Security versus freedom of the press

Borderline Views: 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 implications.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks to press 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks to press 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor)
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 London.
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 governments.
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 Magazine’s 2010 person of the year award, and the 2011 Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism.
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 time.
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 prosecutors.
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.
During 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 journalists.
In both the cases of Assange and Blau, opinions are polarized.
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.
There are 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.
There are 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.
In 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 endangered.
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.
But 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 implications.
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.