Last week while major media networks covered Egypt, the court hearing in Britain for WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange ended. He is currently free on bail awaiting possible extradition to Sweden on sex crime charges. The judge hopes to announce on February 24 a decision as to whether Assange will be extradited.
Meanwhile, Assange also faces the possibility of being extradited to the United States after releasing thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables and military files on WikiLeaks. Attorney General Eric Holder said officials at the Justice Department were pursuing a “very serious criminal investigation” into the matter. However, if the U.S. government presses forward with their attempt to prosecute Assange, there is the potential for serious consequences regarding U.S. credibility within the international community.
During the Egyptian Revolution, the Egyptian government revoked Al Jazeera’s (an international Arabic news network) license and denied internet access to 22 million people an attempt to censor information and to stop protestors from communicating with each other. The State Department condemned this action in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton where she said, “We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications.” Pictures also appear online with protestors holding up signs that say “Thank you, Facebook!” in Arabic.
Efforts to prosecute Assange while condemning the Egyptian government for censoring the media are incredibly hypocritical and stand to threaten the U.S. position as a global defender of open and free speech in all forms. In January of 2010, Secretary Clinton gave a speech calling for global internet freedom while condemning states that conducted cyber attacks and censorship, citing states that practice these techniques, including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Myanmar. This demonstrates to the international community that the U.S. government is a proponent of free speech – as long as the government approves of the content. Foreign Policy’s Tim Wu, notes that, “Prosecution of WikiLeaks would hurt, if not destroy, the credibility of the United States…it would send the dangerous signal that the United States only claims to uphold the virtues of an open Internet and free speech — until it decides it doesn’t like a particular website. There could hardly be a worse moment to send that message, to be telling the Arab world: Do as we say, not as we do.”
This is a real test for the Obama administration. The U.S. can not disregard one of the most important principles it was founded upon: freedom of speech. If the Justice Department does in fact and move to prosecute Assange, there will be serious consequences for the U.S.’ global reputation, and specifically, the Arab world, where free speech can be the catalyst for political, social, and economic freedom.