Tom Flanagan, a former senior adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, suggested on Nov 29 that US President Barack Obama “should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something” against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Asked to elaborate on the remark, during a panel interview on the CBC programme “Power and Politics,” Flanagan said: “Assange should be assassinated, actually.” When anchorperson Evan Solomon commented that his position was “pretty harsh stuff,” Flanagan replied, “I’m feeling very manly today, Evan.”
Scott Reid, another former prime ministerial adviser, on the panel said Flanagan was being “his usual colourful” and that Flanagan was “a great guy with strong opinions, not a mean guy with lunatic opinions.” That is to say, Flanagan’s incitement to murder is merely a strong opinion, whereas a fatwa calling for someone’s murder in lunacy. After two days, Flanagan regretted his “glib” remarks.
Julian Assange is under arrest. He has been implicated in a dubious rape case in Sweden. Assange has categorically denied the rape charges. At the same time, the Murdoch press is relentlessly engaged in a smear campaign against Wikileaks. In the Muslim world too, doubts are being cast on Wikileaks’ credibility by some elements. The Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan has already declared it a “conspiracy.”
Amid all the noise, what goes missing is the issue of right to free expression. It seems Western governments and mainstream media invoke the sacred right to free expression only when it comes to Venezuela, Cuba and the Muslim world. How else one can explain the outrage over the Salman Rushdie affair ( and he was taken into state protection). The only explanation is the double-standards involved in the definition of freedom of expression.
It was, for instance, a question of “free expression” when a rag like Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten published those caricatures made by a third-rate artist hungry for some attention. Likewise, the concept is invoked when Israel is under moral and political siege. It is also a matter of free expression when Islamophobes like Hirsi Ali or Irshad Manji are concerned.
Freedom of expression was also conveniently put on the backburner in the 1990s, when Turkey told Holland to stop the Kurdish TV channel, MD, broadcasting from Dutch soil. Desperate to sell weapons to Turkey, The Hague happily obliged the important NATO member. Germany and Belgium were also easily persuaded by Ankara and MD was told to stop broadcasting from Berlin and Brussels.
In 2004, Hezbollah’s TV channel Al-Manar was banned in France, where a large chunk of the Arab diaspora lives. Al-Manar was “fomenting hatred” against Jews and was declared “anti-Semitic.” The comparison here is in no way aimed at condoning fatwas calling for murder or the anti-Semitism Hezbollah used in its rhetoric.
Certainly, freedom of expression needs a fresh definition. True freedom of expression comes into play when writers or artists defy prohibitions. “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom of those who think differently,” observed German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Provocative writings and cartoons by members of dominant communities vilifying the religious beliefs of minority groups that are targets of racism are merely a manifestation of anti-minority bias and incitement to xenophobia. This applies to the West as well as, as it does to the Muslim world, Latin America, Africa.
All that the five-member Wikileaks squad is guilty of is letting people see that the king is stark naked. And in response to the ‘crime’, online payment service provider PayPal cut off the account Wikileaks used to collect donations for its sustenance. The website is engaged in illegal activity, Paypal says. Paypal’s decision came as Wikileaks was struggling to keep its website accessible after service providers such as Amazon dropped contracts, and governments and hackers continue to hound the organisation.
Now when history’s most powerful empire is out to stifle genuine freedom of expression, it is time for the world’s courageous figures to stand up and resist. Happily there are many.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected]