28 August 2012

Solidarity and double standards: What do Assange's defenders stand for?

Since the government of Ecuador granted asylum to Julian Assange, who remains in the nation's London embassy, President Rafael Correa has been accused of a kind of hypocrisy. To the extent that he claims to defend Assange's freedom of speech, the argument goes, Correa is a hypocrite because his leftist government has allegedly taken steps similar to Hugo Chavez's in Venezuela to persecute dissident media. Correa's assumption seems to be that the Swedish rape charges are only a pretext; he believes the ultimate plan is for the United States to prosecute Assange for the Wikileaks disclosures. In an interview with the British Guardian newspaper, the Ecuadorian makes clear that he wants to defend an individual against a powerful state. Is this a "freedom of speech" defense? It's interesting to note the distinction Correa makes between Assange, a private citizen, and the media outlets that published Wikileaks material but are not being prosecuted because they "have power." This seems to be his objection to some media entities in his own country. "The Ecuadorean and Latin American press is not like the European or North American press, which has some professional ethics," he told the Guardian, "They are used to being above the law, to blackmail, to extort. I am sorry about good people on an international level who defend this kind of press." More bluntly: "We won't tolerate abuses and crimes made every day in the name of freedom of speech. That is freedom of extortion and blackmail."

Correa thinks that the actions taken by his government aren't much different from those taken by governments whose motives are less suspect. Or so I infer from: "Do we have an unwritten law that we can't sue a journalist? Since when? So nobody should sue Murdoch and his partners in crime in Britain?" Some confusion of terms may creep in here. Correa refers to the phone-hacking scandal involving Murdoch-owned newspapers. Few if any observers see the ensuing legal action as a crackdown on dissent or freedom of the press. Few would call Rupert Murdoch a "journalist," either, while many might concede a "unwritten law' that protects "journalists" but not "moguls" like Murdoch. The implicit ideal of a "journalist" may come closer to Correa's picture of Assange, while Correa's own image of a "journalist" may amount to something closer to a mere stooge of a media mogul. A distinction probably exists in Correa's mind between a citizen journalist and a corporate journalist. He clearly believes that the latter have too much power; his communications adviser has described his country's media as "weeds that need to be cleaned." Whether or not such a conclusion can ever be reached objectively, a partisan government's perceptions can't be presumed objective. At the least, Correa must resign himself to a persistent suspicion of self-interest, as must any politician who attempts to regulate the news media. Perhaps any such regulations must be enacted in the preferred manner for a political pay raise; let it take effect only after the next election, or after the people who enact it have left office. If there's to be a debate over the excessive power or influence of corporate media, it will probably be inseparable from the more familiar debate over the power and accountability of government itself. It would involve asking whether mere individual citizen journalists can effectively blow the whistle on power without the scale and reach corporate media makes possible -- whether Assange could accomplish anything (or, before him, Bradley Manning) without the major media outlets to publicize his material. All power comes with the risk of abuse; people must ask whether the benefits of corporate media are so unique as to justify the risk.

The most simplistic attack on Correa assumes that he would arrest an Ecuadorean Assange without a second thought. The Guardian itself notes that his government has sued an editor whose paper accused Correa's brother of some sort of profiteering. But Correa has not said that Assange should enjoy any sort of immunity for his Wikileaks work; he simply claims that Assange isn't being treated fairly, and would not be tried fairly, by the British, the Swedes and the Americans. Why should that matter to the president of Ecuador? The main reason, officially, is that Assange sought asylum there. But the perception of Assange as some anti-imperialist (or anti-American) crusader most likely made his case interesting to one of the many Latin American leaders who resent U.S. hegemony in the western hemisphere. While we should take seriously (without automatically affirming) the distinctions Correa might draw between Assange's role and that of those journalists assumed to be his counterparts, the main factor behind the grant of asylum may have been the simple perception that Assange and Correa are on the same side of some great global struggle. Whether that makes either man guilty of a double standard may depend ultimately on whether you think all struggles and all sides involved are equal. Once more, none of this puts Julian Assange above the law of Sweden or any other country, but asylum is a fact of international law and there, like it or not, the matter rests.


Aaron Christiansen said...

So is there any difference between Ecuador, Venezuela and the FACT that the American government would love to prosecute (shut up) Assange and his wikileaks compatriots? If you support free speech, then you have to especially despise any attempt by the American government to quiet dissidents.

The only difference is that in the case of Venezuela or Ecuador, the media they are shutting up is American-paid for propaganda. It deserves to be silenced for the lies it represents.

Free Speech should NEVER include falsehoods, lies or cover-ups. Truth is far more important, as far as I am concerned, than some malcontents "right" to spread lies to further their agenda.

Samuel Wilson said...

I'd rather not jump to the conclusion that any or all dissent against the leftist governments in South America is "American paid for." I'm sure the old-boy networks in all those countries don't need American hints or even American money to oppose Chavez, Correa, etc. But that doesn't mean that the question of private, corporate power's entitlement to public airwaves isn't open to discussion. At the same time, the inclination of governments to lie as readily as anyone else should keep us from giving them the benefit of the doubt against "malcontents" in every case.