Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Right to information

The arrest and detention of Julian Assange, founder of the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, has renewed the global debate on balancing freedom of speech and expression or right to information with considerations towards national security of a country. It has also renewed the debate on the right to freedom of expression in the form of investigative journalism, which helps in exposing the nefarious designs of the State i.e. powers of the government in curbing the civil liberties of the citizens across the planet. The powers of State, which have been used and abused by those ruling the roost in the corridors of power against any citizen in any country, have also been questioned by the documents that have been leaked and put in public domain for the information of the peoples of different countries. The question has been whether this is the right procedure to do when the State is enacting laws and process to protect its vested interests ignoring the basic needs of the citizens in the interest of the corporate houses across the globe. It was almost after eight years of eluding authorities in the US and UK, facing charges of theft of classified documents from the government computers, Julian Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on April 11, 2019 after withdrawal of grant of asylum to him. It has happened following Ecuador President Lenin Moreno’s withdrawal of his country’s grant of asylum to Assange for what is called ‘repeated violations to international conventions and daily life protocols’. It is also being seen as buckling under diplomatic pressure from the US and UK besides some other countries for helping in arrest of Julian Assange. Ecuador had earlier limited Assange’s Internet access. As he sits in jail for up to a year on bail-jumping charges from 2012 in a now-closed case relating to sexual assault allegations by a complainant from Sweden, he will find out whether he will ultimately face the prospect of extradition to the US. There, Assange is looking at a single count of conspiring, with former US Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning, to break into a secret government computer network. Conspiracy charges, rather than those under the Espionage Act, are what he will likely face, given concerns in the UK that he should not be extradited to any country where the death penalty is applicable in his case. The centre of the dramatic action is the question whether Assange is a ‘journalist’ in the traditional sense or following the same line, whether freedom of speech and expression is under threat by the action taken in this case. It is an irony that even the liberal voices in America are seeking his interrogation for the alleged conspiracy not as much in the case of diplomatic cables or dissemination of information top-secret US government information but linking of WikiLeaks to rogue actors in Russia, which handed over the Democratic Party documents for putting them on the website. The exposure of the documents tipped the scales in favour of Donald Trump in the elections two and a half back. The question arises whether WikiLeaks can be considered a mainstream media house. If that is not the case, then his arrest brings to the focus troubling facts including his indictment, brought to light only this month for it relates to a conversation he allegedly had nine years ago with US intelligence officer Chelsea Manning on a computer break-in attempt that ultimately failed. In India, the debate is hovering around on the citizens’ right to information about the wrong-doings of the politicians in or out of power after Julian Assange’s arrest. It is also pointed towards the future of investigative journalism which not only threatens the careers of politicians, who just want to hoodwink the masses in electing them to power and become dictators. This is particularly of interest at a time when strongmen-led governments and resurgent nationalism are at the forefront of domestic politics in many countries, the arrest of a prominent anti-secrecy advocate is likely to have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers everywhere. That could ultimately weaken democracy itself not only in India but also elsewhere.