Free Speech Is S*xy Again


Wikileaks is the news story that just keeps on giving. With juicy leaks coming on a daily basis, and the entire drama personified in the fascinating person of Julian Assange, Australians are going to grow fat on a generous diet of Wikileaks news for the foreseeable future.

The Prime Minister’s hasty decision to slam Assange and to harangue him as a criminal has heightened the spectacle. With the public, media and legal profession falling behind Assange, many are now asking how the Prime Minister could have been so tone deaf to public sentiment. Not only will her comments on Assange further erode respect for her government and alienate a new group of supporters, they have ensured that the Cablegate affair will have consequences long after the last of the purloined cables has been published.

The global backlash against Wikileaks has elevated the leaks to the status of an "information war". We started with vociferous denunciations, allusions to criminality and the blood-on-his-hands flavour of rhetoric. Then the screws were turned on Wikileaks’ business relationships with domain hosts and payment providers. The battle escalated as Wikileaks’ sympathisers fired back, attacking the infrastructure of any entity thought to be cooperating in shutting down the site. The war shows no sign of ending any time soon; a new front has been opened in the USA, with anti-Wikileaks legislation already drafted and espionage charges reportedly imminent.

Exciting stuff, but from the point of view of aggrieved governments, the narrative has gone awry. Instead of a swift, decisive reaction to an act of info-terrorism, the public clearly see Wikileaks as freedom fighters and Assange more as Che Guevara than Osama bin Laden. The more he is slammed, and the more legal muscle that is brought to bear against him, the more romantic his struggle seems. In the end, Assange’s fate may be no happier than Che’s, but as a martyr for free speech he may change the debate around information freedom in profound ways.

For one, we can now hold our governments to account for the nice things they have had to say about the power of the internet in the past. The US and Australia applaud loudly when information freedom causes strife in Iran or angers the Chinese government. When these supposed enemies of freedom are brought to heel by leaks and tweeting citizens, our leaders are all for internet freedom. It seems like a long time ago but it was only in January this year when Hillary Clinton gave a landmark speech entitled "Remarks on Internet Freedom". She said:

And despite an intense campaign of government intimidation, brave citizen journalists in Iran continue using technology to show the world and their fellow citizens what is happening inside their country. In speaking out on behalf of their own human rights, the Iranian people have inspired the world. And their courage is redefining how technology is used to spread truth and expose injustice.

It’s revealing to cite this speech at length. Clinton continued:

And as we work together with the private sector and foreign governments to deploy the tools of 21st century statecraft, we have to remember our shared responsibility to safeguard the freedoms that I’ve talked about today. We feel strongly that principles like information freedom aren’t just good policy, not just somehow connected to our national values, but they are universal and they’re also good for business.

Our own government hailed this speech, albeit in a pretty tepid and self-serving fashion. Senator Conroy released a statement saying, "Secretary Clinton rightly acknowledged the power of the internet to break down language barriers, overcome illiteracy, connect people to information and services, exchange ideas and hold their government’s (sic) to account."

Compare this to the reactions to Assange over the last few weeks. Does Secretary Clinton still think information freedom is a "national value", and is holding government to account still a good thing?

As the attacks on Wikileaks intensify and attorneys-general scour the text books for some way to lock up Assange (which will do nothing to stem the flow of information), the US Department of State, apparently without irony, announced it was hosting "World Press Freedom Day" next year. Where does hypocrisy end and double-think begin?

More profoundly, the Cablegate affair is certain to shift community attitudes to press freedom. The next time our Government attempts to advance their agenda of censoring the Australian internet or tries to weaken protection for whistleblowers, the chickens they set free with their condemnation of Assange will come home to roost. The politicians will talk about child protection, or violent content, or perhaps invoke the spectre of terrorism one more time as a reason to limit the free flow of information. But these trump cards will no longer work.

People who previously had no greater interest in internet freedom than they did in Arabic poetry or Civil War re-enactments will instantly call to mind the persecuted Assange, and remember how politicians squirmed with embarrassment as their dirty laundry was aired. People will remember that we learned our government’s real attitudes to the Afghan war, that a member of our government was a source of information for the U.S. embassy, and how ineffective our ally thought our Prime Minister was. And they will react with scepticism.

Who would have thought a silver-haired Melbournian could make free speech so exciting? But the fact that he has is a shot in the arm for democracy in this country, and for this we owe Assange a debt of thanks.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.