UN Rapporteur Says Assange Shouldn't Be Prosecuted
By Eleanor Hall
11 December, 2010
ELEANOR HALL: The United Nations representative for freedom of opinion and expression says he is now working on a new report on free speech and the internet.
Frank La Rue says he doesn't think that the United States Government will be able to make a case against Julian Assange. But he warns it would set a very bad example for free speech if it did take action against him.
He spoke to me earlier today from his home in Guatemala City:
Frank La Rue you monitor freedom of expression and attempts to curtail it around the world. Do you agree with supporters of WikiLeaks that its founder Julian Assange is now a martyr for free speech?
FRANK LA RUE: It certainly is. If there is a responsibility by leaking information it is of, exclusively of the person that made the leak and not of the media that publish it. And this is the way that transparency works and that corruption has been confronted in many cases.
I do believe there's some types of limitations that I actually drafted in my report in Geneva last year and some basic principles. But essentially they have to be in exceptional form.
They have to be established by law. They have to protect a superior goal and imminent danger. And the legislation has to be prior, it has to be clear so people can actually understand perfectly well what will be limited…
ELEANOR HALL: So do you think given that then that the US Government has any grounds to charge the WikiLeaks founder and to seek his extradition?
FRANK LA RUE: I don't think so. I think with the WikiLeaks founder there's two issues at stake. He supposedly is going to be extradited to Sweden for other types of crime not related at all to freedom of expression.
If that is the case I have nothing to say except that I wish that Sweden or any country where he will be tried give him the full guarantees of due process of law and a full possibility of defence.
But in reference to what has been published in WikiLeaks I think there is no criminal responsibility for being the medium. This is one of the big debates in internet and up to now the general doctrine is that there is no responsibility just to transfer information.
There is a responsibility in I would say in this case in two situations. One is that some statements can clearly be a threat to national security. And the second issue is the personal safety of individuals. Those are the cases that really have to be looked at.
But having said that just the fact that the information is embarrassing information to a government does not make it subject to be blocked or filtered or reprisals to the director/founder of the service.
ELEANOR HALL: So have you made representations to the US Government about their attempts to curtail Julian Assange's activities and to prosecute him?
FRANK LA RUE: Up to now the information we have, and I have been asking, is that they have been talking about prosecution of matters not related to the recent information revealed in WikiLeaks. And I have nothing to add because that's beyond my mandate.
ELEANOR HALL: Well at least one company is alleging today that it's coming under pressure from the US Government to stop dealing with WikiLeaks. Do you have concerns about that?
FRANK LA RUE: I do. And that I do understand that is the case and there I have not been required by this company, all the information I would ask them to handle. But I have made it clear that just the fact that the information is leaked should not be the excuse to pressure any of the enterprises that are serving that information.
ELEANOR HALL: Then there's the counter-attack or payback operation they're calling it from WikiLeaks' supporters. Is that retaliation justified?
FRANK LA RUE: I don't believe in retaliation per se. I believe in defending the principles of freedom of expression. My position is that all expression should be allowed.
ELEANOR HALL: What about the freedom of expression of those who express outrage about WikiLeaks? Should people be allowed to call for a person's assassination for example?
FRANK LA RUE: Never. That is incitement to hatred and violence. And that is, that falls under article 20 of ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).
I think people can express their outrage and people can say that they feel offended by the content of what's being presented in WikiLeaks. But never to call for harassment or direct action against those that are doing that.
ELEANOR HALL: You work for one of the world's biggest diplomatic organisations. Do you have any concerns about WikiLeaks publishing diplomatic cables? I mean do the political players at the UN also have a right to private conversations or does free speech WikiLeaks-style trump that?
FRANK LA RUE: No I believe there's a right to privacy. And I believe there is a criminal responsibility for those that leak it. But I think that is from those functionaries that are actually leaking the information and not from the medium that is making it public.
ELEANOR HALL: Some are suggesting that the WikiLeaks release of secret documents is a game changer. Does the notion of free speech need to be updated to deal with the realities of the modern flow of information?
FRANK LA RUE: I don't think so. My next report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June is going to be precisely on freedom of expression and internet.
And I deal with some issues of that nature - blocking, filtering, criminalisation of some speech; but also with issues of privacy, data protection.
And one issue that no-one is really dealing with for me is crucial is the question of access - accessibility to the internet.
ELEANOR HALL: The US Government seems pretty determined to find some way of charging Julian Assange. Who do you think is going to win this battle?
FRANK LA RUE: I will hope certainly that the principle of freedom of expression is the one that prevails because I believe that even if the US feels embarrassed it will be a bad example if anyone is harassed or charged or prosecuted for that.
ELEANOR HALL: Frank La Rue is the United Nations special reporter on freedom of opinion and expression.
And you can listen to a longer version of that interview on our website later this afternoon which includes his reaction to the WikiLeaks cable that suggested the US authorised its diplomats to spy on UN personnel.