For many years journalist Natalie Nougayrède has reported from Russia to the French newspaper, Le Monde. Nougayrède holds freedom of expression close to her heart, all the more as she has experienced living in a country where self and state censorship prevent journalists from freely delivering information to citizens. Russia is world famous for its harsh treatment of political dissidents, as exemplified most recently in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovski. Putin’s Russia is also infamous for its treatment of investigative reporters whose information may threaten “important” people. No one can forget the tragic death of Anna Politovskaia and the many threats made against her less famous but equally courageous colleagues.
One can imagine Nougayrède’s surprise - and ours in reading her column in Le Monde - when she discovered that champion of free and open information - Wikileaks owner and founder Julian Assange - had started to work as a journalist for TV channel, Russia Today. Russia Today is, as Nougayrède noted, “a channel funded by the Russian State, a propaganda organ for the Kremlin” in which “the world is explained according to Moscow’s power principles: Russia resists against a sneaky West”. For example, the channel refuses to ascribe any democratic aspirations to the Syrian opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime - which the West naively grants them - presenting them only as dangerous armed groups.
As someone who presented himself as an underlying cause of the Arab Spring - thanks to the information his website revealed on such regimes - how can one explain Assange’s move?
As the founder of Wikileaks, became world-famous when he released U.S. diplomatic cables on the internet. Consequently, he now faces criminal charges in the United States - in the event that he is ever extradited there. Exposing the cables led many (Western) countries to freeze Assange's and Wikileaks’ assets; private companies in charge of money transfers also decided to stop delivering funds to them. As a result, Assange became impoverished. For many months , Assange has claimed his financial difficulties were the price to pay for his ideal of a free and transparent world and has become a loud anti-American hegemony defendant. This is - based on his public telling - the only common ground that can be found between Russia Today’s stances and his own. Until one adds in the money factor...
“Transparency has its limits,” Nougayrède writes, remarking with irony that the defender of transparency is not so transparent as to reveal how much his contract gives him. Assange’s move to agree to present Russia Today’s 12 part-program on “ideas that could change the world” is not only disappointing; it is shocking. Although he claims he benefits from full “editorial freedom”, in his first episode he chose to focus on pro-Syrian regime, Hezbollah. Followers of current events can hardly ignore the fact that Russia is at least implicitly backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and was successful in delaying UN sanctions against it.
In the name of transparency, Assange has defied the ethics of journalism and freedom of expression. An excellent definition of freedom and its limits is found in France’s 1789 declaration of human and citizens rights: “An individual's liberty stops where another one's begins”. Assange breached his own promise to release the cables via newspaper media and instead made them public on the internet. The aftermath to his move was that it endangered the lives of those mentioned in the cables. While the newspapers that released the news were careful to hide their identities, Wikileaks was not. As their identities were made “transparent”, political refugees (willing to testify against their criminal regimes in international jurisdiction) became open to the risk of reprisals, as were their families. What is worse is that this contributed to ridicule the very concept of “transparency”, reinforcing its opponents and making it synonymous with imprudence. This was incredibly damaging. Responsible transparency is necessary and needed by governments and citizens, as it guarantees fair balance in the exercise of power.
At the same time, some saw Assange's actions as a signal of his wish for personal notoriety. His participation in Russia Today’s series seems to confirm their suspicions. Although he previously announced that the U.S. cables were only the first of many, it appears unlikely that Assange will be releasing cables from Russia’s diplomatic services any time soon.
Assange chose celebrity over principles and ideals. Ironically, it seems being transparent was only an excuse to make himself more visible.
This article is based on Natalie Nougayrède’s analysis in Le Monde. It can be found (in French) here.
(Photo © DR)