Julian Assange has come to redefine activism and change the face of modern journalism. A self-styled champion of free speech and a believer in the concept of "open-governance". But can this nomadic Australian-born computer genius actually face the consequences of his own invention?
In 2010, Assange became famous for releasing to the public some of the most damaging US diplomatic cables many of which were confidential and secret information on the website Wikileaks. His idea is to lift the veil on the internal workings of governments round the world, in an attempt to create this concept of open governance where the activities of the world's superpowers can be put in check. A laudable idea if you ask me, and a very attractive one too to all journalists round the world. But behind the excitement of this type of method lies a very disturbing reality. What could be the potential consequence of highly classified diplomatic files ending up in the public domain, accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection? As much as Assange wants a free and open world politics, did he actually contemplate the potential dangers inherent in unveiling the private activities of sovereign nations in full glare of the public?
In an age of terrorism, ethnic violence and cyber warfare, how will these information be processed by the public? Imagine Al Qaeda learning the internal workings of the American government through some of those diplomatic cables, imagine previous allied countries suddenly developing animosity towards one another due to exposed private discussions of its diplomats, imagine a continent like Africa where there are many ethnic groups and strong affiliations to these groups, where politics is still largely conducted along ethnic lines, will deal with private discussions of its rulers. There are so many potential dangers to putting private government information in the public space. First of all, the public are not trained to process the information contained therein and many will interprete the information out of context. Lives will be put at risk in environments where there are deep political and ethnic divisions.
Many see Assange as a hero and a man fighting for the ordinary people. But this is also a man who in times of adversity is ready to "dine with the devil", by seeking asylum in a country whose ideals and track record are almost completely opposite to what he believes. Ecuador is a country ruled by a President notorious for curtailing press freedoms and prosecuting journalists who dare challenge him. In 2011, Human Rights Watch revealed Ecuador's President Rafael Correa's war on Press freedoms in his country. But here he is protecting Julian Assange, who if was an Ecuadorian journalist would have been facing jail for his activities. It is an irony that Rafael Correa prosecutes Assange-types in his country and yet Assange is willing to seek protection from such a country. He contradicts himself in my opinion.
Activists like Assange are rare, he's an intelligent man with a flawed world view. There is no way governments can run with absolute transparency. It is a myth and a dangerous one at that. Revealing these government secrets publicly, whatever they are, could be likened to releasing private personal information of individuals on a public website which is certainly a crime. Governments have a right to privacy and secrecy, though criminal activities of governments should be exposed in the right manner, and not in a public space, because many ordinary people wouldnt even know what to do with such information. And some may use them for even more criminal ends.
Julian Assange's stand-off with America is set to go on for as long as he is willing to remain in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The UK has guaranteed he wouldn't be granted a safe passage to Ecuador, and will be handed over to Swedish authorities where he has a pending case of sexual assault and rape. Whether the allegations against him in Sweden are true is yet to be ascertained, but I wont be surprised if they are, as everyone fears, trumped up charges to facilitate his extradition to the US. I am not saying the US is right to seek prosecution against Julian Assange under its Espionage Act, afterall, earlier this year they protected the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng against authorities of his own country by giving him refuge at the US embassy in China and facilitated his onward asylum in America. But I believe sovereign countries have the right to keep their secret and confidential files the way they intended. It is a sovereign right of every nation and a threat to that right is a form of aggression.
Julian Assange has a lot of admirers and supporters all over the world, and I completely understand that. But the potential of his methods is one that fills me with trepidation.