As Julian Assange achieves bail in the UK for charges which are yet to be fully disclosed in Sweden, Liu Xiaobo, jailed Chinese dissident, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in absentia. Much of what we in the West like to call "the free world" heralded that decision. And probably noone reading this on OpEd News would baulk at this: Xiaobo has consistently stood up for freedom of speech and has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities since Tiananmen Square 20 years ago. His personal liberty has suffered as a result and he has been hounded in every possible way by the Chinese State. The Chinese, for their part, are infuriated by the affront it sees in making the award to a man they describe as "a major criminal" who has sought consistently to undermine the Chinese State and they have used their considerable economic influence to ensure that a good number of countries stayed away from the ceremony. Furthermore, in an effort to stem the flow of information relating to the troublesome dissident, Chinese cyber powers blocked news outlet websites such as BBC and CNN News, and other media outlets in China in an effort to prevent its citizens from learning anything meritorious of the 'criminal' in their midst.
Xiaobo is, like all men and women of principle, a difficult and somewhat uncompromising character, who is inclined to forget or disregard where his best interests lie. He will always afford opportunities for the State to find fault and to prosecute accordingly. Yet at the core of this is the simple assertion of the individual's right to liberty of thought, action and speech against the State's need to control. Large, powerful and paranoid States do not like freedom of speech or the notion that individuals should have access to the truth. It should be considered a measure of the health of a nation how it treats its dissidents, as well as its criminals and needy. There is a lesson here with regard to the Julian Assange affair and Assange's story is following an uneven - but clear - parallel to Xiaobo's and others who tread this path: it cannot be excusable for the State to hound individuals whose offence is to expose the truth (if it were untruths, of course, it would be quite different); trumped up and thin charges - almost always of a personal and sexual nature - have a long history amongst dissidents: but long term they are always seen by the majority for what they are: trumped up, thin charges; and jailing the individual who embarrasses the State never works.
The West should learn a lesson from Xiaobo's story - or from Mandela's - or from the long line of people in history who have stood against the State for freedom of expression, liberty of action and freedom of knowledge: no nation prospers from the repression of these in the long term. True democracy has nothing to fear from the truth: it is those who seek to pervert it for their own ends - or who misunderstand its true value and meaning - who fear it. The present battles, largely conducted in cyber land between those who believe in complete access to State information and those who do not, is a battle of our time, an inevitable struggle with the coming of the internet - and its outcome is vital: the pursuit of Julian Assange and the statements of governments from across the Western world on the Wikileaks debacle are defining this battle for free speech and the citizen's right to know.
In time the classified cables and inner discussions concerning the leaks and the appropriate responses will shed light on the organic response of the State to the threat it senses in this widening and seemingly uncontrollable freedom. Freedom is never without its constraints, but it is still an abiding truth that a nation which prizes good and integrity should embrace the right of its citizens to know. For now Julian Assange is at liberty and he promises to continue his campaign for the free availability of information: he is the cause celebre of our time. It is certainly too early now, as the world's least democratic regimes turn their backs collectively on Liu Xiaobo and Western governments applaud his courage and stand for freedom against a repressive and undemocratic regime, but give it another 20 years and it will be interesting to see who will support a Nobel nomination for Julian Assange.
Author of The Night Traveller
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