The high-profile arrest of besieged WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange could, in normal times, have been explained away as a bona fide step taken in furtherance of the due process of law. But these are extraordinary times, and the talented Editor-in-Chief of the whistle-blower website is the target of right wing and lunatic fringe politicians in America, some of whom want him assassinated. The charges against Mr. Assange will convince only the credulous. The accusations, by two women, of unlawful coercion, molestation, and rape in Sweden are highly suspect because of their timing and the way they have been pursued. All accounts of the sexual encounters suggest they were consensual and perhaps even planned. The charges were dropped after initial enquiry, but mysteriously revived. Across the Atlantic, of course, the campaign against WikiLeaks has been constructed around not concerns over women's rights but the website's sensational disclosures of highly embarrassing diplomatic cables. Repressive measures against WikiLeaks — such as booting it from Amazon's cloud computing servers, cutting off Paypal, Visa and Mastercard payment gateways, denying it an Internet domain name, and freezing an account held by the website in a Swiss bank — have been achieved through private, extra-judicial manoeuvres. This is what makes the arrest appear vindictive.
The vicious campaign to silence WikiLeaks through distributed denial of service attacks and threats of prosecution for espionage in the United States have produced the opposite effect, by provoking supporters of the website to mount a counter-offensive against the companies involved. The net outcome is a cyberwar where militant responses to continued repression are guaranteed. Western governments, especially those involved in calamitous wars abroad, could then succumb to temptation and institute authoritarian controls on Internet access. Now that the WikiLeaks Founder is in detention, Washington should not be allowed to come up with tendentious arguments to get him extradited to be prosecuted for espionage. As Noam Chomsky and several other prominent American citizens have pointed out to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the rhetoric in the U.S. is increasingly violent and there are grave concerns about Mr. Assange's safety. At a broader level, the WikiLeaks challenge presents a clear choice to leaders and governments of western countries: to crack down on free speech in the name of official secrecy and national security or to make government more transparent and accountable. After all, tolerating what pleases you, or at least does not displease you strongly, is no big deal. How l'affaire Assange gets resolved will be the acid test for free speech in countries that claim to be liberal democracies.