Two years ago, as the warmth of summer seemed to add pace to government work, especially in the Western hemisphere, a website scorched the world. WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing website, spilled the beans on the vast US diplomatic enterprise across the globe by leaking hundreds of cables. The leaked information made WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange an international pariah.
The United States administration went into an overdrive to limit damage to its image wrought by the spillover of sensitive communication between hundreds of its missions in countries from Brazil to Brunei and India to Ireland. State Department officials in Washington were transported to a state of panic that sent ripples across the administration.
Many heads of state were quoted in the communication cables and a number of senior Obama administration officials were caught on the wrong foot. Hillary Clinton was quoted pooh-poohing India’s claim to the UN Security Council permanent seat. Assange became a household name and the cables unravelled to a large extent the world of diplomacy. However, more than the content of the leaks, it was the right to freedom of speech and expression that became a subject of discussion worldwide.
While Washington sought the arrest of Assange, who was outside the US, an international debate was set off on the right to free speech, which America is known to proclaim from the roof top.
Subsequently, Assange reached the United Kingdom where he had to seek shelter in the Ecuadorean embassy in London after Sweden wanted him extradited over a sexual crime. The whistleblower has since then been holed up in the embassy to escape arrest. UK cops have been stationed near the embassy round-the-clock for the last two years. Exasperated with the standoff, London yesterday asked Ecuador to bring an end to his “costly stay” in the embassy. UK has spent $10m for policing Assange’s asylum inside the embassy. Assange’s self-imposed incarceration inside the Ecuador embassy raises questions over the right to free speech and the right of an organisation to access highly classified information in the name of whistleblowing. No right is absolute. However, when it comes to taking on the might of the state with regard to classified military information and sensitive diplomatic communication, does the need to maintain secrecy outweigh the right of the individual?
The need for state secrecy, which is protected by certain watertight laws in all countries, is unimpeachable. It is the prerogative of a nation to keep some information from its people and the world at large. But laws evolve and the role of individuals like Assange in the evolution of such paradigms is vital. Regulations and legislations are to be seen in a contemporary light and their challengers have often been lauded by posterity even if chided by history.