour of governments and corporations. The sources of the documents, too, and the journalists who used them, could be protected by the use of encrypted drop boxes.

The leaks meant that journalists’ interpretation could be supported or tested against documentary evidence and a secure documentary archive maintained. The international reach of the internet encouraged journalists and researchers around the world to cooperate in searching and interpreting the significance of documents, especially those dealings with international relationships or the behaviour of large corporations.

The great achievement of Julian Assange and of Wikileaks has been to place freedom of speech in a large and serious context. This contrasts with the jejeune and narrow framework of popular debate that asserts the right of individuals to say what they wish, while setting that right in a partisan view of public life. In practice freedom of speech is commonly appealed to in order to defend the freedom of the enemies of one’s own enemies to say whatever they want. Truth is subordinated to interests.

A serious discussion of freedom of speech must move beyond it as an individual right to see speech as communication. It will then consider all the relationships, personal and public, involved in communication. It presupposes that people share a common commitment to truth. Freedom of speech flows from that deeper human responsibility and freedom to seek truth. Because it is relational, freedom of speech is also limited by other aspects of relationships and particularly by the consequences that speech has for human beings and their flourishing. Like commerce, speech has a social license. St Augustine, restored to fashion by Joe Biden’s inaugural address, characteristically summed up a complex argument in a throw-away line: the only reason we speak is to make one another better. Speech is for the pursuit of truth, small t and big T, on which the betterment of persons and societies rests. The paradox of the right to seek truth, of course, is that it entails the right to be wrong.

Seen from this perspective, Wikileaks recognises that for a society to be healthy citizens must not only be free to advocate for their version of the large truth about society but must have access to the small truths about its working. In practice that freedom has been fiercely contested by individuals, businesses, churches and governments which try to control what citizens can hear about many of their actions and deliberations. Wikileaks recognised that in contemporary society, so powerfully interconnected by technology, both the capacity to inform citizens about the concealed deeds of their rulers and the ability of states and corporations to prevent this access have grown.

 

'The tension involved in all communication between the desire and need to speak freely and the effect that speech can have on others remains unresolved. But it needs to be resolved by a shared respect for the search for truth and not by the imposition of brute power to impede that search.'

 

Access can be curtailed by controlling the story that is heard. The employees and resources in the media departments of governments, their military branches and of corporations far outnumber those in the independent media. They can shape public discourse. Furthermore, the dependence of media and of academic institutions on governments and corporations limits their courage in communicating truths that are uncomfortable to their patrons.

Governments can also limit access by penalising the unlicensed release of information. Australia is just one of many nations in which the restrictions placed on the release of information, the surveillance of citizens, the penalties for leaking information about government behaviour and the range of information protected have grown exponentially in the name of national security. In this respect the distinction between the Free World and its totalitarian rivals is only — though significantly — relative.

The insight of Julian Assange into the threat posed for society by an interconnected world is acute. The tension involved in all communication between the desire and need to speak freely and the effect that speech can have on others remains unresolved. But it needs to be resolved by a shared respect for the search for truth and not by the imposition of brute power to impede that search.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Julian Assange appears at Westminster Magistrates Court (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Julian Assange, Wikileaks, A Secret Australia, freedom of speech

 

 

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Thanks for the article but I think you confuse freedom of speech with freedom of information; that's entering dangerous territory today...but perhaps you're imploring? Information is a valued commodity; anybody who has ever tried to access government held documents or data under FOI will know the "free" part isn't applied to the price tag. The implications of releasing/publishing data "willy-nilly" are fraught, an example is the legal proceedings against the Department of Immigration for linking refugee personal data to a published report. Ostensibly worthless spreadsheet data might cost the Department (taxpayer) up to $6,000 per person! Owning information is a position of power and there are some responsibilities that authorities must observe; if a security breach results in release of this property we are fairly quick to condemn the trusted authority but you've lost me when you support the thief has any right to dissemination. Consider the current case of Google v Australian media agencies; is it then not just "freedom of speech" on Google's behalf to link a story already published by some other agency, should they pay for the freedom? At least when it was newsprint you could wrap up fish and chips in it...
ray | 28 January 2021


Julian Assange is hated by the ruling classes because he exposed their lies—his published documents undermined the official story on the Iraq war and Afghanistan, and humiliated Hillary Clinton by showing the Democratic primaries were rigged. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald has praised the work of WikiLeaks, and also the Edward Snowden documents for exposing the “scale of domestic surveillance under Obama.” The chief censors, Big Tech companies of Silicon Valley, donated 20 times more to Biden than Trump. While conservatives were being de-platforming the Left applauded. Now the Big Tech oligarchy has de-platformed from Facebook, one of Britain’s largest left-wing organizations, the Socialist Worker’s Party. How ironic, when the Left helped build modern censorship with their efforts to crush “hate speech” and “offensive” views. They should have listened to Trotsky. He warned against censorship because: “any restriction to democracy in bourgeois society is eventually directed against the proletariat.” Greenwald has now accused Democrats of, “trying to harness corporate and monopoly power to silence anyone who disagrees with them, the very hallmark, the epitome of the Fascism they claim to be fighting, but which, in reality, they embody.”
Ross Howard | 28 January 2021


