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Why Americans Must Defend the Freedom of Julian Assange

Photo source thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

Over 50 years ago, in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, addressing a struggle of the civil right era, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” His message is now more prevalent than ever in the current political climate surrounding WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.

WikiLeaks stepped onto a global stage with release of a huge trove of classified documents revealing government secrecy. After the publication of war logs that revealed the atrocities committed by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reaction of the Pentagon quickly escalated into a war against the First Amendment. WikiLeaks was subjected to unlawful financial blockades and there has been an ongoing secret grand jury against the organization and its associates since 2010.

The efforts to destroy WikiLeaks broughta long dreadful prosecution of Assange. He has been detained for 8 years, first in prison, then under house arrest and now as a refugee living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. In 2012 he was granted political asylum against the threat of extradition to the U.S., relating to his publishing activities with WikiLeaks. The UK government, in violation of UN rulings that indicated the situation of Assange as arbitrary detention, kept him in confinement, depriving him of medical care and sunlight.

In late March, this already untenable situation got worse. Pressured by the U.S., Ecuador’s new President Lenin Moreno put Assange in isolation by cutting off his access to the Internet, denying him phone calls and visitors, including Human Rights Watch. The latest news about him indicates that the Ecuadorian government is close to finalizing an agreement with British officials to evict Assange from the embassy. How did this all happen? Here we have a Western journalist, who has not been charged with any crime, being punished for providing information that shed light on the crimes and corruption of governments. This plight of Assange has been largely ignored by American mainstream press and there has been an appalling silence on this issue even among political activists.

Villain, hero or useful idiot?

WikiLeaks has been consistently vilified by U.S. officials across two major political parties. After the publication of U.S. diplomatic cables, Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, designated the whistleblowing site as a terrorist organization, calling for aggressive prosecution. Similar reactions were made by Democrats. Former Vice President Joe Biden compared Assange to a “high-tech terrorist”, while senator and chairman of the Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein urged him to be prosecuted for espionage.

As officials jumped to condemn this new media organization, the public responded differently. WikiLeaks, with the release of the collateral murder video in 2010, that provided an everyday scenery of War on Terror in the Middle East instantly became a hero among liberals. This was contrasted with Republicans who tended to view the release of U.S. Diplomatic Cables as harmful, with conservative leaders calling Assange a traitor.

This attitude toward WikiLeaks flipped during the election season in 2016. WikiLeaks’ publication of damaging information from the Hilary Clinton campaign during the final weeks leading up to the election was met with Democrats’ hostile criticism. In their minds, WikiLeaks has changed. It no longer represented a champion of free speech that they once saw. To them, WikiLeaks appeared to have been taken over, being weaponized for the agenda of their political opponent.

As mainstream media hype of Russiagate came full on, demonization of WikiLeaks increased, depicting the transparency group as Putin’s puppet for meddling with the U.S. election. Contrary to progressives’ suspicion and animosity toward the organization, support for WikiLeaks grew among conservatives during the most recent presidential race. Right wing commentators on Fox News and politicians like Sarah Palin cheered WikiLeaks. Trump repeatedly praised the organization during his campaign. Ever since it attained public notoriety, WikiLeaks has become many things for different people. Assange has been called a villain, a hero or a useful idiot.But what is WikiLeaks, who is Assange and what is his agenda?

Watchdog of power

Julian Paul Assange is a computer programmer and journalist with an independent mind and a deep knowledge of the workings of hidden forces of control. Raffi Khatchadourian, a staff writer at The New Yorker, who profiled Assange in his article in 2010, described how this Australian native, who recently attained citizenship in Ecuador came to “understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution”.

In his 2006 seminal writing “Conspiracy as Governance”, Assange identified authoritarian regimes as patronage networks of political elites. He analyzed how this network maintains its power through the use of secrecy, restriction, and the control of national and global communication and information. Assange conceived WikiLeaks upon this understanding of the structure of power. With its innovative technical infrastructure and the method of transparency, the organization revolutionized the function of the press.

As a transnational journalistic entity that is entirely funded by public donations, WikiLeaks places no allegiance to any nations, corporations or political ideology. Its sole loyalty lies in the principle of democracy, using a leak as a tool for information warfare to perform a function of watchdog, restricting the power of institutions and protecting the rights of individuals. This fidelity to checks and balances is demonstrated in Assange’s ability to speak truth, no matter who is in power.

