Daily Archives: August 30, 2012
Julian Assange is currently seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Assange is an interesting character with some quirky and brilliant personality traits, but these are not my main concern. Assange is considered a criminal in the United States because he gained access to secret documents by way of an American soldier named Bradley Manning. Manning is imprisoned in the US for leaking documents to Assange.
Assange manages the website Wikileaks which organizes and makes available thousands of government and diplomatic documents once classified as “secret.” Assange makes the argument that his work is centered in the long tradition of open expression and the importance of citizens keeping an eye on their government. Wikileaks publishes information from whistleblowers and seeks to make political governance a far more open process. Assange is no fringe character. He considers himself a revolutionary democratic leader devoted to freedom and has been the recipient of awards from Amnesty International, Time Magazine, and other journalistic outlets. The governments from which he took documents do not quite see it that way. They see Assange as challenging the security rights of the United States and violating laws designed to protect the nation. The US wants to charge Assange with jeopardizing national security, a charge that could result in life imprisonment. Hence we have the tension between freedom of information and security.
In what has been described as an Evita moment, Assange gave a speech from the Ecuadorian Embassy balcony which you can see here: Wikileaks
There was a large crowd and he spoke of freedom of the press. There have been other cases where journalists have reported from what is considered to be improper access to government documents. The Pentagon papers in the United States, albeit under quite different political and military conditions, were also considered a potential threat to national security. Israel has more than a few examples of journalists writing stories based on classified documents.
Opinions differ on this matter. Some see Assange, Bradley Manning, and journalists who report from secret government documents as traitors who reveal government secrets and expose the nation to damages that result from security breaches. On the other hand, they can be seen as advocates for free speech and transparent information for exposing the public to a full critical analysis of issues facing them. Some people take a third position by parsing the issues into justified and unjustified release of information. Thus, they criticize hacking into American government sites but support the release of documents from authoritarian governments such as those in Syria, Zimbabwe, or Saudi Arabia.
Because Assange is an interesting and charismatic figure, and because he has been accused of sex crimes (always a matter of interest), he has been able to use his celebrity status to rally thousands of people around the world and perhaps delay his arrest and generate interest in his cause. But it remains the case that all governments support their own security interests. And they will all in the end oppose improper access and leaking of classified material. Moreover, they will continue to sing songs of media freedom but maintain a common refrain about their own security rights. The tension between freedom of the press and security will continue because many documents marked “secret” are not really very important. It is easy to classify a document as secret but much less easy to justify the content of the document as truly requiring a “secret” classification.
There is no easy answer to these issues but the following are necessary in a democratic society, which is where we must begin. Openness to information is a far less threat to the general body politic than excessive secrecy or security. From the Johannesburg Principles on National Security and Freedom of Expression (http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/standards/joburgprinciples.pdf) we can quickly pose the following requirements for a democratic society that wants to limit freedom of expression:
To establish a restriction on freedom of expression or information it is necessary to protect a legitimate national security interest, a government must demonstrate that: (a) the expression or information at issue poses a serious threat to a legitimate national security interest; (b) the restriction imposed is the least restrictive means possible for protecting that interest; and (c) the restriction is compatible with democratic principles.
In the next post I will turn our attention more specifically to the legal and philosophical issues that we must grapple with in order to balance the freedom of expression versus security scale.