Dear City Council,
Dear city administration
Freedom of the press and freedom of information are essential components of any democracy. By extension, this also applies to any institution and organization that has a significant – direct and indirect – influence on society, politics and the economy. A free society cannot survive without transparency and openness.
The imprisonment, prosecution, and possible extradition of Julian Assange to the US set a precedent that should not be ignored by anyone. Not only does this affect investigative journalism on the international political scene, but it affects every local community. In times when public perception is being strategically adjusted in all possible ways and by all kinds of agencies, the importance of freedom of the press and information cannot be overestimated.
Universities and colleges are vital to our society. Students are educated and prepared for their professional and personal future here. Not only formal education, but also all other aspects of student life are an essential part of that formation. There is essentially no difference between revealing war crimes and reporting the true events of a student’s death as a result of unacceptable student club practices. Society has the right to be informed about this. Educational institutions, as much as governments, have a duty to account for their decisions and policies, and for their views on what goes on in the margins of their domain of work.
Freedom of information is not only an indispensable part of any democratic society in itself: by revealing everything that goes wrong, freedom of information allows a democratic society to evolve and work towards constructive solutions.
The imprisonment, extradition and / or legal conviction of an investigative journalist or publicist has far-reaching precedent consequences for every section of our society. Not least for an educational and research institution such as a university. When freedom of the press is restricted, intellectual freedom is the next target. Every college, every university, every single research institution is therefore a de facto interested party, not only for itself, but also as a fundamental part of a healthy, democratic society.
Hearings on the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States started on the 7th of September in the “Old Baley”, in London. The US authorities have placed 17 of the 18 charges against Assange under the “Espionage Act” of 1917. As a result, the dissemination of the information by WikiLeaks is not covered by the “First Amendment” which protects freedom of the press. Assange risks 175 years imprisonment. It goes without saying that this is a precedent that calls into question the protection of journalistic practices and the constitutional protection of citizens.
A number of Leuven residents have therefore taken the initiative to collect signatures to express their position regarding the process of Assange’s extradition as an item on the agenda of the municipal council. Such action was done in the context of the procedure “citizens’ initiative with the right to speak at the municipal council”.
The residents request that:
- the city of Leuven would inform all Leuven residents about the Assange process in an official communication from the city to its residents.
- the city of Leuven gives an official recognition to Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, in the form of honorary citizenship (if a tax evader and one of the richest people in the world Carlos Brito was also presented as an honorary citizen in a previous legislature then Assange and Manning may qualify better) and/or the naming of a street after whistleblowers
- the city of Leuven introduces whistleblower status at local level for all personnel under its authority.
As scientists and educators, we support this citizens’ initiative, and in the spirit of Erasmus and academic freedom we ask you to seriously consider the proposals of the Leuven citizens as a political statement for democracy and constitutional rights in our time. Voting current affairs motions, granting honorary citizenship and giving street names are important powers for a local government with symbolic value for the social debate and the involvement of citizens with the “common cause”. For our part, we will take up our responsibility to handle the Assange case in our classes and discuss it with our students. It is evident that students of law, political science, journalism, diplomatic relations, human geography, and history are informed about the case in order to form their opinion. However it is crucial to ensure that the information about Assange’s case reaches all the students so they could to take an interest and commit to Assange’s release.
Lieven de Cauter, Professor of Cultural philosophy, at the Department of Architecture at KU Leuven
Pieter Van den Broeck, Professor of Spatial Planning and Sustainable Development, at the Department of Architecture at KU Leuven
Ides Nicaise, Professor of pedagogy at KU Leuven and Research Manager at HIVA
Brunilda Pali, Postdoctoral Fellow, at Leuven Institute of Criminology (LINC)
Robert Speijer, Professor of Paleontology, at Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at KU Leuven
Jan Servaes, dr communication sciences
Karel Arnaut, Centre for Interculturalism, Migration an Minorities