In Obama’s second term of presidency, while many who voted for him were still mesmerized under the spell of “hope and change”, Assange was able to penetrate the deception and see lies and hypocrisies of this president who received a Nobel Peace Prize, while being simultaneously engaged in multiple wars. In the statement after one year in the embassy where he called for global support for the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was charged with espionage, Assange fiercely denounced Obama’s war on whistleblowers.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, with publication of the DNC emails, WikiLeaks brought vital information that could help American people scrutinize whoever succeeds in the throne of this global imperial power. If the organization had documents concerning Trump, WikiLeaks indicated that they would have published it. In responding to accusations of WikiLeaks favoring the Trump campaign with the DNC leaks, Assange made it clear that the role of the organization is to publish whatever is given to them, and they will not censor their publications for any political reasons.

The recent article written by an Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi, who worked with WikiLeaks for nine years, backs this claim. In sharing her insider view of the organization, she described how the decision of the timing of Podesta leaks was made and how Assange and his team were preparing to release material on Trump, which didn’t materialize, as it was already published before.

In defense of American ideals  

This revolutionary journalism that Assange created through WikiLeaks resonates with the ideals that founded the United States. In fact, Assange pointed out how WikiLeaks derives its inspiration from the American revolutionary ideas and that it aligns its mission with these ideals.

 

Similar to the faith in the wisdom of ordinary people to govern themselves, expressed in the preamble of the Constitution with its first words “We the People”, Assange believed in the significance of ordinary people and their ability to engage in history. Thomas Jefferson recognizedhow, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press…”. Just as founders of this country did not trust their own government and created a safeguard for individual liberty, Assange believed in the importance of an informed public in the functioning of democracy.

From its inception in 2006, WikiLeaks has been working to defend these American values. When the corporate consolidation of media led to the restriction of free speech and the laws that protect whistleblowers were gutted, it is through Assange and WikiLeaks staff’s adamant commitment to the principle of free press that made it possible for former U.S. Army intelligence analyst and whistleblower Chelsea Manning to exercise an uncompromising free speech. Also, it is because of WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison, with her courage in demonstrating extraordinary source protection that Snowden is now able to enjoy his rights that are denied by his own country.

WikiLeaks, as the world’s first global Fourth Estate, extended the freedom of speech, not only for Americans, but for people all around the world. As of late 2016, it published 10 million documents with a pristine record of authentication. The organization, by making full archives available in a searchable format, brought back information that belongs to the public directly in their hands. From the election in Kenya to the Icelandic revolution, WikiLeaks publications empowered people in many countries, creating greater social change and sparks for global uprisings. Information made available has been used to bring justice in courts and address numerous human rights abuses.

Until the moment he was cut out from the outside world, this editor in chief of the world’s most prosecuted publisher defended ordinary people’s right to self-determination. From a tiny sanctum in the Ecuadorian Embassy of London, Assange followed Catalans’ struggle for independence and continuously spoke out against Spanish Central government’s abuse of their democratic rights. 

Self-righteous betrayal of democracy

So, did WikiLeaks change? Has this organization that once cracked our heart open with uncensored images of modern war lost its ideals? WikiLeaks illuminated our minds with a large cache of documents detailing dirty secrets of powerful figures, including over 650,000 critical documents concerning Putin’s Russia. Are they now really compromised?

It is so easy to point fingers outside and criticize others. Yet, by doing so, we fail to look at ourselves honestly and take responsibility for our actions. WikiLeaks has not changed. It has not abandoned American ideals that have fueled the engine for this organization. WikiLeaks has continued to accept information that is of public interest. It verifies and publishes authentic documents that fit the criteria of having “diplomatic, political, ethical, or historical significance, which has not been published before, and which is being suppressed”. It does this, no matter who is in office and which nation-state rises to global dominance, and even if doing so makes it a target of massive political retaliation.

