Defend Truth


Speaking truth to power, always a dangerous game

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

There are frightening similarities between the arrest of Mzilikazi wa Afrika and the rape charges brought, and subsequently dropped, against Julian Assange in Sweden.

Rape charges were brought against Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, on Friday in Sweden. Wikileaks is the organisation that most famously published the “Afghan War Diary”, which exposed the fact that civilian deaths in the Afghanistan war were much greater than reported by the US sources, among other things. The story was broken by Swedish tabloid Expressen, which said rape charges had been brought against Assange in his absence, though he was in the country at the time.

The story spread very quickly on the Internet, generating thousands of articles, before the Swedish prosecuting authority stepped in on Saturday to say that the rape charges against Assange had been dropped. The prosecutor who scrapped the charges, not the same one who originally filed the charges, said there were no grounds for the charges. Interestingly, one of the two women who apparently brought the charges against Assange was quoted by another Swedish paper, Aftonbladet, saying she had not even intended to bring rape charges.

The facts surrounding this controversy are not all clear – for instance, what did his accusers intend to charge him with, if not rape, and what exactly is the incident that prompted the complaint in the first place? However, Assange previously said he knew that people whose interests his organisation had jeopardised would be coming after him and that he needed to be careful about his conduct.

If the intention was to smear Assange, and by extension Wikileaks, they could not have chosen a more damaging allegation. We’re of the view that this is a smear campaign.

In South Africa we’re immediately reminded of the highly public arrest of Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika. As with Assange, there’s a disturbing lack of clarity on the charges that prompted the arrest.

Where Wa Afrika and Assange are most alike is that their work exposed things that people in power didn’t want exposed. In both cases, powerful individuals and institutions stand to profit greatly if the voices of dissent are silenced. And it’s not just these two cases where there’s an implied, if not starkly clear, conflict between truth and power.

Freedom House, an international watchdog, recently published a report that shows that media freedom has declined overall in the world. While a drop in funds as a result of the global economic downturn is what mainly contributed to less media freedom in what are considered free speech countries, oppressive regimes used the economic downturn to increase repression.

All over the world, dissenters are being silenced.

In Vietnam, Le Thi Cong Nhan, a human rights lawyer and pro-democracy campaigner is under house arrest for “spreading propaganda against the State”. Cong Nhan protested the Vietnamese government’s censorship of websites in that country, but most of all, the lack of freedom of speech in that country. She said in an interview with a BBC reporter, “The most basic thing in human rights is freedom of speech. We can have nothing if we don’t have freedom of speech.”

In Venezuela, Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni is in prison for releasing a banker held without trial for three years. President Hugo Chavez has been accused of curtailing judicial independence by Afiuni, who said that judicial independence died in Venezuela on the day she was arrested. Chavez has been pretty clear on where he stands with regards to Afiuni. She would have been executed by firing squad in older Venezuela, he said.

Let’s not forget Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent the last 20 years in one form of imprisonment or the other by Myanmar’s military dictatorship, after her party won democratic elections in 1990. She is not alone – there are 2,100 other political prisoners in Myanmar.

The signs in our country are that our government would dearly love to join the company of the oppressors.

Speaking truth to power has always been a dangerous game. From King Henry II’s turbulent priest Thomas Beckett, Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, the students in Tiananmen Square in China to Aung San Suu Kyi, people have paid a very heavy price for challenging the excesses of those in power.

This battle will be fought until the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride. As long as there are governments, and as long as human beings are human beings, susceptible to the corrupting influence of power, there will be repression of freedoms.
Governments don’t like it when people are free to do as they please. Governments don’t like it when people know things, because knowledgeable people can question and challenge their authority. Our government is no different.


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