In 2010, a little known whistleblowing site came to public prominence with the release of a video called Collateral Murder. Since then, WikiLeaks has become a center of media attention, bringing issues of transparency and government secrecy to the world. Revelations of leaked material exposed corruption of institutions and governments and called out the illegitimacy of governments at a global scale. WikiLeaks provided vital information and engaged the public with the right to know. No one can deny their impact on society. After the birth of WikiLeaks, the world has changed.
By creatively using the platform of the globally connected Internet, WikiLeaks shook up the existing power structures. Their document releases and the controversies surrounding them brought up questions regarding the First Amendment, particularly what these basic human rights mean now in a global context. At the Hope 9 conference in New York, ACLU lawyer Catherine Crump pointed out how the WikiLeaks case revealed the need to reexamine national laws and the broader ramification of their interpretation in a digitized world. The borderless domain of the Internet opened a new horizon within societies that for decades have been governed by national laws and boundaries.
On the one hand, there are authoritarian and repressive governments such as those in China and Bahrain that suppress any form of dissent. Bahrain, a key US ally recently banned protesting and revoked the citizenship of 31 opposition activists for allegedly having ‘undermined state security.’ On the other side there are Western countries such as United States where speech freedom has traditionally been protected, though this distinction is fast fading. There has been a trend of using international laws and treaties to thwart and suppress the free flow of information between people globally. Many political leaders across the West pay lip service to such things as human rights and democracy with rhetoric like ‘humanitarian intervention‘, while actually serving the forces that work against basic human rights and justice.
These forces to control people are now being met by the impulse to create structures that protect the basic rights of free communication and association. The potential to harmonize laws and emerging principles of justice into unified values is being realized in various instances. The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) is a good example of people coming together to crowd-source progressive legislation from around the world in order to battle against threat of legal attacks on journalism. It is meant to create a safe haven for investigative journalists everywhere and safeguard media outlets with source protection. While Hollywood and the copyright industries attempt to exercise further control over digital communication through insidious censorship bills disguised as copyright law, grassroots activists and everyday people’s resistance continue to fight such efforts. Which direction the world will move -toward a more authoritarian or a more free society remains to be seen.
WikiLeaks is a transnational organization that was born within the stateless infrastructure of the Internet. It provides a platform for people to challenge structural laws that protect government abuses of individual rights. Julian Assange spoke about how in some ways WikiLeaks is bringing the First Amendment to the world. At a rally in Melbourne for Julian Assange, founding member of WikiLeaks Dan Mathews shared an idea that lived at the heart of the organization from the start:
“The people of this world are treated like mushrooms: Kept in the dark, and fed shit. Wikileaks is a fundamentally anti-mushroom organization…. Wikileaks proposed that the people reject their status as fungi – find out what their governments are doing, what corporations are doing, what the powerful are doing, what the 1% are doing.”
He quoted their original mission statement from 2006:
“WL may become the most powerful intelligence agency on earth, an intelligence agency of the people. It will be an open source, democratic intelligence agency… It will have no commercial or national interests at heart; its only interests will be truth and freedom of information…”
With the ever increasing influence of corporations in every aspect of society, civic power has weakened dramatically. Citizens are made into consumers, to be entertained and fed superficial distractions that don’t fundamentally matter. Democracy has turned into a façade of the corporate version of the free market, as the right to choose and consume manufactured products. The word liberty has been reduced to mean the right to freely purchase goods we often don’t even need, or to choose which corporate party to vote for. Politics, laws and the idea of justice have become abstract for most people. Unless we were interfered with directly by the law, receiving first-hand experience of the deep injustice and inequity of society, people rarely have any need to think of the erosion of their rights as citizens. After all, when human actions are narrowly defined within a commercial arena, what might the Bill of Rights have to do with our lives? Laws and knowledge of the world have become abstract thoughts to be studied in school by lawyers and scholars. When language gets abstracted, people lose their relationship to what the words actually mean. Democratic principles such as free speech become empty words. As a result, many have become spectators in their own world as if they are not participating in the unfolding of their own history and destiny.
While much of the public is divorced from events in the world, WikiLeaks challenged the bubble of insulated reality. The Collateral Murder video showed the true face of war that the public never sees in the mainstream media. It helped make injustice and suffering of the world more real and personal. People have begun waking up to the lies and abuses of power, have begun questioning the legitimacy of governments and realizing that the people can have an unfiltered voice.
