Why Stand with
By Nicole Colson*
HAMPSHIRE (IDN) - U.S. authorities seemed closer to attempting to
manufacture an excuse to bring WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the
U.S. to face charges. Amid reports that a grand jury had been convened
in Virginia to consider charges against him, Assange, backed by dozens
of supporters, appeared in court in Britain and was granted bail on
Ostensibly, Assange is wanted for questioning concerning rape and sexual
assault allegations in Sweden -- but Swedish prosecutors are already
talking publicly about the conditions under which they would hand
Assange over to the U.S. for prosecution for his work on WikiLeaks.
This makes it crystal clear that authorities are using accusations of
the serious crime of rape in the most cynical and opportunistic way.
A British judge granted Assange bail on December 14 -- on the condition
that $373,000 be posted to secure his release, and that he agree to
electronic monitoring, house arrest and the surrender of his Australian
passport (Assange is an Australian citizen). But Swedish prosecutors
appealed this ruling. Two days later, a British court upheld the bail
order, while adding even more restrictions -- Assange was released to
the home of journalist Vaughan Smith.
"If justice is not always an outcome, at least it is not dead yet," he
said to the cheers of supporters as he walked out of court. "I hope to
continue my work and continue to protest my innocence in this
matter--and to reveal as we get it, which we have not yet, the evidence
from these allegations."
Assange and his legal team now have less than a month to prepare their
case opposing his extradition to Sweden. According to his lawyers, since
he has not formally been charged with a crime, but is wanted for
questioning, there is a legal issue about whether Sweden actually has
the right to extradite him.
furor over WikiLeaks has grown -- especially in the U.S., where calls
for Assange's extradition, prosecution (and even assassination) have
grown increasingly strident from both Democrats and Republicans --
Assange has also attracted a growing number of supporters who see his
prosecution as politically motivated and a threat to freedom of speech
around the globe.
The International Federation of Journalists, which represents more than
600,000 journalists worldwide, condemned what it called a "political
backlash" against WikiLeaks. Christopher Warren, the head of Media
Entertainment & Arts Alliance, Australia's largest media union, argued
 that "attacks on WikiLeaks can also be seen as attacks on the
Australian media outlets which have worked with the organization to
publish leaked material."
Dozens of Australia's most prominent journalists have signed onto a
statement of support sent to Prime Minister Julia Gillard  (who has
vowed her own investigation into whether Assange has committed a crime
against Australia) that reads:
In essence, WikiLeaks, an organization that aims to expose official
secrets, is doing what the media have always done: bringing to light
material that governments would prefer to keep secret.
It is the media's duty to responsibly report such material if it comes
into their possession. To aggressively attempt to shut WikiLeaks down,
to threaten to prosecute those who publish official leaks, and to
pressure companies to cease doing commercial business with WikiLeaks is
a serious threat to democracy, which relies on a free and fearless
Several rallies have been held in Sydney and other Australian cities,
including one drawing 800 people on December 15.
This defiant support of Assange is in stark contrast to the reaction of
much of the U.S. media -- which was either silent about, or agreed with,
growing calls by politicians from both main parties to see Assange tried
for his work on WikiLeaks.
But with each day, as it becomes more and more clear that the U.S.
government is intent on seeing Assange extradited and tried for
releasing classified information, even the complicit U.S. media has
begun to recognize implications of the attack on Assange. If Assange and
WikiLeaks can be prosecuted, then surely any reporter or publication
releasing classified information or information obtained by government
whistleblowers would also liable for prosecution.
As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald  noted:
The New York Times' Eric Lichtblau and the Washington Post's Dana Priest
-- both of whom won Pulitzer Prizes for publicly exposing classified
programs of the Bush administration -- warned that prosecuting WikiLeaks
would endanger investigative journalism generally. The Denver Post
editorialized that the idea of prosecuting WikiLeaks "is about the only
one in recent memory that has attracted bipartisan support in
Washington" but "is ill-conceived and fraught with problems," and that
"acquiring and publishing information is at the heart of the definition
of a free press, which has substantial First Amendment protections."
