Information now spreads faster than the ability of those who wish to keep it from spreading. Governments – at least those that cherish democratic values – would be wise to strive for openness and transparency, rather than simply claim to.
If you believe Julian Assange is sitting in jail for sexual assault, Naomi Wolf has some perspective for you. Assange, the now infamous and detained Wikileaks figurehead, has made it abundantly clear that keeping secrets has become considerably more difficult in this Brave New Wikiworld. And whether you like it or not, this is the new paradigm in which the world must operate. Political leaders must understand that open government is becoming the rule rather than the exception, and those that wish to have success in a free and democratic world would do well by embracing rather than combating the rule.
Some, though, don’t see it this way. Take Sarah Palin, for instance, or many of her Republican comrades. Palin has called for Assange to be tried for treason, the obvious difficulty with treason not withstanding (one must be a member of that country to which one is being treasonous – Asange is, (un)fortunately, Australian). And others, like Rick Santorum, potential GOP presidential candidate, have described the actions of Assange as being in line with those of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
While the meaning of the words treason and terrorism seem to be in constant flux, there is one clear lesson to learn: Government transparency and freedom of expression are principles worth fighting for… sometimes. In other words, when you don’t believe those principles are fighting for you, they are worth fighting against.
Movements or issues should always been drawn in shades of grey and rarely understood in terms of black and white. Those that wish to make you believe the world is split into camps that clearly represent the ‘you are with me or against me’ way of thinking should generally be viewed with a high degree of skepticism.
Assange, say American officials, is an anti-American and an anarchist making an “attack on the international community”:
But if one looks at the Wikileaks saga from above the perspective of the many leaks that range from fascinating to outrageous to meaningless to very substantive (The Guardian has a well documented list here), some fundamental concerns for a free and democratic world take shape which make it difficult to view Assange in the way American officials have attempted to frame him.
From what I can tell, Julian Assange is an active player in spreading relevant information for the global public. He engages in a search for truth in order to put issues before the public eye where they can be disseminated and judged to be either of interest or of little meaning to our lives. That, from what I understand, is the work of a journalist, not an anarchist, a reporter, not an anti-American espionage agent. The difference between Assange and a reporter at the The New York Times is very small indeed.
When people in positions of authority begin a frantic search for laws under which to put an individual behind bars for spreading relevant information, as the US Justice Department is desperately trying to do, citizens who cherish a free and democratic society should begin to question the actions of the authority and not the individual. When governments are anxious at being held to account, as some historical examples provided by John B. Jundis with The New Republic illustrate, the people who represent those governments are past due for a good dose of soul searching.
“How can you criminalize speech, especially political speech, especially on matters of grave public importance? That would seem to fly in the face of the Constitution’s promise of a free press and free speech,” writes Ann Woolner of Bloomberg News. “Whatever harm the leaks have caused, slipping around the First Amendment isn’t the way to fix it.”
Agreed. Governments that criminalize speech are generally not on the people’s side. Suppressing information or keeping a secret that is of grave public import should not have public support. Open and accountable government is in the public’s interest. Wikileaks, it would seem, is therefore in the public’s interest.