Who Gets To Speak Freely?

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When Pauline Hanson hit the headlines a decade ago, many Australians cringed when she talked about her fear that we were being over run by "Asians" and her outrage that Australia’s Aboriginal population was being given too many special privileges.

At the time, many of us felt that the then Prime Minister, John Howard, should have moved swiftly to shut her down. Howard’s now famous response? "I do not agree with everything she says, but I defend her right to say it." This sentiment was echoed at barbeques across the land.

This defence of the freedom of speech is a double-edged sword. There is no doubt that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of any democratic society. We should be free to criticise our governments, our business leaders, their policies and any other figure that somehow influences our lives.

The question is, however, how far should this go? Freedom of speech has to be tempered with the responsibility that comes with it: Hanson’s words and Howard’s defence of them was an attack on specific Australians. Their comments were framed in a way that was clearly meant to highlight and marginalise an entire section of the Australian population.

Hanson and Howard gave many Australians the green light to share their anti-immigration and anti-Aboriginal statements. And so lines such as this became ubiquitous: "I do not agree with everything that Pauline Hanson says, but…"

What followed the "but" made for uncomfortable discussions such as:

"… she is right, there are too many Asians." (My response: what exactly do you mean by Asians?);

"… she is right, Aboriginals do get too many privileges." (My response: well, if you look at the percentage of the population they represent and the federal budget focussed on such activities, Hanson is wrong’);

"… she is right, India and a bunch of other countries are fiercely anti-white." (My response: really, how so? And if you had your place colonised by a bunch of Brits and your resources raped with no benefits to you, you might be pretty pissed off as well…).

This question of freedom of speech brings us to the current arrest of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange.

It is a debate that is polarising public opinion both in Australia and internationally: Assange is either promoting free speech — or a terrorist who is threatening the nation.

What should we make of the debate arround Assange’s arrest? There are four key points to keep in mind.

First is the hypocrisy of a number of our leaders and those who are now screaming for his arrest. Just over a year ago, Wikileaks was being praised for leaking the emails in what become known as Climategate. These emails highlighted that a handful of climate scientists considered exaggerating certain research outcomes to communicate a great urgency to act on climate change. The leaks, in part, helped derail the Copenhagen climate negotiations. Assange was not attacked for leaking emails that may have dented the opportunity to achieve a real consensus on climate change.

Secondly we should also remember that Assange is accused of rape in Sweden. Now, according to some, these accusations do not quite stack up, but regardless these are serious accusations that should be properly investigated. Assange was asked about these charges in late October on CNN’s Larry King Live and dismissed them as a "relatively trivial matter" — adding that King should be "ashamed" for raising the subject. King, a veteran presenter reminded Assange of the seriousness of the accusations and responded with the follow line: "Rape is not trivial. To say they were false, that’s your answer. ‘They’re false.’ That’s fine. That’s all we wanted to hear."

The third aspect is that Assange is in a highly precarious position. Assange raves about radical transparency but WikiLeaks does not have a fixed address nor does it offer us any understanding of its mechanisms for accountability. Like a politician standing on a "family values" platform, Assange has to be prepared to have his own organisation’s processes and funding open to examination — otherwise he is open to accusations of hypocrisy. Similarly, Assange must take responsibility for the outcomes of the leaks — because the results can be devastating for innocent people caught in the crossfire.

Finally, we should praise Wikileaks for the work it has done in exposing the lies and ineptiude behind by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The leaks have disclosed important new facts about the torture of detainees by the US (and yes, Australian) allies, the role of Iran, the number of civilian deaths and casualties, the serious problems in privatising security and the real cost to the US. It presents us with a more realistic picture of life in nations where we have been involved in helping create chaos that causes thousands to flee — to nations such as Australia.

Our increasingly vacuous Prime Minister should support this Australian citizen and call for his fair trial. Julia Gillard might not agree with everything Julian Assange says but she should not join the chorus of those calling for his persecution.

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