Even the government-revering Washington Post editorial page came out in
opposition to prosecuting WikiLeaks...recognizing that "the government
has no business indicting someone who is not a spy and who is not
legally bound to keep its secrets" and that "doing so would criminalize
the exchange of information and put at risk responsible media
A petition circulated by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) 
and signed by Daniel Ellsberg, Barbara Ehrenreich, Arundhati Roy, Noam
Chomsky and other prominent progressives points out:
Throughout this episode, journalists and prominent media outlets have
largely refrained from defending WikiLeaks' rights to publish material
of considerable news value and obvious public interest. It appears that
these media organizations are hesitant to stand up for this particular
media outlet's free speech rights because they find the supposed
political motivations behind WikiLeaks' revelations objectionable.
NOT BEYOND CRITICISM
test for one's commitment to freedom of the press is not whether one
agrees with what a media outlet publishes or the manner in which it is
published. WikiLeaks is certainly not beyond criticism. But the
overarching consideration should be the freedom to publish in a
democratic society -- including the freedom to publish material that a
particular government would prefer be kept secret. When government
officials and media outlets declare that attacks on a particular media
organization are justified, it sends an unmistakably chilling message
about the rights of anyone to publish material that might rattle or
offend established powers.
Even Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff for Colin Powell
when he was Secretary of State under George W. Bush -- including years
when some of the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks were
published -- joined a group of former government officials in a letter
of support for Assange  that states: "WikiLeaks has teased the genie
of transparency out of a very opaque bottle, and powerful forces in
America, who thrive on secrecy, are trying desperately to stuff the
genie back in."
Republicans and the right wing are clamoring the loudest for Assange's
head. But for its part, the Obama administration has aggressively
pursued Assange -- and is challenging the overall right of the press to
reveal government information, even when it includes evidence of
previously hidden war crimes.
Recent reports suggest that a grand jury may have been empaneled in
Alexandria, Va. "We have heard from Swedish authorities there has been a
secretly empaneled grand jury in Alexandria...They are currently
investigating this," Assange's lawyer Mark Stephens told Al Jazeera ,
referring to WikiLeaks. "I think that the Americans are much more
interested in terms of the WikiLeaks aspect of this," Stephens added.
THE BUSH TREND CONTINUED
administration was notorious for its attacks on civil liberties and free
speech, and progressives condemned them. But it's now clear that the
Obama administration has continued the trend -- and appears to be taking
an even more severe stance against those who would leak government
information. As Glenn Greenwald noted:
The Obama DOJ has launched nothing less than a full-on war against
whistleblowers; its magnanimous "Look Forward, Not Backward" decree used
to shield high-level Bush criminals from investigations is manifestly
tossed to the side when it comes to those who reveal such
[If] current reports are correct -- that the Obama DOJ has now convened
a grand jury to indict WikiLeaks and Julian Assange -- this will
constitute a far greater assault on press freedom than anything George
W. Bush managed, or even attempted. Put simply, there is no
intellectually coherent way to distinguish what WikiLeaks has done with
these diplomatic cables with what newspapers around the world did in
this case and what they do constantly: namely, receive and then publish
classified information without authorization...
To criminalize what WikiLeaks is doing is, by definition, to criminalize
the defining attribute of investigative journalism. That, to be sure, is
a feature, not a bug, of the Obama administration's efforts.
Another less-talked-about aspect of the case are the appalling
conditions that 22-year-old Bradley Manning--the U.S. soldier who
accused by the government of turning over massive amounts of information
to WikiLeaks, including the "Collateral Murder" video showing U.S.
troops engaging in the murder of civilians in Iraq, documents showing
U.S. complicity in war crimes and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, and
the more recent leaked diplomatic cables.
According to reports, Manning has been detained for five months in a
military brig in Quantico, Va., under cruel conditions as a so-called
"Maximum Custody Detainee." He is subject to 23-hour-a-day solitary
confinement and constant surveillance, has been refused sheets or
pillows for his bed, and is not allowed even to exercise in his cell.
For the single hour he is allowed out of his cell each day, he is barred
from watching the news or any current events programs, as well as from
speaking to reporters.
The government is almost certainly aiming to eventually try Manning for
crimes including transferring classified data and delivering national
defense information to an unauthorized source--and there is speculation
that if the U.S. is eventually able to extradite Assange to the U.S., he
may be charged as an accomplice to Manning.
According to the New York Times , the Justice Department is "looking
for evidence of any collusion" between WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning --
"trying to find out whether Mr. Assange encouraged or even helped" the
Army private leak the documents. If it finds such evidence, federal
prosecutors will "charge him as a conspirator in the leak, not just as a
passive recipient of the documents who then published them."
