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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.