Where do you draw the line between free speech and national security? At what point do issues of justice trump potential threats to soldiers, translators and informants?
Last Thursday, Julian Assange answered these questions and more in a debate pitting him against the Times columnist David Aaronovitch at London’s City University that was sold out within hours, with TV crews and photographers flying in from around the world.
Assange found himself having to defend WikiLeaks, in particular the leaking of documents detailing Nato’s actions in Afghanistan. How would he feel if any Afghan citizens were killed as a result? Assange replied that the Pentagon had not identified a single person who had been harmed. But he added, somewhat chillingly: “I’m not scared to make mistakes or be blamed, or even accidentally cause harm in the cause of justice.”
The circumstances surrounding the debate were bizarre. Assange had contacted Index on Censorship’s chief executive, John Kampfner, through an intermediary: he would be in London, would Index be interested in hosting a talk by him?
Assange was told he would have to debate with one of his sternest critics. He agreed but had his own stipulations: no press photographers at the event; it could only be filmed by a camerawoman sanctioned by Index and the university; there would be no press calls, or live stream (this caused considerable consternation on Twitter).
How could Index, the UK’s leading free expression organisation, keep out broadcast media? In the end we decided it was worth going ahead. People in the lecture theatre would be free to tweet and liveblog.
The days leading up to the debate were tense: Assange went awol, and 36 hours before the event we were seriously considering cancelling. After a day and a half of nervous phonecalls, however, he emerged and was led through the university’s back corridors, avoiding the waiting cameras.
As the debate ended, the photographers and film crews were allowed in. A sensible compromise had been reached. But the situation demonstrated the tightrope that free-speech campaigners walk every day.