A Nobel Nomination for WikiLeaks? What About Bradley Manning, America's Liu Xiaobo?

02/08/2011 01:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ali A. Rizvi Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician and musician

Even though WikiLeaks has now been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Suzanne Merkelson at Foreign Policy doesn't think it's likely to win -- and she's probably right: the biggest human rights stories this year have, so far, come out of Tunisia and Egypt.

But Snorre Valen, the Norwegian Member of Parliament who nominated WikiLeaks, was probably on to something.

An account from an anonymous young Tunisian writer simply named "Sam" surfaced just hours before the ouster of Ben Ali, describing the series of events that led to the Jasmine revolution. Sam ended with:

The corruption, the bribes -- we simply want to leave. We begin to apply to study in France, or Canada. It is cowardice, and we know it. Leaving the country to "the rest of them". We go to France and forget, then come back for the holidays. Tunisia? It is the beaches of Sousse and Hammamet, the nightclubs and restaurants. A giant ClubMed.

And then, WikiLeaks reveals what everyone was whispering. And then, a young man immolates himself. And then, 20 Tunisians are killed in one day.

Several prominent media outlets had begun to acknowledge the possible role WikiLeaks played in Tunisia's revolution. Sure enough, a few days after his friend's ouster, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi took to the airwaves, singling out WikiLeaks (2 minute mark onwards) as the evil culprit that incited the people to revolt by misleading them.

And Gaddafi has a lot to worry about -- not only because his country is sandwiched between Tunisia and Egypt, but because the WikiLeaks cables that he has had just as difficult a time shielding from his people as Ben Ali include a decent amount of dirt on him and his family as well.

So while Valen is right about WikiLeaks being "one of the most important contributors to freedom of speech and transparency" in the 21st century, his case is further supported by the fact that WikiLeaks has been a trigger and catalyst for what could potentially be one of the most important socio-political transformations the Middle East has seen in centuries.

And while it's true that this nomination doesn't necessarily translate to a win, there is a reason it has received relatively more press than Nobel nominations typically do. Julian Assange, runner up to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg for Time's Person of the Year, is a hero to human rights and free speech advocates worldwide. WikiLeaks has previously won Amnesty International UK's New Media award in 2009, and also the Economist's New Media Award in 2008.

Assange shot to wider fame in April of last year, when WikiLeaks released "Collateral Murder," a 2007 video showing Iraqi journalists and civilians being killed by US forces.

WikiLeaks would never have gotten this video -- which turned out to be its big break -- or the hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables that would spark the Jasmine Revolution (which in turn sparked the Egyptian protests), if it wasn't for Bradley Manning.

Manning, the 22 year old disgruntled US Army soldier who allegedly uploaded the files published by WikiLeaks while calmly listening and lip-synching to Lady Gaga's Telephone, is the Rosalind Franklin in the WikiLeaks saga. He is the character without whom all of this likely wouldn't have happened, yet the one who is not just stripped of his due credit -- but abused and neglected while his beneficiaries earn Nobel nominations.

We are witnessing an age where two twenty-something white American kids -- one a gay soldier hacktivist and the other a Jewish atheist CEO -- have helped facilitate virtually unprecedented world-changing events in the Middle East in a matter of months. Sadly, while one is Time's Person of the Year, the other is rotting in solitary confinement, recently on suicide watch.

In the West, we often look at Facebook -- credited as the forum where the unprecedented January 25 protests in Egypt were organized -- as nothing more than an entertaining social networking tool. Also, for us, the interest in WikiLeaks has waned over time, with experts brushing it off as nothing new, except when it serves as a gossip source. Consequently, it's understandable that those of us living in Western countries may not fully grasp the extent of the impact these outlets have in countries like Tunisia and Egypt.

I grew up in Libya and Saudi Arabia, where I lived for a total of 15 years. Very early on, I developed a sense of how much courage it would take to go up against the governments and security forces in these countries. For the 70% of people in Egypt or Iran that are under 30 and weren't even born when Mubarak or Khomeini came to power, freedom of speech is a completely alien concept. For them, Facebook and Twitter aren't just an extension of their real lives, the way they are for us. They're more fantastical, representing a very real virtual world, where you can say what you can't in real life, and where you can be exposed to the uncensored ideas of people around the world, talk to them, even watch them. These forums represent an unprecedented portal into a world they never knew existed as little as five years ago -- one that allows them to live inside the outside world.

On websites like WikiLeaks, they learn things about their governments and the world that they've never seen in their newspapers. They discover the roles that their own leaders have played in bringing about the frustrations and difficult conditions they were told were the fault of the US and Israel. It's like someone who has been locked in a dark room since birth suddenly gaining access to a window and looking outside for the first time -- only to see that s/he's the only one locked in.

So think about what they're struggling for: justice, equality, the right to elect their own leaders, the right to speak freely. Think about what they're willing to risk: injury, imprisonment, torture, death. All just to fight for the things that the rest of us take for granted every day.

We've known for a while the United States has played a central role in helping Arab dictators keep these freedoms from their people for decades. This hypocrisy became more apparent than ever in recent months, thanks to the WikiLeaks cables out of Egypt, and the Obama administration's embarrassing waffling on the protests over the last two weeks.

For all of the soaring rhetoric about freedom and democracy in the Muslim world in his 2009 Cairo speech, Barack Obama was caught off guard -- as any US president would've been -- when faced with actually having to put those words into action. It took some masterful pivoting and tightrope-walking in the face of harsh criticism from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and many members of Congress for him to finally land on the right side of the issue.

But the hypocrisy still exists, more blatant than ever.

Bradley Manning is a political prisoner in America, like Liu Xiaobo is in China. Both men have broken their countries' laws for the sake of freedom and transparency. Both have contributed significantly to the advancement of human rights and democracy around the world. Julian Assange, with his Nobel nomination, would be nowhere without Manning.

When Liu Xiaobo was awarded the prize last year, Barack Obama, himself a Nobel laureate, made a generous statement about Xiaobo being "far more deserving" of the award than he was. All the while, Bradley Manning, whose actions have arguably set into motion many of the events we're witnessing today, remains a political prisoner in his own country.

Manning reportedly uses the only hour he is allowed out every day following the events in Egypt. David House, one of the few visitors he has been allowed to meet, recently described him as being in a "shocked state." However, House added, "His mood and mind soared when I mentioned the democratic uprisings in Egypt."

In the words of President Obama: "human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law. The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible."

But that was for Liu Xiaobo.

Let's hope he takes his own advice.