Julian Assange’s mother has said that she is worried about her son as “massive forces” are working against him and insisted that there is “no way” he is guilty of rape, which he is charged with in Sweden.
Since 9/11, press freedom in the West has come under attack as governments argue that national security is more important than transparency. But the hunt for WikiLeaks is a greater danger to democracy than any information that WikiLeaks might reveal.
Why do we need freedom of the press? The framers of the United States Constitution believed that such a guarantee would be unnecessary — if not dangerous. There are freedoms that we don’t secure through promises, but which we take for ourselves. They are like the air we breathe in a democracy, whose authority is built on public opinion. The democracy that was founded on the basis of such insights is the American democracy. It is an indication of the American revolutionaries’ healthy mistrust in the power of this insight that they would later incorporate freedom of the press into the US Constitution after all.
Today, more than 200 years later, this old idea seems naïve to all too many people in the Western world. Since becoming embroiled in the war against terrorism, the US government has transformed itself into a huge security apparatus. The Washington Post recently reported that 854,000 people in the US government, or more than one-and-a-half times the population of Washington, DC, hold top-secret security clearances — and this under a president who came into office promising a new era of openness in government. An estimated 16 million government documents a year are stamped “top secret,” or not intended for the eyes of ordinary citizens.
In the crisis, the countries of Old Europe are also putting up the barricades. Germany’s constitution, known as the Basic Law, has a far-reaching guarantee of press freedom and was created after World War II on behalf of the US liberators and in the spirit of the American and French revolutions. But in the 10th year after the 9/11 attacks, one German conservative politician has even pondered whether it might not be a good idea to prohibit journalists from reporting on terrorism in too much detail.
Such people would have been beheaded in revolutionary Paris and probably locked up in Philadelphia. When citizens were revolutionaries, the act of demanding freedom of speech was a revolutionary act. Today, in more peaceful times, we would characterize freedom of speech as a civic virtue.
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