Britain appears to have got itself into a Catch-22 situation regarding Julian
Assange, who is currently in refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in
Assange is wanted in the US for his publishing of hundreds of
secret documents on WikiLeaks which, the Americans argue, has caused damage to
the country’s security and to the safety of its soldiers and military personnel
serving in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Assange, an Australian citizen, has been
charged with sexual offences in Sweden.
The Swedish government has
requested that the British government extradite him to Sweden to face these
charges. In turn, Assange and his supporters argue that these are trumped-up
charges which have been made as a means of extraditing him from Sweden to the
USA to face charges of endangering US national security, which could, if he is
found guilty, result in life imprisonment.
For the past two months,
Assange has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Last week, the
Ecuadorian government decided to grant Ecuadorian citizenship to Assange, which
would enable him to travel to Ecuador without the fear of being arrested there.
In turn, the British government has announced that the minute Assange leaves the
diplomatic safety of the Ecuadorian embassy he will be arrested on British soil
and sent to Sweden to face trial.
The British government intimated last
week it may go as far as infringing the diplomatic protection afforded by a
foreign embassy in an effort to have Assange arrested, resulting in the exchange
of harsh accusations and counter accusations between the Ecuadorian and British
The British foreign minister, William Hague, has partially
backed down but has reiterated the fact that the minute Assange steps outside
the embassy he will be arrested and sent on to Sweden, according the ruling of
the British courts.
Assange, an Australian citizen, is best known for his
role as editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, a media website which has published
information from whistleblowers.
Its stated purpose is to create open
governance and freedom of the press without censorship, through the publication
of leaked material and documents.
Assange has received numerous awards
and nominations, including the 2009 Amnesty International Media Award, Time
’s 2010 person of the year award, and the 2011 Martha Gellhorn prize for
Whether or not Assange committed sexual misdemeanors in
Sweden is unclear. But, for most observers, the charges against him in Sweden
are too closely linked with the criticism of his decisions to publish the
hundreds of documents on WikiLeaks, for them to be seen as anything other than
an issue of freedom of expression and the right to publish material which is of
interest to hundreds of thousands of people, but which the US government would
prefer to remain classified and secret.
In Assange’s speech from the
balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy Sunday, Assange did not even mention the
charges against him in Sweden – he only discussed the issue of media freedom
before tens of cheering supporters.
Meanwhile, an American soldier,
Bradley Manning, has been in prison in the US for almost two years, part of the
time under strict conditions of solitary confinement, for having leaked
documents to Assange. His trial has not yet started and there is strong
criticism of the conditions he has been held in for much of this
Compare this to a similar situation in Israel. Uri Blau, a
journalist for the Haaretz
newspaper, published an expose of the targeted
killing of two Islamic Jihad terrorists by the IDF in Jenin in June 2007, based
on the leaking of classified military documents.
This led to the arrest
and indictment of Anat Kam who, as military clerk with access to classified
material, had released the documents to Blau.
She was eventually
sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for leaking the documents, most of which were
returned before being published. The severity of the sentence, even after a plea
bargain, was because of the potential security implications of the publication
of these documents, as presented at the closed trial by the
Blau, too, has now been indicted for having these documents
in his possession – before returning them to the army. His return from the UK
was negotiated in such a way that he would not be arrested if the documents were
returned to the army. Even his recent indictment has resulted in a plea bargain,
in which he will be sentenced to a period of community service.
the past five years, Blau has published investigative journalism articles
exposing alleged corruption among many of Israel’s political leaders. It would
be safe to say that Blau is not one of the government’s most popular
In both the cases of Assange and Blau, opinions are
There are those who see them as traitors, prepared to expose
classified material to the public and thus cause security damage to their
respective countries and endanger lives of security personnel.
those who see them as champions of free speech, enabling the public to receive
full and transparent information about the critical issues facing the societies
within which they live.
And, ironically, there is a third group of people
whose positions are split along national lines. There are Israelis who criticize
the US and British governments for their anti-Assange positions, arguing for the
freedom of speech and open media, while equally criticizing Blau and Kam for
their releasing of documents which endanger Israel’s security.
Americans who are supportive of the release of documents which enable the world
to understand the policies of the Israeli government, while criticizing Assange
and Manning for having endangered US security and military personnel.
both cases, it has been the minor military personnel – Kam and Manning – who
have taken the fiercest rap for their leaking the documents to the journalists
in the first place.
For their part, both Assange and Blau have been able
to use their public status as journalists, with instant access to hundreds of
thousands of people throughout the world, to prevent immediate arrest or
imprisonment, while they play for time and seek plea bargains or (in the case of
Assange a unique form of diplomatic immunity).
All governments tend to
come together and clam up when they feel their security has been
This is even more the case since 9/11 and the perceived
threat of global terrorism.
In this respect, the USA, Britain and Israel
have a common enemy and they will clearly prefer to come down hard on potential
leaking of classified material, even if they fully acknowledge that such
censorship prevents a truly open media – even in an era of internet and mass
global diffusion of information – from taking place.
They will continue
to argue that they remain societies where freedom of expression and freedom of
the media is as open as possible, certainly when compared to many other
countries which have far stronger censorship laws. When the two public goods –
freedom of media and security – are pitted against each other as part of the
public discourse, governments will always opt for the latter.
security cannot be used as a blanket reason for denying the public to right to
know. In both cases, thousands of documents were involved, many of which do not
necessarily have a direct impact upon critical security issues. It is all too
easy to stamp the words “classified” or “secret” on documents which are
uncomfortable for decision makers, but which do not have life-threatening
As long as military censors are not responsible to any
higher civilian authority, the public will always demand the right to know and
will not see the leaking of such documents as an offense which requires a
draconian response from of national governments. The writer is dean of the
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University, the views
expressed are his own.