WikiLeaks showed how freedoms of speech and the press are pillars of any healthy society. It has now become more clear what happens when information is blocked and when it is freed. Freedom of information is the precursor to free speech. Freedom of speech is the outer manifestation of free and independent thinking and for this to manifest, people need to access true representations of reality, concealed information and marginalized views that challenge the official narratives.
From this perspective, the leaking of sensitive documents is an act of free speech. WikiLeaks performed a critical duty of the Press; magnifying voices of whistleblowers who align themselves with the spirit of freeing information. Such an act is true to the founding American ideals. Historically, rights stemming from the First Amendment are recognized and granted as inherent to the balance of power outlined by the US Constitution. It reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.
Aside from its well-known protection of free speech, the First Amendment guarantees free assembly, the right to associate with anyone and freely voice opinions, especially those criticizing their own governments. The idea behind the First Amendment is deeply rooted in the country’s founding document, The Declaration of Independence:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form …
What is stated in this history-making document is a declaration of the supreme power of the common man. Even if it remains an ideal and a large gap remains to be filled in reality, it was a move away from the single power of a monarchy, by a King, aristocrat or elected official. It recognizes the ordinary human being as the active critical agent within any society. Independence of citizens in their thoughts and actions from outside forces such as governments, religions or corporations is fundamental to this declaration and made explicit in the First Amendment. This independence makes it possible for people to freely connect with fellow citizens and organize and to form a type of government based on mutual aid.
Is the First Amendment a universal right, something claimed by all people in the world? WikiLeaks answered this question through their actions. The global stateless dimension of the Internet created loopholes in existing national laws and power structures. On the platform of this borderless Inter-network, a transnational domain has been created where the First Amendment can be applied anywhere. Vital information that had been concealed and controlled within nation-state and corporate boundaries could now be set free.
WikiLeaks burst a strait jacket of sorts, freeing information from the control of the nation-state paradigm. It affected countries where there is little free speech. For instance, leaked US diplomatic cables put legitimacy of governments under broad scrutiny in places like Tunisia. Materials evidencing corruption and lies of officials everywhere shook up the official cover provided by corporate media that is embedded with state power. It helped make what Tunisians already knew undeniable and added fuel to the rage that later became the Tunisian uprising. Such courageous actions created a ripple effect in the world. When the Tunisian government blocked leaked State Department cables, pro-WikiLeaks computer hackers went into Tunisian government websites and redirected the material through another route for the public to access. In 2011, Egypt dictator Mubarak shut down all but one of his country’s Internet service providers in the face of the uprising, Telecomix, a decentralized cluster of Internet activists kept communication lines open for people.
Months after the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks cables had fueled the fire in another part of the world; this time in Mexico, bolstering a peaceful youth movement against the political corruption of the media. “The TV is yours,” read one banner, “but Mexico is ours.” In June 10, more than 90,000 protesters took part in a mass demonstration. The students continue to protest, calling for democratization of the media while many challenged the validity of the recent election.
Revelations of Cablegate burst into Latin America, having a fresh impact on corrupt politics, changing media and public perspectives on major issues. It affected the course of a presidential election in Peru, transformed the media in Brazil and in two countries led to the departure of the US ambassadors.
Defending free speech and free association means to uphold the supreme right and power of the common man. With this realization, ordinary people are now beginning to engage in critically examining their own governments worldwide. What we see is a wave of uprisings. People have begun to connect with their neighbors, organizing and addressing grievances and have begun tearing down despotic governments. The impact of freeing information and acting on it is reverberating all over the world.
WikiLeaks brought the First Amendment to regions where communication is limited and historically suppressed. This act of liberation was met with vicious attacks by the White House. At a Pentagon briefing in August 2010, White House Spokesman Geoff Morrell condemned WikiLeaks public disclosure of classified documents. In early 2011, the DOJ subpoenaed Twitter accounts of several WikiLeaks volunteers and other individuals who were associated with the organization. It demanded a large scope of user information including their mailing addresses and billing information etc. Recently, a federal judge ruled that the documents subpoenaed from the WikiLeaks Twitter account will remain under seal to preserve an ongoing criminal investigation.
