by Heikki Patomäki
Democracy involves constant struggle for the principle of publicity and against the secretive policies of various autocrats and oligarchs. Public opinion requires that citizens can form a reasoning public and have access to all relevant information.
Asymmetric relations of power are typically justified in terms of superior knowledge. The assumption is that those who know “better” should have a right to make decisions independently of citizens’ will – even act on citizens behalf without them knowing.
But how do these autocrats know that they really know “better”? The only way to explain and justify the basis of their better knowledge is to make public their claims that can be criticized and refuted by others. This assumes, however, that they are already committed to the core principle of publicity.
Citizens have the right to assemble and express and publish their opinion on any common issue or matter – on any res publica. By definition, the actions of the government and of all parts of the state have public significance. The fundamental precondition of both freedom of speech and principle of publicity is that citizens know what the authorities are doing and why. Therefore all relevant documents must be public.
It is possible to justify some exceptions to the principle of publicity on moral grounds, but these exceptions must be defined in a narrow and specific way. Secrecy may be justified only in terms that can be contested by citizens or by their representatives at any time. Moreover, those who categorize something as “confidential” or “secret” must be legally responsible for their actions. Unjustified secrecy must be punishable.
In other words, documents should be ”confidential” or ”secret” only under very specific circumstances. The burden of proof lies always on those trying to conceal information from the citizens. It is the task of democratic media to make public everything that has been concealed from the citizens without adequate justification – and simultaneously make the authorities morally and legally responsible for their actions.
Since its founding in 2006, WikiLeaks has used the World Wide Web in an ingenious way in its struggle for transparency. WikiLeaks has globalized the struggle against secretive practices; it has contributed to the emergence of global publicity and democracy.
All of those revelations and disclosures that have been of most interest to the media have concerned the United States. It is thus not surprising that the Americans and many of their close allies have been agitated by WikiLeaks. In the past the Russian tzar could send dissidents to Siberia, but the leaders of liberal-democratic states cannot avoid respecting, at least in public, the rule of law (secrecy of course makes it possible to sidestep the rule of law).
The best known spokesperson of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is an Australian citizen. Hence, the actions of the authorities of the US, Britain or Sweden against Assange are delicate and sensitive to all kinds of diplomatic and legal considerations. Worldwide persecution is nonetheless quite plain to see. Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to the Canadian Prime Minister, has gone as far as to declare that Julian Assange should be assassinated. A number of American politicians and media-gurus have demanded legal actions against Assange – without specifying the laws Assange is alleged to have breached. “This is a matter of national security and the guilty ones must be punished.” The various tzars of the past would have understood this logic very well.
Even before the most recent wiki-disclosures, the situation had become so aggravated that in the Summer of 2010 Assange felt that he could no longer travel safely to the US. Meanwhile, the Swedish police have opened an investigation against Assange in connection with sexual encounters with two women.
The Swedish legal process raises questions. The manner in which charges were laid, investigated and dropped, only for the process to be picked up again by a different prosecutor, seems strange, especially in the overall context of late 2010. Moreover, the allegations are so light and vague that the Interpol red notice appears rather odd (these red notices allow the warrant to be circulated worldwide with the request that the wanted person be arrested with a view to extradition).
Are the Swedish authorities acting impartially? We now know that parts of the allegedly neutral Swedish state, especially security and military organs, co-operated intimately with the Americans already during the Cold War. Be the truth what it may, it seems clear that the peculiar way the Swedish allegations have been managed – especially in the current context of worldwide controversies over WikiLeaks – amounts to de facto persecution.
In November 2010 Assange told the media that he was considering applying for asylum in Switzerland. In December 2010, it was reported that the US Ambassador to Switzerland, Donald S. Beyer had warned the Swiss government against offering asylum to Assange. Also the authorities of Ecuador have probably faced strong pressure from the US, following the Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas’s comments about giving Assange residency with “no conditions… so he can freely present the information he possesses and all the documentation, not just over the Internet but in a variety of public forums”.
Political asylum is an ancient juridical notion, under which a person persecuted for political opinions or activities or religious beliefs in his or her own country may be protected by another country. In Europe, the EU has set up a common policy on asylum. It would be a matter of some importance if a member state gave asylum to a person that is facing persecution on political grounds also within Europe.
The best way to support the democratic principle of publicity both in Europe and in the world as a whole is to offer asylum to Assange. It would be equally important to ensure the operational preconditions of WikiLeaks, although WikiLeaks must of course remain non-governmental in all senses of the term.
Finland is not an ally of the US, through NATO or otherwise. It would be time to turn Finnish perseverance into the service of global transparency and democracy, and also against the foreseeable American arm-twisting.