The messenger has been shot
“The publication of the said (Rafale) documents in The Hindu newspaper reminds the (Supreme) Court of the consistent views of this court upholding the freedom of the press in a long line of decisions…”
This was it. This was the ‘clean chit’ the free press in India hoped for in a long time. These words by the Chief Justice of India accorded The Hindu the deserved validation of its decision to publish defence documents relating to the Modi Government’s Rafale deal with France. The Government of the day can no longer claim “secrecy” of the documents in order to prevent their publication. The Hindu, meanwhile, had a field day in its editorial on April 11, a day after the Court’s verdict.
“The (Court’s) decision revivifies the right of a free press and underscores the principle that it is public interest, and not the content of a document alone, that will decide whether disclosure is needed or not in a given case,” they said. Free Press – 1, Secretive Government – 0. Or it seemed so, at that moment.
Hours after this positive development in India, and years after a similar feat by news organisation WikiLeaks, its founder Julian Paul Assange was detained and placed under arrest in the United Kingdom. The optics of the arrest were a shocking one for many. “You must resist,” shouted Assange as he was cuffed and dragged outside the Ecuadorian embassy in the UK, clutching a copy of a Gore Vidal book on National Security in America. Resist what exactly? The United States Justice Department’s indictment on charges of a computer hacking conspiracy? Or rape allegations in his home country of Sweden which he vehemently denies? Definitely arguable cases, be it state-sponsored or not. The underlying issue here, however, is how it all started and how it came to this.
WikiLeaks began its work on releasing sensitive and compromising documents ever since its formation in 2006. While much of their work has always touched on security-related issues, such as the 2007 release of the Guantanamo Bay protocol documents, it was 2010 that set the tone for WikiLeaks and Assange to redefine not just their statuses personally, but also set a precedent in journalism history. The infamous release of the Iraq War and Afghanistan War files that year seemed to have touched a nerve with the U.S. Security Establishment, but definitely shocked the world. “Narcissist”, “fraud”, and “a coward” is how CIA Director Mike Pompeo chose to describe Assange in 2017, seven whole years after the leaks.
WikiLeaks confirmed what everyone thought of at the time – that the United States had no business being in Iraq, let alone use forcible measures to impose its will on Iraq’s soil. This video, in particular, sums up why the United States and the West sought to go after Assange and the source of the Iraq leaks – U.S. Army Private Chelsea (previously Bradley) Manning. The video shows the U.S. Army gunning down two Reuters journalists in Baghdad, assuming them to be insurgents. For her role in the leaks, Chelsea is currently in jail in addition for refusal to testify to a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.
Assange and WikiLeaks did not stop there. Trove after trove of documents was released to the public in batches, many a time spanning countries: the Saudi Cables, the Syria Files, Espionnage Élysée and most recently, the Podesta emails that influenced much of the U.S. Elections in 2016. Interestingly, The Hindu partnered with WikiLeaks in 2011 to release the ‘India Cables’, a collection of about 5000 confidential documents, much of which exposed corruption within the then UPA-led Indian government. The files drew reactions and discussions in India’s Parliament, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaking on the release as well. “The cables we have worked on so far expose the venal and sordid underbelly of India, which is corrupt, non-transparent, and vulnerable to manipulation by the big powers, in particular, the United States,” said Assange at the time. This is where the Rafale comparison seeps in. The Hindu has taken itself one step ahead, from collaborations to exclusive exposes. Assange was integral to the cables published by them then, and Assange is integral to the Rafale documents published by them now. You see, the glue that binds them together is what the free press envisions worldwide – to bring facts to light. To bring truth to power. To be the messenger to people.
There are, undoubtedly, charges against Assange that have a section of people labelling him a fugitive, a criminal, and several other synonyms that paint him in a bad light. Whether these charges hold up in a court of law remain to be seen in the coming weeks. However, it is crucial to recognise what the man and his organisation have achieved and to know why he is being painted a hero by many. What the collective group behind the leaks has achieved is in parallel with bold investigative journalism.
Julian Assange’s arrest in the United Kingdom may have been overshadowed only by the celebration of two major world events that week. The successful plotting of the first-ever image of a black hole, followed by the historic announcement of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir’s departure after mass protests, displayed the immaculate courage and unity of a people to accomplish the unfathomable. In a week where humankind’s scientific temperament and ability to successfully resist were celebrated, Assange’s forcible detention is a step back in the advancement of a free society.
As I type this, news has trickled in of Assange being awarded the 2019 GUE/NGL Award for Journalists, Whistleblowers & Defenders of the Right to Information. Several friends in the media worldwide have penned down editorials and pieces in support of him. Prominent Indian writers have spoken out as well. He is getting the recognition he deserves. Debate him, analyse him, hate him. Question the leaks or the output themselves. But never again must the messenger be shot.
Featured Image Courtesy: Norman Soloman, www.occupy.com
The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the organisation’s views.