Why We Should Love Whistleblowers in the Context of the Coronavirus
Updated: Feb 2
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By Eric A.S. Harvey, JD
COPYRIGHT PENDING 2020
Photo Credit: TheVerge.com
On Monday, 23 February 2020, a court in the United Kingdom began considering whether or not to extradite Wikileaks-founder Julian Assange to the United States. In the United States, Assange faces 18 charges, including criminal counts of violating espionage law and computer hacking. At trial in the UK, his lawyer argued that he should not be extradited, as Assange’s mental health is at risk. His attorney claimed Assange would likely commit suicide in U.S. custody.
It is a traumatic time for the First Amendment. The torture Assange has endured in his captivity serves as discouragement for whistleblowers from coming forward. Months ago, 60 healthcare providers in the UK issued an open letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot, saying that Assange needed immediate medical attention for severe depression and a debilitating condition affecting Assange’s shoulder. In captivity, Assange’s health has declined. Aside from depression and the aforementioned physical ailment, it is clear that he is experiencing acute PTSD.
While so much of the news media has not covered Assange’s prosecution in the U.K. because of the impeachment trial and now-traumatically-urgent coronavirus pandemic, it is pretty clear that major global powers are demonstrating an abusively negative attitude towards figures like Assange, Chelsea Manning (who is subject to frequent imprisonment and ignoble public treatment), and Edward Snowden (now permanently in exile in Russia to remain safe from American abuse). Motivated by this negative attitude, these world powers are demonstrating that whistleblowers will be punished in the most severe of ways. No one wants to be placed in a maximum security prison for 52 weeks, which was the initial length of Assange’s prison sentence after he was ejected from the Ecuadorian Embassy. Anyone bearing witness to how severe for Assange’s health the conditions at Belmarsh have been would not want that for themselves. So, I ask whether in light of what is happening to Assange, will other whistleblowers be deterred from leaking useful, but sensitive information to the public? I answer that, “Yes. It is likely that they will be deterred.”
Assange represents the heights of advocacy for freedom of the press and freedom of expression. He is widely hated, but this hatred is not well-founded. Regardless of whether you hate him, you should support him. In an article titled, “Former New York Times Chief Lawyer: Rally to Support Julian Assange — Even If You Hate Him,” Executive Director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation Trevor Timm argues that people should support Assange even if they hate him. In my own article here, I mean to further develop Timm’s claim.
Timm’s article, written this past November, doesn’t account enough for how urgently needed and valuable whistleblowers are; whistleblowers were instrumental in gaining public attention for the coronavirus epidemic early in the virus’ emergence in China. (I will address these whistleblowers’ relevance in the context of the coronavirus later in this article.) Seeing as Timm’s article was published many months ago, my article may seem like too little too late. But considering that Assange’s trial is taking place right now and considering that if he is extradited he will face some of the worst criminal penalties anyone in America can ever face, this article is more urgent than ever.
Anti-secrecy platforms are legitimate news publications. Whistleblowers are like journalists dedicated to informing the public of government corruption and government abuses of power. Every leak on Wikileaks is like a news story. Wikileaks has just been far more daring in the kind of material it publishes. It seems to be unconstrained by threats from world powers geared towards violently suppressing the kind of freedom of the press that Wikileaks represents—an unbridled assault upon government corruption and the abuses that occur behind the closed doors of government.
Though disdain for Assange tends to be motivated by much of the publics' distorted consumption of problematically reported news, it is perhaps understandable why many people would hate him, He faced sexual assault allegations in Sweden, for example. Anticipating a fundamentally unjust trial, he fled the Northern European country, ultimately securing asylum in Ecuadorian Embassy in the London. Nevertheless, given that it has been revealed Sweden has spent far more money and devoted far more resources on pursuing Assange for this alleged crime than it has toward pursuing past comparable offenders, the attempts at criminalizing Assange in Sweden are suspicious.
On 19 November 2019, The New York Times ran an article titled, “Sweden Drops Julian Assange Rape Inquiry.”In the article, deputy director of prosecutions in the UK Eva-Marie Persson is quoted as saying, “The evidence is not strong enough to form the basis of an indictment.” On the same day, Al Jazeera English featured an article titled, “Julian Assange rape investigation dropped in Sweden.” In the article, the same official was quoted as saying, “[…] the evidential situation has been weakened to such an extent that there is no longer any reason to continue the investigation.” More or less, many publications other than, but still including The New York Times and Al Jazeera English have reached a consensus, which is that there is not enough corroborative evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Assange is guilty of rape. So, while people likely hate Assange in part due to the rape allegations, that reason for hating him is not well-founded.
I was actually in a bar a month ago, and a woman that spotted my Julian Assange t-shirt confronted me, yelled that Assange was a coward, and screamed that I too was a reprobate for supporting him. On the shirt, below the picture of Assange, reads the word "hero.” In the context of the brief conversation that followed, it was abundantly clear that she was referring to the rape allegations.