In December 2010, private companies such as PayPal, Visa and MasterCard froze the organization’s account through extrajudicial financial blockade. Recently revealed Australian diplomatic cables showed the US government investigation targeting WikiLeaks goes back as early as July 2010. The unprecedented scale of investigation of WikiLeaks and their supporters continues to this day.
Assange has become a major focus of this attack. The iconic December 2010 Time magazine photo of Assange being silenced by the American flag captured the true nature of the US attitude about transparency for the whole world to see. High profile US political figures such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin had called for his murder. Vice president Joe Biden called him a high tech terrorist. Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich called Assange an “enemy combatant” and said that he deserves to be hunted down and executed. US senator Dianne Feinstein demanded the prosecution of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Established media institutions such as New York Times and the Guardian jumped on the wagon to discredit and attack WikiLeaks with hit pieces smearing Assange by engaging in cheap tabloid journalism. Four Corners reporter Andrew Fowler in the documentary, Sex, Lies and Julian Assange looked into what is behind the allegation of sexual misconduct in Sweden. It revealed how a man wanted for questioning on flimsy, manipulated ‘evidence’ has morphed into rape allegations in the minds of millions.
Then came the final straw. In late September, the Sydney Morning Herald reported the US military had designated Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as enemies of the State. The article noted how “Declassified US Air Force counter-intelligence documents, released under US freedom-of-information laws reveal that military personnel who contact WikiLeaks or WikiLeaks supporters may be at risk of being charged with “communicating with the enemy”, a military crime that carries a maximum sentence of death.
Harassment and threats began against anyone associated with Assange and WikiLeaks. Jacob Applebaum, computer security researcher and a core member of the TOR project experienced several accounts of interrogations and surveillance since he volunteered for the site. Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson was held up on a flight from London to Sydney for ‘security reasons’. Robinson was told that she is on an “inhibited” list of mysterious origin and that the Australian High Commission in London needed to be contacted before her departure. Guests of Assange show The World Tomorrow were questioned seemingly for their association with Assange. Jérémie Zimmermann, a co-founder of cyber freedoms group La Quadrature du Net was detained on his way from the US to France after filming the episode of Assange’s show. Bahrain rights activist, Nabeel Rajab was arrested at Bahrain’s international airport upon his return from Lebanon in April. Although the Bahrani authorities didn’t give reasons for their action, it took place directly after his episode on Assange’s show.
These acts of intimidation have been carried out mostly under the radar. Then the NDAA was signed by Obama, a law which totally abrogates the fundamental tenants of the Constitution and gives to the president the power to detain anyone without charge indefinitely, including US citizens simply for association with anyone defined as ‘terrorists’. Obama’s kill list, along with his unprecedented prosecution of whistleblowers and endless attacks on WikiLeaks have revealed the previously hidden motives of this empirical mindset. For those who have been following the steps of US government, this all-out attack on Assange and WikiLeaks may not come as a surprise. The designation ‘enemy of the state’ now can mean anyone who challenges imperial power according to the NDAA.
In such a fast-changing political climate, it is important to pose the question: Who are the people being made into ‘enemies of the state’? They are occupiers and young people called ‘anarchists’ as if that is a kind of terrorist. They are whistleblowers who take risks inside the system to awaken the public to the government and institutional wrongdoing. They are journalists and activists. In November 2011, journalists covering a police raid on OWS at Zuccotti Park were arrested. Journalists and filmmakers even in the US are being interrogated and detained at borders, often for purely political reasons. In October, Pakistani politician and activist Imran Khan was taken off a flight to New York in Toronto Canada for his outspoken views on drones and interrogated by the US Customs authorities. Oscar-and Emmy-nominated filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras was repeatedly intimidated at the US border.
But what are their crimes? In mid-October, an FBI task force raided a home in Portland, Oregon and young persons in Seattle were called to a grand jury for owning books that were identified as ‘anti-government or anarchistic’. Three activists were put in jail after refusing to speak at a grand jury. Protesters peacefully demonstrating were arrested and brutally attacked for engaging in activities that historically have been protected under the First Amendment. Journalists seeking truth and bringing vital information are treated as a threat to the national security.
Whistleblower Bradley Manning, who recently acknowledged responsibility for releasing classified documents as an act of conscience, believed information should be free. For exposing U.S war crimes, he has been detained way beyond the legal time limit in conditions that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture said amounted to torture. Web developer and political activist, Jeremy Hammond was accused of providing documents from Strategic Forecasting Inc (Stratfor) to WikiLeaks. He has been charged with electronic infiltration and detained. He was placed into solitary confinement for 5 days during super storm Sandy. Hammond believed in creating “an army so powerful we won’t need weapons.” In a statement to his supporters, he wrote:
“They call us robbers and fraudsters when the big banks get billion dollar bailouts and kick us out of our homes. They call us gun runners and drug dealers when pharmaceutical corporations and defense contractors profit from trafficking armaments and drugs on a far greater scale. They call us ‘terrorists’ when NATO and the US military murder millions of innocents around the world and employ drones and torture tactics. And they call us cyber-criminals when they themselves develop viruses to spy on and wage war against infrastructure and populations in other countries.”
Wikileak’s alleged ‘crimes’ were publishing the truth, exposing government crimes, secrecy and lies. Their ‘crime’ was exercising and defending free speech and as a result embarrassing the governments that abuse it and violate human rights around the world. Their ‘crime’ was acting as a watchdog in the spirit of the First Amendment and challenging the false legitimacy of governments that ensnare man’s will under their authority
Many have responded to defend Wikileaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. Perhaps we have seen ourselves in Assange, his face smothered by an American flag. We have all become Bradley Manning. It was not just about one individual wrongly treated by those on the wrong side of history. The accused have become the face of something we all cherish. Yet each has been branded an enemy of the State. So what is an enemy of the State really? By attacking WikiLeaks, what is the US government fighting? Their reaction reveals deep seated fear.
This government seems threatened by basic First Amendment free speech activity, the right to assemble and foremost the coalescing power of ordinary people globally. It is becoming clear that the War on WikiLeaks and whistleblowers is an unprecedented war on the First Amendment. By persecuting the organization that stands up for this primary Constitutional pillar, the US government has declared the war on the very principles on which this country was founded. The US, once a beacon of light for the world is now betraying its own ideals.
“There is unity in the oppression. There must be absolute unity and determination in the response” Assange spoke from balcony of Ecuadorian embassy as a large crowd cheered him. In the face of enemies, our common humanity is revealed. When WikiLeaks was met with financial blockade, Anonymous stepped forward to fight for justice. Allies of freedom of speech mobilized across the globe.
When Australia’s largest newspaper reported the branding of Assange as an enemy of the state, Twitter hashtag #EnemiesOfTheState quickly trended and around the world people swarmed with disbelief at such a radical statement and showed solidarity with their hero who had been declared an enemy of the Empire. Supporters in Melbourne conducted sit-ins at the US Consulate in response to this authoritarian labeling of their fellow Australian.
In the end, the war on the First Amendment has actually made us all enemies of the state. In the face of this, people are connecting around the world, unconstrained by narrow ideologies of nationalism or fear. Obama’s reelection marked the 248th day of political prisoner Jeremy Hammond’s detention without trial and the 899th day of detention of Bradley Manning. It marked the 701st day of Julian Assange’s detention without charge as he remains held up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan of ‘Forward’ promises war and bankster business as usual. ‘Forward’ with Guantanamo bay, drone attacks and illegal wars as the world is drifting into financial and social dystopia. Directly after his ‘win’, he bombed Yemen and his first foreign policy was to put further sanctions on Iran. At this very moment, as Israel conducts a large-scale bombardment on Gaza, he continuously supports Israel’s aggression.
The Founding Fathers of the United States spoke of the responsibility of each citizen to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The persecution of WikiLeaks is about the freedom of all people. It is about us. The story of this battle for Free Speech is our story. History will remember that the birth of WikiLeaks brought hope for free speech throughout the world. Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope regarded freedom of speech as the most beautiful thing in the world. Mario Savio, spokesperson for the FSM in the 60’s said:
“Freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is … That’s what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely. It is almost impossible for me to describe. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”
Now is the time for people to uphold the First Amendment, as the highest law of the land is the law of all the earth. Her veins flow with the blood of passion for justice and compassion for brothers and sisters who see no borders. The WikiLeaks case reminds us of an important lesson: that freedom of speech is not for one country alone. It belongs to the world. This always has been and always will be.