Julian Assange receives Sydney Peace Prize at Frontline
WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize gold medal for Peace with Justice at the Frontline Club this afternoon.
Assange is now one of just four people to have been given the award. Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso and a Japanese Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda are the only others to have received the medal in its fourteen year history.
The awards ceremony was a fairly low-key, invite-only affair, with a small selection of international media present. It began with an introduction from Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees, director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.
“For 14 years we’ve awarded the Sydney Peace Prize, but only on three occasions in 14 years have made an exception to the rule and awarded a gold medal for ‘exceptional courage in pursuit of human rights,’” Rees said. “We make the award for an unusual act that challenges conformity to cultural and political orthodoxy. We don’t seek somebody who’s perfect. Julian – you’ll be very reassured to know that.
“We think that the struggle for peace with justice inevitably involves conflict, inevitably involves controversy. If it was a stumbling towards some kind of consensus nothing would ever happen.
“In that respect we think that you [Julian] and WikiLeaks, have brought about what is a watershed in journalism and in the freedom of information, and potentially in politics. We think you’ve made an enormous contribution to people’s understanding of what democracy might be about in terms of responsibility to hold powerful people accountable, in terms of enthusiasm for freedom of information, and in terms of the presumption of innocence.
“We also think that that commitment to democracy asks many of the rest of us – journalists, lawyers, teachers, academics – to stop being so shy about challenging the establishments; to stop having their thoughts embedded consciously or unconsciously to mainstream points of view.
“Luckily for us there’s been a company of dissenters from Thomas Paine through to Daniel Ellsberg; the independent Australian MP Andrew Wilkie and yourself [Julian], who have told us that the emperor has no clothes, that we shouldn’t be deceived by the false claims of people in government, in corporations or indeed in the military.
“We were also motivated in November to make this award, because we were ashamed of the behaviour of the Australian government. And we wanted in some way to repudiate their cowardice … we were also appalled by the violent behaviour of major politicians in the United States. You will know that some of them said that WikiLeaks should be defined as an international terrorist organisation and that several politicians – among them Sarah Palin – said that you [Julian] should be hunted down like [Osama] bin Laden. Well, we now know exactly what that means.”
Rees also took a moment to speak about the alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning, who has been in prison for ten months without trial – eight of which were in solitary confinement.
“The bestial behaviour of the US government towards that man is more than appalling,” he said. “They don’t seem to understand that the harshest possible punishment and forms of humiliation teaches no one a lesson … it certainly makes no contribution to civility.”
Rees then read out two quotes. One was a message from Noam Chomsky to Assange.
Chomsky wrote: “I thank you profusely for the way in which you have excersied your responsibilities as a citizen of free societies, thus enabling citizens to know what their government is doing.”
The other was a 300 year old quote from the English writer Daniel Defoe:
“Extol the justice of the land who punish what they will not understand. Tell them I stand exalted there for speaking what they would not hear.”
Former SBS World News Australia presenter Mary Kostakidis was next to speak.
She said it was a “great privilege” to honour Assange with the medal and described WikiLeaks as an “ingenious and heroic” website that “exposes what governments get up to in our name”.
“[WikiLeaks has] contributed to enhancing democracy globally,” she said. “It’s ensured that critical evidence is made available to citizens all over the world in their struggle for justice – by providing a safe and secure way for whistleblowers to upload material anonymously."
Kostakidis added that among recent WikiLeaks revelations were cables that showed the Australian government privately lobbied with the United States to weaken a key international treaty banning cluster bombs.
“If we don’t support whistleblowers and their publishers, we will get the society we deserve,” she said. “Many of us have come to journalism because of its core purpose to scrutinise the decisions and actions of those in authority because of the impact of those decisions and actions on the lives of many people … [We need to guard against] arrogance, contempt for truth, contempt for justice, contempt for other people’s lives.”
Kostakidis then presented Assange with his medal. “This award is made infrequently and for extraordinary achievement,” she said.
Julian Assange began his acceptance speech with a “status update”.
The Australian government, Assange explained, this year found that WikiLeaks has breached no laws. It has now halted its inquiry into the organisation. “That is not due to the Australian government,” he said. “It is not due to the sense of the people it was working with in Washington; it is entirely due to the Australian people and the people who fight for us … you’re actions have made a difference.”
But WikiLeaks is still under threat from the US government, Assange said, adding: “The Pentagon publicly declared an 120 man operation into us, working 24 hours a day seven days a week.”
The fact that a CIA task squad has also been assembled to look in to WikiLeaks – and also failed to confirm or deny whether they were plotting to assassinate Assange – has serious implications, he said, for him and for WikiLeaks’ staff and volunteers.
He continued: “The real value of this award is that it makes explicit the link between peace and justice. It does not take the safe feel good option by uttering platitudes. […]
“With WikiLeaks there is no doubt that we are all engaged in a struggle – a generational struggle for the proposition that is no more radical than that citizens have a right – indeed a duty – to scrutinise the state and to scrutinise states."
Quoting the words of the poet Mae Sarton, Assange said, “you have to think like a hero in order to act like a decent human being.”
He went on: “And that has always been our promise to whistleblowers and sources – that if you have the courage to act like a hero, then we will have the courage to act like merely decent human beings as publishers. That is why we have never unpublished anything that we have published, no matter what kind of threats have been levelled against us.
“We are objective but we are not neutral. We are on the side of justice – objectivity is not the same as neutral
ity. We are objective about the facts, when it comes to recording and not distorting facts, but we are not neutral about what kind of world we would like to see. We would like to see a more just world and this means giving people access to the information that is the power behind justice. Without this free flow of information, an organised minority will always dominate the disorganised majority. That means most people cannot participate in power and until people can participate in power we will not have a just world.
“Our work at wikileaks has surprised many people, including some journalists, who have reacted in a hostile manner. And I would argue in a manner hostile to the basic ethics of journalism, which is to hold power to account.”
Paraphrasing journalist John Pilger, Assange said: “it is not WikiLeaks the United States government is afraid of, it is not Julian Assange that they are afraid of. What does it matter what I know, what does it matter what WikiLeaks knows? It matters not at all – what matters is what you know. These organisations are scared of what you know, and they are scared of what the general population knows. They want to put a stop to us because they want to put a stop to you knowing.”
Assange thanked the Sydney Peace Foundation for giving him the award. “Not because it is merely an accolade,” he said. “But because it is a certification to attract the support of people … who are committed to bringing peace with justice.
“It is a sign that we are doing what journalists ought to be doing every day: afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted as Chicago writer Finlay Peter Dunne once put it.
“WikiLeaks will always strive to be an intelligence agency of the people. And will always, as long as whistleblowers are willing to act like heroes, act merely like decent people.”