However, Assange’s importance is not offset even by these allegations, whether people are willing to acknowledge that importance or not, and whether or not people are willing to consider how suspicious the rape charges are. He represents the virtues of The First Amendment. During the better periods of American history, our government has held up the press as essential to the maintenance of a free state. It is in this vein of thinking that various American judges since the foundation of our country have said that journalists serve as a check on power. In line with the need for checks and balances in a democratic society, it is then my contention that Julian Assange is an important figure in maintaining these checks and balances. It is hard to have these checks and balances, when a lack of transparency pervades so many governments in the world. As an example of this, I point to an article recently published in The New York Times. It is from the Monday, 30 March 2020 edition. By journalist Steven Lee Myers, the article is titled, “China Had a Fail-Safe Way to Track Contagions. Officials Failed to Use It.” The article addresses how the Chinese government mishandled the emergence of the coronavirus.
After the SARS epidemic in the mid-2000s, China instituted a digital logging system for tracking diseases, Myers says in the aforementioned article. When the coronavirus was in its nascency, lower level government employees in China chose not to log the details of the virus, or if they did log information about the virus they chose to only partially input information in order to make the emerging disease seem far less serious than it was and is. These lower level government officials did this as there is a “shoot-the-messenger” culture within the Communist Party. In pursuit of promotions, lower level officials serving the Communist Party are prone to not properly disclosing the severity of problems. They often downplay threats, and if they do disclose them, they often give their superiors the false impression that they’ve got these problems under control. Evidence of this claim was provided by The New York Times 29 January 2020 in an article titled, “Coronavirus Spreads, and the World Pays for China’s Dictatorship.” This article was written by opinion columnist Nicolas Kristof.
It was not until whistleblowers in China published documents pertaining to the virus that the Chinese government took action. Before the coronavirus was a crisis, a Chinese doctor circulated an accurate and urgent report within the Wuhan hospital system after he observed severely ill patients. He was silenced by the Chinese government. Citizen journalists took to social media platforms with on-the-ground reports on the ravage that the virus was wreaking. Reports by the New York Times reveal that many of these citizen journalists were renditioned, and they have remained missing in action since they published their reports. Prior to the leaks mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, the highest echelons of the Chinese government were apparently unaware of the threat that the virus presented. Or at least they were not aware of the severity of that threat. At least, that is what they claim, and that is what the aforementioned New York Times article claims. But I wonder whether President Xi Jinping was trying to limit his liability for the mishandling of the virus and mitigate the possibility of negative global attention by claiming he was unaware of how serious the virus is.
China has veiled itself in secrecy around the issue of the virus, initially barring WHO and CDC officials from entering the country to assist in combatting the virus. The Communist Party has used its state-run media organizations to give its people and the world the impression that President Xi Jinping and The Communist Party are effectively and responsibly fighting a so-called “People’s War” against the virus. However, Finance.Yahoo.com published an article 27 January 2020 titled, “China's coronavirus victims 'probably 10 times' higher than reported.” The article was by editor Javier E. David. It posited, with fairly effective substantiation, that China has not been honest with the global community about the extent of the damage the virus has caused in China. However, it was because of these Chinese whistleblowers that more accurate assessments of the viral problem became globally known.
As the virus has ravaged America, and as it seems that the Communist Party could have combatted the virus earlier in its emergence (and possibly curtailed its spread to the rest of the world), lack of transparency in government can be highly problematic. It is because of this lack of transparency now, I contend, that the virus has become the problem that it is. And it was because of those whistleblowers that real and more accurate attention was given to the virus. Let’s ask ourselves: what would have happened had these whistleblowers not come forward at all? What would have happened if they made the documents public much later? Would we be in a worse situation had they not come forward when they did? I answer in the affirmative. We would have likely been in a worse position.
As is the case with the Chinese whistleblowers, figures like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden are essential not just for placing checks on power. As the case with the Chinese whistleblowers shows, whistleblowers can also by instrumental in maintaining issues as urgent as public health. Assaults on whistleblowers are thus socially irresponsible, and they can have traumatic consequences far beyond those that have negative symbolic ramifications for First Amendment jurisprudence. Assaults on whistleblowers are not just an assault on The First Amendment. They can also be a serious threat to life all over the world. Anti-secrecy platforms like Wikileaks were once heavily involved in drawing attention to these kinds of threats. However, Wikileaks has become fairly irrelevant since the assaults on Assange have taken place. He drove the platform, and his replacement and the restrictions placed on Wikileaks have rendered the platform relatively ineffective.
Regardless of whether Assange committed the rapes, people should celebrate him. Given that the allegations and the consequent attempts at incarcerating Assange are so suspicious, I tend to wonder why Assange really is perceived to be a demon by so many. Those that condemn him should advocate for him, as he stands trial in the UK, possibly to be extradited to the United States. If the rape allegations were even true, we should not forget that whistleblowing is essential to positive developments across the political spectrum and throughout cultural institutions everywhere in the world. As of today, there are over 200,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. Over 4,500 people have died from Covid-19 in America. The number of infections worldwide is well over 900,000, and the number of deaths globally is just under 50,000. What would have happened if the whistleblowers had not come forward? The state of affairs might be much worse had they not. Assange emblematizes the kind of courage and urgent usefulness that anti-secrecy platforms represent. Assange is the publisher of a legitimate news publications, and as such he deserve commendations.
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