Monday, November 24, 2014

The Anarchist and the President

BOGOTÁ – The Julian Assange affair means different things to different people, but one lesson should be clear to all: states are not inconsequential to journalism.

When WikiLeaks hit the global news scene, it was saluted as a true original: an innovative form of journalism that countered states’ power by challenging their ability to suppress critical, sensitive, or unflattering news. WikiLeaks capitalized on the potential of digital technologies to circumvent official censorship and, thanks to whistle-blowers, disseminated information that governments wanted to keep secret.

As a result, Assange was viewed as the embodiment of a new type of “anarchist” journalist who could ignore state borders and scare government officials (or at least make them more cautious about what they write in diplomatic cables). Those who championed WikiLeaks rushed to celebrate it as a shining example of crusading, “stateless” journalism.

Assange’s international legal troubles, however, show that the state is alive and well, and that journalism is not beyond its reach. The state is not a relic of bygone times, displaced by global accountability. The visible hand of the state (actually, several states) is everywhere in this diplomatic imbroglio.

The fact that Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has emerged as Assange’s foremost ally is profoundly ironic. Correa, who has tightened the screws on his country’s press, hardly stands as the flag-bearer for the libertarian tradition of the press that Assange, the poster boy of “stateless” journalism, represents. Rather, he embodies a new version of an old breed of Latin American populist presidents, notoriously impatient with dissent and quick to stifle criticism.

The return of populism in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela in the past decade has reinvigorated a Manichean view of the press: news organizations are seen as either “loyal” or “subversive.” Journalists are the government’s communication arm or the enemy that must be co-opted or controlled (repressed). The idea that the press should ensure political accountability, inform the public, and encourage more responsive government is foreign to the populist conviction that identifies “good journalism” with sycophantic scribes.

Populist leaders in Latin America follow a long tradition of “l’etat c’est moi”: the president as the embodiment of the state. Public media resources are used to strengthen the executive rather than to serve the public interest, and presidents resort to “gag” laws to silence actual and potential critics.

Thus, in their own national broadcasts – often weekly occurrences – populist presidents fulminate against journalists who dare to demand information or criticize public policies, plainly contradicting their own lofty rhetoric about citizen journalism and grassroots power. They generously reward the lapdog press, while castigating genuine watchdog journalism – or any media outlet that refuses to toe the official line.

Correa has used a long list of colorful insults to characterize the press and journalists. Indeed, he has virtually written the playbook for discouraging the kind of journalism championed by WikiLeaks. For example, he has brought multimillion-dollar lawsuits against journalists who investigated corruption in his administration and columnists who criticized him. Moreover, his administration has proposed a new media law that confers significant power on public officials to determine suitable content – the very opposite of the kind of unrestrained freedom of expression that WikiLeaks symbolizes.

Likewise, Correa has dispatched members of his cabinet to cut off public advertising in media outlets that he regards as adversaries, as if the use of public resources should be subject to calculations of personal costs and benefits. And, insisting on non-interference in Ecuador’s internal affairs, the Correa administration has launched an all-out offensive against the Organization of American States’ Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.

So Correa’s record is not exactly a paragon of support for the collaborative, critical, and open journalism promoted by WikiLeaks. In fact, it is hard to imagine that Correa would have embraced Assange had WikiLeaks revealed Ecuadorian state secrets, rather than the indiscretions and intrigue of American diplomacy.

However the Assange saga unfolds, it has already poured cold water on the idea of lawless, post-national “hacktivism.” The apparent anarchy of the Internet and digital news fueled a vibrant global movement of people eager to shed light on the inner workings of governments and corporations. Now that movement has run up against the state’s persistent power.

Fortunately for Assange, a sympathetic president was willing to throw him a lifeline as he floundered in the treacherous waters of international law. Unfortunately for the movement that he represents, this also means that even the quintessential anarchist-journalist, now holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, needs the protection of a state.

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    1. CommentedElizabeth Pula

      There are now, I think, 3 really good articles about the Assange affair. The perspectives and focus of the articles are different based on the view, analytical focus, and opinion of each author. All 3 have good aspects and bad. But, all three touch on the subject of the importance and the effects of information released to citizens. Interests of the media, the state, specific national interests, and individual interests affect the stability of a state internally, and the balance of powers internationally of differing states. Public Issues about Wikileaks as an information release agency is different than private personal issues about Julian Assange. Unfortunately, in all three articles the basic issue of equating Wikileaks as an information source and Julian Assange's personal dilemma allows for confusing what may be the real dilemma of how "corruption" continues to escalate and destroy the legal systems that affect many citizens in many nations. Who are the "few" that can effectively escape any rule of law anywhere? Assange may or may not be one of those "few". However, if the majority of citizens recognize that corruption of laws, increasingly in public everywhere by people in "Power positions",(Assange personally is not necessarily in any power position) successfully manipulates legal systems to extremes for personal political advantage, then won't the majority of citizens ignore laws and gradually only public chaos rules?

      Did Wikileaks release secrets that were treasonous, etc? Is any US citizen able to be a "whistleblower in good conscience"? What right does the "public" have to "know any facts about anything"? Or were just "embarassing tidbits" revealed? I've read some of the releases. Perhaps, any really critical information affecting "existence of the state" was already deleted before I had a chance to view any of Wikileaks releases. Information that has been publicly acknowledged as coming from Wikileaks often balances distorted information from other media sources. Why can't time limits be established by law, so that information can be released to the public within a reasonable amount of time? Why should any citizen anywhere be condemned in any manner for releasing factual information to anyone? Where and when do/are ethics, political standards, basic honesty, become relevant in public and private relations and information? If there are no relevant standards for public, private, state, and international state interactions,then the "anything goes" sure goes downhill exponentially. Isn't the real issue "censorship" by any state, and especially the US? No state, no individual is immune, and both suffer from "censorship" and "corruption". Who suffers the most? It sure depends upon who you are, who you aren't, where you are, and where you aren't. Does any law anywhere really matter? If you have money or power, or can get someone who has money or power to pull "strings" for you, any person then can pretty much do whatever they want to do, and get away with whatever, whenever, wherever. There's too many "stories" released to the public especially in the last 5 years, even the last 6 months, that pretty much reveal the real scenario worldwide.Who's kidding who anymore?
      Aren't we living in an age that the prevailing message is "Go on, take the money and run". You can't really censor what everyone can see, daily, without any reading of any words, or listening to any words.

    2. Commentedjuan carlos

      yes it's ironic that president correa would defend assange, considering his own press problems at ecuador. but this article does not mention the other side of the coin, the interest of certain media groups to deliberately attack whoever they don't like. that is not press freedom either.

    3. CommentedJ St. Clair

      what are you talking about....this goes for the entire journalist industry in ALL countries.....including you....

    4. CommentedAndrés Arellano Báez

      In Latin America, the press is not free of politics. The media here is own by powerful groups with a lot of interest in governments. So Mr. Waisbord, the next time that you talk about freedom in the press in Latin America, please read those journalist that you defend.
      In our region, the journalists are not newsman, they are employees of powerful economics groups with an agenda and in that scenario, and the political fight against them is legit.