Politics

You Don’t Have To Like Julian Assange To Believe His Journalism Deserves A Defence

Even a milkshake duck has rights.

Remember WikiLeaks? The maverick publisher that won infamy dumping the raw material of war crimes, corporate malfeasance and diplomatic bastardry into the public domain? Since 2006 they’ve been providing unfiltered windows into the violence of power, from Inside Somalia to the Iraq War Logs to the Saudi Cables and beyond.

Despite this remarkable publishing record, almost nobody in the mainstream press writes about the disclosures themselves. Instead, commentary is drawn almost exclusively to the character and conduct of founder and editor Julian Assange. In twelve years he’s gone from dissident publisher to object of mockery and derision across the political spectrum.

With a few important exceptions, most media comment now focuses on allegations of ties to the Trump regime or how well he looks after his cat. A botched investigation into sexual assault allegations against Assange dragged out for six years, with the British Crown Prosecution Service working behind the scenes to persuade Swedish prosecutors not to interview Assange in London.  The investigation eventually lapsed without any charges being laid, denying any form of justice to the accusers or the accused.

Publishing Is Not A Crime

It is in this dire context that things are about to take a bad turn. Back in mid-2012, Ecuador granted Assange political asylum in its embassy in London, on grounds that he was at risk of “…political persecution, as a consequence of his determined defense (sic) to freedom of expression and freedom of press, as well as his position of condemn to the abuses that the power infers in different countries…” Awkward translations aside, he was straightforwardly granted asylum because of the risk of extradition to the US to face prosecution for the crime of publishing.

In early 2016, with the embassy still surrounded by police and subjected to saturation surveillance, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention urged “…Swedish and British authorities to end Mr. Assange’s deprivation of liberty, respect his physical integrity and freedom of movement, and afford him the right to compensation. ”

Of course, Sweden and the UK did no such thing. With the situation at a stalemate, the US and its allies decided to wait it out and let the world turn. And so it did. In March 2017 WikiLeaks published the extraordinary ‘Vault 7’ release, disclosing that the CIA had “lost control of the majority of its hacking arsenal including malware, viruses, trojans, weaponised ‘zero day’ exploits, malware remote control systems and associated documentation.”

A month later, Ecuador elected a new President with rather more transactional views about the standoff in the embassy.

Incoming President Moreno has made it clear he wants his houseguest gone as soon as possible: “I have never been in favour of Mr Assange’s activities,” as he put it to reporters in Spain in mid-2018. For its part, senior Trump Administration figures have expressed a desire to bring the organisation down. Back when he was CIA director, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to WikiLeaks as a ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’. Asked at a press conference in 2017 whether arresting Assange was a priority, former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it clear: “So yes, it is a priority. We’ve already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail.”

Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi puts it this way: “…You can imagine the anger these powerful entities have towards WikiLeaks–they perceive WikiLeaks as an existential threat and they want to set an example that says, ‘Don’t you dare expose our secrets and crimes, because if you do, we will smash you’.”

The New York Times Problem And Julian Assange

The problem being, while its commitment to radical transparency is far higher than many other outlets, WikiLeaks remains, at heart, a publisher like any other. Back in 2013, a former US Justice Department spokesperson spelled out the dilemma to the Washington Post; “…The problem the department has always had in investigating Julian Assange is there is no way to prosecute him for publishing information without the same theory being applied to journalists.” This became known as the ‘New York Times problem’: it seemed impossible to justify prosecuting Assange for publishing the same material that was leading the front pages of traditional outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post.

But in November 2017, US Justice Department prosecutors accidentally disclosed that secret criminal charges had been filed against Assange, which means the stalemate may be about to break. It may be that in the present fevered environment of fake news and hyper partisanship, the Trump Administration is ready to take the risk and launch prosecutions. Watch for a storm of freakish new allegations about the publisher: the sudden ‘discovery’, for example, that their reckless disclosures got people killed. We can expect a deluge of lurid accusations from nameless ‘intelligence sources’ about the evils of the organisation and its founders. There are two purposes here: to persuade the general public that Assange is a dangerous weirdo, and to demonstrate to the rest of the world’s media organisations that there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

Prime Minister Morrison’s creepy response to Pamela Anderson’s recent calls for action don’t hold out much hope for a principled response from the Australian Government. An Australian citizen is about to be prosecuted for publishing, by Australia’s closest ally. The chances of that turning into a political flashpoint in an election year are high. As ever, this is going to come down to public pressure and careful reading of a storm of claims and counter-claims. Buckle up: things may be about to get real.


Scott Ludlam is a former Greens Senator for Western Australia. Follow him on Twitter.