In 2016, with the controversial publication of documents that concern one of the major candidates, WikiLeaks intervened in U.S. politics. This event can be likened to the efforts of consumer advocate Ralph Nader in the electoral arena. Nader, through his third party presidential run aimed to awaken in American people a fire in the belly that can crash this corporate two party duopoly. By revealing the corruption of the political system and providing an alternative, Nader helped voters to take back their democracy that has long been stolen. Similarly, WikiLeaks provided American voters information that could be used as a weapon to crush bastards that attacked and undermined our democracy.

The publication of Podesta files exposed WikiLeaks to the same bigotry and bullying that Nader had faced back then, where the Democratic Party with their ardent middle class devotees blamed him for George W. Bush’s presidency and called him a spoiler. Now, the Democratic establishment, with MSNBC cable news stations and commentators, recycles the old tactics of defamation. By branding Assange as a Trump supporter and Russia’s intelligence asset without any solid evidence to back it up, even going to the extent of filing a lawsuit against the organization, they worked to bring progressives on their side to direct their vengeance and hatred toward WikiLeaks.

Yet, just as Nader’s third party presidential efforts could not spoil the election that was already so rotted, WikiLeaks could not ruin the political campaign that was already so corrupted to the core. It is not WikiLeaks, but Americans who have been compromised. It is not Assange who became a pawn for elite agendas. It is we who have fallen for a manufactured national politics that is designed to divide and conquer us every four years with new packaged candidates of the same product. We have lost the revolutionary spirit that founded this nation, its vigilance toward government and have settled for the lesser of two evils. By engaging in our self-righteous crusade for defending our allegiance to leaders, parties and to the flag we plead to, we have betrayed our own interests and ideals.

Claiming our sacred heart

With the publication of Vault 7, a series of leaks on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, fury against WikiLeaks now intensifies. The Trump cabinet continues the war on the First Amendment that was declared under the Obama administration. In recent months, Trump’s Justice Department Jeff Sessions stated that Assange’s arrest is a priority. Mike Pompeo, former CIA Director and the current US Secretary of State, referred to the whistleblowing site as “a non-state hostile intelligence service” and indicated WikiLeaks as a force that subverts the U.S. constitution.

From a traitor and a Kremlin puppet to a spoiler of American democracy, words are thrown around to create distortion. Bombarded by loud media sound bites, in this illusion of democracy, many have lost connection to a voice of conscience that knows what is right. As Ecuador now prepares to hand over Assange to British authorities for a financial reward, by breaking its own Constitution of the Republic, our democracy’s last line of defense is about to be severed. Cruel treatment of Assange is no longer a character assassination and imprisonment of one innocent man. What is at stake is a death of the sacred heart of democracy that remembers our inherent obligation to one another. In his earlier blog, Assange wrote about the moral courage required in our age:

“Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love.”

He reminded us that what drives our will to crush bastards is a gentle love that inspires us to nurture the vulnerable. In a world where there is WikiLeaks, the veil of secrecy can no longer be maintained. The released information revealed the abuse of the powerful on the most vulnerable amongst us—those that are voiceless, ailing and impoverished. Calamity happening in Knightsbridge under the heightened security at the heart of London represents the injustice of the world that this fearless journalist and his courageous sources brought to us all to bear witness. It is now laid out for those who are willing and ready to see the truth.

Prosecution of Julian Assange is the imprisonment of our own conscience. Criminalizing the act of publishing through the Espionage Act destroys the First Amendment as the guardian of democracy. This not only sets a dangerous precedent for press freedom, but it could unravel the beginning of a new totalitarianism. We must not remain silent, passively participating in the destruction of our country’s own ideals. Defending Assange’s freedom is the most patriotic thing that Americans can do right now. It is time for us all to put aside our ideological difference and unite in solidarity with people around the world who are engaging in non-violent resistance against the assault on WikiLeaks and its right to free speech.

Only through our sincere efforts to keep our eyes open to the truth before us, can we have a chance to end the tyranny of the past forever, that casts its shadow ever more into the present. If our silence has led to this greatest tragedy that we face now, the victory of democracy can be brought through each of us claiming the center of our heart to stand up for this fellow man who sacrificed his liberty, so that all can be free.

Note: #Unity4J, a platform to create social media movement in support of Julian Assange is now launched. Follow@Unity4Jto join the campaign and updates. You can also support WikiLeaks by donating to their defense fund at http://iamwikileaks.org/donate

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Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements.  Find her on twitter @nozomimagine

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