By William Fisher
As pro- and anti-Wikileaks forces ratchet up their battle, and Wikileaks’ impresario marks time in storied, overcrowded, and very Victorian Wandsworth Prison in southwest London, a group of his supporters are taking a different tack. They’re not hacking Visa or Master Card or Sarah Palen; instead they’re speaking out in no uncertain terms. Their message: On balance, Wikileaks has performed a valuable public service for which he is now being persecuted with trumped up sex charges.
These champions of transparency and enemies of government secrecy are the small but vocal community known as the human rights constituency. Many were among the first to defend Wikileaks and among the most vocal.
Joining them is an equally articulate community: the groups that campaign tirelessly for press freedom.
Here are some of the sentiments expressed by these groups when contacted by IPS:
Dinah PoKempner of Human Rights Watch says she “has no information regarding Mr. Assange's personal actions in Sweden and thus no position on his arrest on charges of sexual assault other than that like any suspect in a criminal case, he should be accorded full rights of defense due under international and domestic law.”
However, [her organization does] have concerns at recent allegations from various political figures that the actions of Wikileaks in releasing classified US cables somehow amount to either "terrorism" or "espionage" in the absence of evidence of any intent to attack civilians or endanger national security. Threats made against Mr. Assange's life are particularly reprehensible,” she says.
She added: “Although the quantity of the Wikileaks cable release is unprecedented, the nature of the material is not. Traditional media frequently reveal non-public government information of an embarrassing nature, and this can be in the public interest and in furtherance of the right to receive information in a democratic society. We have expressed concern to Wikileaks that care be taken not to reveal information that endangers lives, and we continue to monitor the disclosures to that end.”
Michael Ratner, the firebrand President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told IPS, “ Wikileaks has played a critical role in giving the American people the truth about the lies the US government has told about its wars, especially those in the Middle East and Central Asia. We were lied to about Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and other places. There can be no issue more important then getting the truth out about war and the drum beats of war; only then can people act responsibly to protest war. Why did no other major newspaper bring the US lies to our attention?”
He pivoted to Assange's arrest, saying, “Yes, the charges for which he is being investigated need to be investigated. Yet the irregularities in the proceeding are glaring. Why was the case dropped originally? Why was he allowed to leave Sweden? Why was an arrest warrant issued to bring him back to Sweden for questioning--which he is willing to do at a Swedish embassy in the UK? Why was bail denied when he surrendered and his lawyers had let the police know he would do so when the warrant was served? Finally, is the hand of the US the answer to these questions? Sweden is not the UK; the US can squash that tiny country. The chances of getting its hands on Assange from there are probably improved--and that may be the story.”
Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU National Security Project, focused on widespread rumors that there is a conspiracy between the U.K. and Sweden to extradite Assange to the United States.
She told us, “We’re deeply skeptical that prosecuting WikiLeaks would be constitutional, or a good idea. The courts have made clear that the First Amendment protects independent third parties who publish classified information. Prosecuting WikiLeaks would be no different from prosecuting the media outlets that also published classified documents”
“If newspapers could be held criminally liable for publishing leaked information about government practices, we might never have found out about the CIA’s secret prisons or the government spying on innocent Americans. Prosecuting publishers of classified information threatens investigative journalism that is necessary to an informed public debate about government conduct, and that is an unthinkable outcome,” she said, adding,
“The broader lesson of the WikiLeaks phenomenon is that President Obama should recommit to the ideals of transparency he invoked at the beginning of his presidency. The American public should not have to depend on leaks to the news media and on whistleblowers to know what the government is up to.”
AMNESTY International played a more direct role than most. It said one of Wiki’s leaked diplomatic cables corroborates images released earlier this year by Amnesty International showing that the U.S. military carried out a missile strike in south Yemen in December 2009 that killed dozens of local civilians, including women and children.
The organization said that in the secret cable from January 2010 published by Wikileaks, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh is reported as having assured U.S. General David Petraeus that his government would “continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”
Human Rights First notes that the latest round of WikiLeaks documents is rousing discussion about U.S. diplomatic relations – but Human Rights First, along with Human Rights Watch, has raised the question of human rights activists who may be at danger if certain information is not redacted. Wikileaks says it has been especially careful in removing those names and, according to human rights activist Chip Pitts, “The US Government has now repeatedly admitted that contrary to their prior alarmist statements no one has come to harm as a result of the Wikileaks disclosures (to which I would add none is likely, since Wikileaks has followed the lead of the other major news outlets in redacting information that would actually endanger lives or national security).
Organizations dedicated to press freedom have been equally outspoken.
Reporters Without Borders says it “can only condemn this determination to hound Assange and reiterates its conviction that WikiLeaks has a right under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment to publish these documents and is even playing a useful role by making them available to journalists and the greater public.”
They say that “any restriction on the freedom to disseminate this body of documents will affect the entire press, which has given detailed coverage to the information made available by WikiLeaks, with five leading international newspapers actively cooperating in preparing it for publication.”
John Kampfner, the chief executive of Index on Censorship, associated with IFEX (the International Freedom of Expression Exchange), says, “Good journalists and editors should be capable of separating the awkward from the damaging. Information that could endanger life, either in the short term or as part of a longer-term operation, should remain secret.”
He predicts: “Once this latest flurry is over, prepare for the backlash. Mr. Assange’s industrial-scale leaking may lead to legislation in a number of countries that makes whistle-blowing harder than it already is. Perhaps the most curious aspect of the Wikileaks revelations is not that they have happened, but it took someone as mercurial as Mr. Assange to be the conduit.”
He added, ”Rather than throwing stones, newspapers should be asking themselves why they did not have the wherewithal to hold truth to power.”
IFEX reiterated its call for “governments to improve the public's access to information, and only limit access if governments can demonstrate it would cause a specific and articulated harm. "The rules should not be used to hide other interests. Indeed, the existing U.S. rules on secrecy prohibit classifying information about crimes and as a means to prevent embarrassment.”
He believes “those rules are ignored far too often."
Chip Pitts, past president and current member of the Executive Committee of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, told us, “Assange’s arrest now further complicates and escalates the situation: The ferocity with which the establishment has targeted Assange reveals its profound concern over the historic new trend toward global transparency Wikileaks exemplifies: if the big thieves can’t keep their thievery secret, what will they do?
He answers his question: “They thus strive with all their might to dramatically quash this upstart before others follow Assange’s example. Yet international as well as U.S. law is now clearly implicated, including international human rights law (for example the rights to free expression – including “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” -- and fair trial) and the particulars of the extradition treaty to which Assange will ultimately be subject (for example Sweden’s, which precludes extradition for “political” offenses).”
Pitts believes these actions “will succeed only if the rule of law continues to be eroded on the global level as it has been at the national level in recent years, with Kafkaesque labels of ‘terrorism’ or ‘espionage’, and invocations of ‘state secrecy’ and ‘military necessity’ being used to chill journalists and shield even the most egregious facts from coming to light – let alone being used to finally hold the high and mighty accountable for their crimes.”