Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The arrested development of Julian Assange

Cyberspace's most famous activist, Julian Assange, has been under house arrest for more than a year now. But he is not keeping quiet.

By Zafar Anjum

Is it retrogressive if a new media pioneer goes back to the traditional mainstream media to air his views?

Whatever you call it, this is exactly what Cyberspace’s most famous activist, Julian Assange, the editor in chief of WikiLeaks, is going to do today.

In January this year, WikiLeaks announced that Assange would launch "a series of in-depth conversations with key political players, thinkers and revolutionaries from around the world", titled The World Tomorrow.

Perhaps Assange had no choice but to try something traditional. One, he is under house arrest in the U.K, which means travelling is out for him. Two, his WikiLeaks has been denied the oxygen of money for about 500 days now. The website is facing a financial blockade imposed by U.S. banks.

It is noteworthy that as long as Assange did not touch the banks, he was tolerated by the system. The leaks of U.S. embassy cables damaged the reputation of many countries and their heads but Assange was still able to do his work. When he was about to leak some secret documents of a bank (reportedly it was Bank of America), all hell broke loose.

Assange might have learnt his lesson. It is fine to touch politicians. But never touch the bankers.

Or, has he? His show will reveal it.

The World Tomorrow

The first episode of Assange’s show is going to air today. He has chosen RT, an English-language international satellite news channel, headquartered in Russia. The programme will also be broadcast on other national channels.

This will be a weekly show and each episode will be 26 minutes long.

Assange, who is under house arrest, faces allegations of rape and sexual assault lodged by two women in Sweden. Britain's Supreme Court is to decide if Assange should be extradited to Sweden. Ironically, no charges have been officially filed against him.

RT has said that the programme, written and hosted by Assange, will focus on his favourite topic: controversy. The show will feature 10 "iconoclasts, visionaries and power insiders" – people Assange can clearly identify with, the channel said.

The show has been shot at the very location that Julian Assange has been under house arrest for the last year and a half.

In a recent interview with RT, Assange said that he chose RT because he found the channel’s penetration higher than Al Jazeera’s. “We’ve seen RT’s reportage on the attacks on WikiLeaks for a number of years, and that reportage has generally been quite supportive,” he said. “When we were looking what international broadcaster we wished to partner with as opposed to national broadcasters, we looked to see what was the penetration into the United States. And RT had higher penetration in the United States than Al Jazeera.”

“The BBC is the leading contestant but the BBC has been acting in a hostile manner towards us so we didn’t consider that the BBC would be an appropriate partner,” he said.

“RT is rallying a global audience of open-minded people who question what they see in mainstream media and we are proud to premiere Julian Assange’s new project,” editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said in a statement on the television network's website.

In the RT interview, Assange also talked about his experience of working with mainstream media companies like The Guardian and the New York Times. “Any organisation, once it grows to a sufficient size and has sufficient influence, starts having to make political compromises,” he said. “And media organisations, by their very nature, are engaged in the political sphere. So the editors and publishers of media organisations have to sit down at the table with power groups, and they start becoming captured by these power groups.”

“So, we have found that working with them, when we try to get out our material through organisations, say, such as The Guardian, or the New York Times, or the BBC, that these organisations self-censor in a tremendously frequent manner and in a way which is against their stated values. It is not just against our values.”

“It is against their stated values. And in some cases even against the contracts that we have made with those organisations,” he added.

Assange even predicted how mainstream media companies will react to his show. “Let’s imagine a sort of obvious one,” he said. “There’s Julian Assange, enemy combatant, traitor, getting into bed with the Kremlin and interviewing terrible radicals from around the world. But I think it’s a pretty trivial kind of attack on character. If they actually look at how the show is made: we make it, we have complete editorial control, we believe that all media organisations have an angle, all media organisations have an issue.”

This is what CNN had to say about the show: “Commentators outside Russia have questioned the apparent link the show creates between Assange and the Kremlin, given RT's government-funded status.”

Whatever the criticism, the world will pay attention to what Assange has to say about the world tomorrow. Bring it on, Assange. We are all ears.

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