Such a charge poses a serious threat to free speech, because it
threatens any journalist who might arrange to receive classified
information and documents directly from government officials or other
The reason that the material Manning is alleged to have leaked was
classified is only because it shows the ugly truth about U.S. wars and
imperialism. In many cases, the revelations in WikiLeaks documents
aren't surprising to anyone who is critical of the U.S. empire--but the
government wants to keep it out of the public eye at all costs.
As Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the famed Pentagon Papers during the
Vietnam War, has repeatedly noted , if Manning is guilty of leaking
the information, then he is a hero, not a criminal. "To call [Manning
and Assange] terrorists is not only mistaken, it's absurd and
slanderous. Neither of them are any more terrorists than I am, and I'm
not," he said.
For just a small taste of the hypocrisy in the Obama administration's
drive to get its hands on Assange, consider that Washington has
repeatedly refused to extradite 23 U.S. CIA agents who were convicted in
absentia in Italy in November 2009 for their role in abducting Osama
Mustafa Hassan, an Egyptian imam, from a street in Milan in 2003.
Hassan, who had political asylum in Italy when he was kidnapped in a
joint CIA and Italian military intelligence operation, was eventually
flown to Egypt, where he says he was tortured as part of George W.
Bush's "extraordinary rendition" program.
Those who carried out these actions, because they were sanctioned by the
U.S. government, will never see a day in prison -- indeed, they are
being shielded by the Obama administration for their crimes. Meanwhile,
U.S. officials hope to exploit Sweden's attempt to extradite Assange in
order to bring him to the U.S. -- whether or not he is ever tried on the
charges over which he is wanted for questioning in Sweden.
Lawyer Mark Stephens told Al Jazeera , for example, that he has been
informed that Swedish authorities have said that if Assange is
extradited to them, "they will defer their interest in him to the
Americans...It does seem to me that what we have here is nothing more
than a holding charge." The United States wants Assange detained, he
said, so "ultimately they can get their mitts on him."
Indeed, in a statement posted on the Swedish Prosecution Authority's Web
site, Marianne Ny, the prosecutor in charge of the Assange case, has
already raised the possibility of Assange being extradited to the U.S.
That Swedish prosecutors are already talking about handing Assange over
to the U.S. for prosecution should give the lie to the idea that Assange
was jailed merely because he is wanted for questioning on the charges in
Instead, international leaders -- who care little for women's rights in
the best of times -- are using the very serious allegations of rape and
sexual assault as a cover for their drive to prosecute Assange for his
work with WikiLeaks. Just as with the sudden calls to "liberate" Afghan
women in the run up to the war in Afghanistan, we should not take their
sudden zeal for women's rights at face value.
As Katrine Axelsson of the group
Women Against Rape pointed out in a
letter to Britain's Guardian newspaper:
women in both Sweden and Britain will wonder at the unusual zeal with
which Julian Assange is being pursued for rape allegations...Though
Sweden has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe and
these have quadrupled in the last 20 years, conviction rates have
decreased. On April 23, 2010, Carina Hägg and Nalin Pekgul (respectively
MP and chairwoman of Social Democratic Women in Sweden) wrote in the
Göteborgs-Posten that "up to 90 percent of all reported rapes never get
to court. In 2006, six people were convicted of rape though almost 4,000
people were reported."
There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for
political agendas that have nothing to do with women's safety. In the
South of the U.S., the lynching of Black men was often justified on
grounds that they had raped or even looked at a white woman.
don't take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape
continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst.“
reality, the prosecution of Assange is part of a government war on
dissent that comes in the context of raids and subpoenas of left-wing
and antiwar activists in Chicago and the Twin Cities  seeking to
criminalize support for, among other things, the growing movement for
justice for the Palestinian people.
They want to chill our right to dissent. If we are to prevent that, we
must stand in defense of the right of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning
and WikiLeaks to expose the crimes committed by the U.S.
Nicole Colson is a features writer at Keene Publishing Corp., Greater
Boston Area, USA. This article first appeared in Socialist Worker
December 17, 2010. The views expressed in this article are not
necessarily those of the IDN Editorial Board. (IDN-InDepthNews/20.12.2010)
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