Bianca Jagger is an international human rights and climate-change advocate, and founder of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation. She campaigns tirelessly for human rights, social and economic justice and environmental protection around the world.
Portrait: Phil Poynter. Courtesy Trunk Archive
Masoud Golsorkhi How did you first come across WikiLeaks?
Bianca Jagger I first read about WikiLeaks about two years ago. I was shocked and revolted when I watched the “Collateral Murder” video, which was released to the world last April. It shows the killing of innocent civilians, including two Reuters journalists, by US soldiers in Iraq in the July 2007 attack of Baghdad. The video is shot from a US helicopter, and the soldiers are laughing while shooting at the people on the ground, as though it is a computer game. When a van drives up to pick up the wounded and the dead, the soldiers laugh and continue to shoot, gravely wounding two children in the van. Before WikiLeaks released the video, Reuters had been trying to obtain the footage under the Freedom of Information Act, but the US military refused to release it, claiming that the journalists were killed in crossfire between the army and militants.
I have participated in anti-war demonstrations and condemned the invasion as an “illegal, immoral and unwinnable war” that undermines the rule of international law. I visited Baghdad in early 2003 with a delegation of US academics. We met with the dean of the University of Baghdad, academics, members of the Iraqi government, the defence department and scientists. Everyone I met, from government officials to scientists, categorically denied that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was a sense of urgency that the invasion was about to take place, and that it would be fatal. Before I left, I asked myself, “Should I stay or should I go?” I decided to go, but as I was boarding the plane, I looked back at our hosts from the university and I feared for their fate. I knew that many of them would not survive, and some of the academics we met were the first to die.
MG What led you to get involved in Julian Assange’s prosecution?
BJ Having grown up under a dictatorship in Nicaragua, I am very sensitive to any attempts to weaken our democracies. Although I do not agree with everything WikiLeaks has done, I feel compelled to defend freedom of speech, freedom of the press and due process. I have voiced my support for Julian Assange because I suspect that what is on trial here is not just him, but freedom of speech itself. I fear that Mr. Assange is being punished for releasing information that reveals the misuse of power by the US and other governments. He is on trial for holding governments to account.
MG What is your take on the indiscriminate exposing of secrets as a form of political activism?
BJ I believe that transparency and account- ability are the cornerstones of democracy. As Assange says, WikiLeaks is “an activist organisation: the method is transparency, the goal is justice”. There is a profound difference between exposing the deeds of governments, corporations and the rich, as WikiLeaks has done, and throwing mud at those who release the information. I am deeply concerned by the reaction of the US government to the WikiLeaks cables – for example, recent revelations that US federal prosecutors issued a secret subpoena obtained from the US Department of Justice, demanding that Twitter provide the account details of people connected to the WikiLeaks case. The only reason we know about it is because Twitter challenged the secrecy of the order. We fear that Facebook, Google and others have also been subpoenaed, but have chosen to keep it secret.
MG There is also a case to be made that pure information does not make peace. That information needs to be mediated, edited, contextualised.
BJ What Assange did was go to the Guardian first. He provided them with the material and they edited it – he didn’t have the means to do that, so let’s not blame him. There was an opinion piece on Twitter about Zambia, how it had endangered someone. But it was the Guardian that had edited the information and published it, not WikiLeaks. What WikiLeaks has achieved with five volunteers and barely any funds – it was able to achieve more than any media has ever achieved in the world. We’ve only seen one per cent of everything Assange has. I think it has exposed the limitations and shortcomings of the traditional media.
MG How did living through a revolution translate into your political sensibility?
BJ My mother was a very political person; she was my role model. Even though she was a housewife, she was very conscious. She made me understand what it meant to live under a oppressive government and how important it was to have freedom of expression and democracy. I remember, as a little girl, I was so excited when [Fulgencio] Bautista, the Cuban dictator, fell, even though it was a very vague memory. I got a scholarship to study political science, but then there was an earthquake in Nicaragua [in 1972; 5,000 people were killed]. I was married and I couldn’t reach my parents so I went back with Mick [Jagger], and no planes were being let in, so we got some medical supplies to take back. I saw how the regime took advantage of the tragedy in Nicaragua – this is what fuelled the revolution, ultimately. I wanted to build a small clinic but [President Anastasio] Somoza’s wife didn’t allow it, as it would have highlighted that she was the head of Social Security and they had stolen the aid money. So we built houses for victims of the earthquake. Those were different times... and, of course, there was the revolution. I brought my daughter to Nicaragua two days after the dictator’s overthrow. That was a wonderful moment, a very hopeful moment, for Nicaragua, for Latin America: a spring of freedom.
MG Having been involved in various forms of political action on behalf of many causes, do you detect a change in the way the web- savvy younger generation is seeking to effect change?
BJ The cyber revolution gives me great hope. I would not be able to accomplish half of what I do were it not for Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Google Voice, Gmail and other technologies. I am encouraged by the responses I get from people around the world: they show that young people are not indifferent to the challenges we are facing today. The internet has democratised information, and social networking and free voice communication services have liberated communication. These programmes are the tools for the next global peaceful revolution. §