What is happening to WikiLeaks matters to all of us – to all of us who work on the internet, and who see the web as the last hope for freedom of speech in a world that gets more and more centralised and bureaucratic by the day.
The problem with defending free speech is that one must defend it even in undeserving cases, and WikiLeaks is not wholly deserving. Free speech, like any right, does not exempt from responsibility, but, on the contrary, depends on it, and WikiLeaks have sometimes been irresponsible – most notably when they published a list of potential terrorist targets.
Yet most of their work has been to the public good, exposing, or confirming, foolish or dishonest things that our rulers have been doing or saying in our name. In any case, the fact that freedom of speech, like any freedom, is sometimes abused should never be an excuse to restrict or abolish it.
WikiLeaks has been attacked systematically. Amazon ceased to host the site after the intervention of a powerful US Senator. PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard have stopped processing donations. It all looks very sinister.
Then there is the strange treatment of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, an Australian arrested in the UK on a warrant issued in France for a crimes allegedly committed in Sweden after offending the United States. Allegations that involve the word “rape” should always be taken seriously, but in this case the details of the charges suggest that it is the authorities who are trivialising it. No British jury would convict him on the charges as stated – so why is Mr Assange in a British prison?
Despite the fact that British law has a presumption that an accused man should be freed on bail until his trial – and the fact that several distinguished citizens offered to stand surety for Mr Assange – he was refused bail and sent immediately to jail. What has happened to the British tradition of offering asylum to political refugees?
Meanwhile, the Swiss have frozen his bank account – including the money he needs to pay his legal expenses – on the laughable pretext that he does not live at the Swiss address he gave. Does anyone?
Mr Assange might not be the poster boy we would have chosen for free speech, but we must defend him because what is happening to him could happen to any of us.