Thoughts on freedom, democracy, respect and truth that require intellectual endeavour to process! While I work on Andrew's thoughts, let me pass on: 1. a great campaign by wsws.org at present tackling the bases on which the platform giants make their decisions about who gets to say what on social media. 2. how to account for the part advertising plays? the 'multi million dollar business to make you unhappy with your situation'.
Catarina Neve | 29 January 2021


Having read the book I recommend it, yes, for the support of Julian Assange but mostly as the book covers all aspects of the attack on the messenger, the corporate military control of our access to information and how you better watch out or you too could be next.
Annette Brownlie | 29 January 2021


Julian Assange is a flawed hero, but he, like 'John Doe' who leaked the Panama Papers, is one of those who have shown that the structure of our ideally free society has become morally white anted and is in danger of becoming more like the totalitarian societies it supposedly opposes. Freedom is something you need to work to preserve. Our current freedoms were born out of long, sometimes dangerous, opposition to real tyrants, such as Henry VIII. People died for their opposition.
Edward Fido | 29 January 2021


Many thanks, Andrew, for this splendid, subtle and probing article. The transition from thinking of free speech as an individual right to thinking within a larger framework, embracing the public and the personal, is as instructive as it is refreshing. Whether a particular person is attractive or easy to criticise on a personal level – seemingly the level of much commentary on Julian Assange – is irrelevant to the deeper issue. It also transcends a merely pragmatic approach to issues of this kind. The beautiful line by that truly original thinker, St Augustine, is an invitation into yet further and deeper areas of reflection.
Chris Mostert | 29 January 2021


‘in the name of national security. In this respect the distinction between the Free World and its totalitarian rivals is only — though significantly — relative.’ ‘National security’ as a necessity exists for free polities only because totalitarians exist, even though the general poverty of a country is no excuse for its leaders to renounce democracy, and the renunciation of democracy frequently leads to more poverty. India, which still has less than a quarter of China’s GDP, despite almost the same population, has remained devotedly democratic since the crippling nearly fifty years ago of the Congress Party as a political juggernaut from the first general election after Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency. Why does the governing of the PRC have to be so different from that of the Republic of China? Or Russia from Ukraine? Or South Korea from North? It may be used over-defensively but ‘national security’ is a defence by us against others who choose to be malevolent. That there are no First World nations which are malevolent should tell us something.
roy chen yee | 29 January 2021


While the sharing of information is often beneficial, it must, as you say above "consider all the relationships, personal and public, involved in communication. It presupposes that people share a common commitment to truth. Freedom of speech flows from that deeper human responsibility and freedom to seek truth. Because it is relational, freedom of speech is also limited by other aspects of relationships and particularly by the consequences that speech has for human beings and their flourishing." I feel that Wikileaks is often irresponsible in releasing information regardless of the consequences in he interest of "free speech'. When people are adversely affected, or even die, as a result of their actions they arrogantly seem to hide behind their 'FreeSpeech' slogans.
Joe Barr | 30 January 2021


Thank you for this excellent article about Julian Assange, Andrew. The reaction of the war criminal and corrupt leaders around the world to the exposure of their crimes was very predictable to the WikiLeaks disclosures And the way Julian Assange has had his human rights trampled on demonstrates to all that so many leaders who claim they support human rights, democratic ideals, the rule of law and free speech are now revealing how callous, undemocratic and unsupportive of the rule of law they really are. Australians and others who do hold these values to be important will be grateful to all those who contributed to "A Secret Australia - Revealed by the WikiLeaks exposes" and Felicity Ruby and Peter Cronau who edited it. It is a very important book. I have heard of people who were not sympathetic of Julian Assange at all, but became so after reading the book. We expect that all Australians who get into problems while overseas will get full support from the Australian government to ensure that they are treated fairly. It has applied to those guilty of being drug mules. Why should it not also hold for Julian Assange who has committed no crime but revealed the evidence of unnecessary warmongering and corruption by world leaders. I recommend this book if people want to know more about the WikiLeaks saga.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 01 February 2021


Thank you Fr Andrew for your insights. Julian Assange's persecution and interment highlights the desperate need the USA has for a public scapegoat for undermining the official propaganda line put out by the USA military. Why they complain about the exposure is beyond me. Consider the Vietnam war. The US complained bitterly that approx 51,000 soldiers died yet they killed 4.1m Vietnamese based on a spurious premise as to why they were there in the first place. The Vietnamese did not use Agent Orange or phosphorous bombs, the USA did. The massacre at mi Lai against unarmed civilians was committed by an American based on some notion of Divine Right or possession of a superior political ideology. Voltaire, in Candide when he catalogued the noteworthy attributes of men; he said, “Do you believe, that men have always slaughtered….as they do today, that they’ve always been liars, cheats, traitors,....thieves, weak,...cowardly, envious, greedy, drunken,...bloodthirsty, slanderous,... hypocritical and foolish? ” (Ch. XXI; Page 76; Paragraph 2). What a world this is where those in power are entitled to those labels. Freeing Assange should be our Governments highest Priority. Bring him home and see if the US want to take us on and jeopardize their strategic alliances.
Francis Armstrong | 04 February 2021


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