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What should we do about Julian Assange?

We don’t get to pick and choose on personal feelings when to fight for press freedom and when not to. And we don’t have to like Julian Assange to defend the principles of press freedom which his likely prosecution raises

Julian Assange is arrested in London on Thursday.

WE’D known this was coming for months, but when the footage emerged on Thursday night of Julian Assange being dragged kicking and shouting by police from the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, it was still a shock.

We had read and heard about the impact on his physical and mental state of the confines of his small room in the embassy where he sought refuge seven years ago, and it had been many months since we had last seen anything of Assange. He was depressed and unable to get fresh air or physical exercise, we were told.

Even so, when we saw that bushy white beard, his once lustrous hair tied back into a short bun, his puffy eyes and swollen, pale face, the change in his appearance was confronting.

Within hours, Assange had been remanded in custody to await full sentencing for breaching his bail conditions when he first went into hiding in 2012. Back then, the Australian had been one of the most famous and recognisable people in the world.

Almost a decade after Assange and WikiLeaks first burst onto the world stage, it is difficult to comprehend just how enormous their impact had been at the time, not just for the world’s intelligence and security apparatus, but for media and journalism as well. Before WikiLeaks, the full potential of the internet as a journalistic tool had not been fully grasped: Assange helped to open new doors. Plaudits and awards followed.

But by the time he became a fugitive from British law, WikiLeaks was already in decline. Chelsea Manning, the source of the secret US Pentagon and State Department documents from which the organisation had drawn its notoriety, was in jail; Assange was the only member of the original group who founded WikiLeaks who was still involved, having fallen out with all of his colleagues; and the promise of a new type of journalism where whistleblowers and journalists collaborated to publish together, had also been shattered by disagreements between Assange and the major newspapers he had worked with.

Assange himself had become a pariah after Swedish police began investigating complaints of rape and sexual assault. It was from the Swedish investigators — not the CIA or MI6 — that he initially breached his bail conditions by fleeing and seeking refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy.

In hiding, Assange became a sad, diminished character, almost a joke: paranoid, possibly delusional, living in a cramped single room with his computers and his cat. But his ego and fame continued to be nourished by a steady stream of famous supporters and visitors, including Lady Gaga and Pamela Anderson, and to a US government determined to punish whistleblowers who embarrassed it or exposed its crimes, Julian Assange was always the ultimate prize.

Hot on the heels of Assange’s arrest on Thursday, Trump’s Department of Justice unsealed an indictment that sets in train the process of extraditing him to the US for prosecution. It took them almost a decade, but they are now within reach of finally getting their man.

But this would be a direct threat to press freedom, criminalising journalism and sending a clear message to future whistleblowers and publishers that they too will be punished it they step out of line, pushing aside the protections of free speech in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

So the question is this: is Julian Assange worth us fighting for?

THERE are few more polarising figures in public life today than Julian Assange. To his supporters, he has a cult-like status, akin to a persecuted saint; the fearless fighter for transparency and openness who has singlehandedly taken on the might of the US military-intelligence apparatus.

To them, he is an avatar for the democratisation of the media through the internet, ripping away the power of self-appointed gatekeepers with vested corporate interests. His supporters will argue that the Swedish charges are a conspiracy, the apparent collusion with Russia in 2016 an innocent mistake. They will insist that Assange’s decision to become fugitive was justified because it was all a plot to hand him over to the CIA anyway.

But to his detractors, Assange is a low level hacker who got lucky. They detest his egoism and narcissism. They say he has been irresponsible by dumping unedited documents on his website. They will point to the role that WikiLeaks played in helping Trump get elected and his refusal to face justice over his behaviour in Sweden as reasons why we should not waste our time defending him.

“Many conservatives despise him for supposedly imperiling national security,” wrote the former editor-in-chief of the The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger over the weekend. “Liberals will never forgive him for what he did to Hillary Clinton. Numerous journalists — perhaps the majority — scoff at his effrontery to identify as one of them. Women can never forget the never-settled claims of sexual coercion in Sweden.”

Predictably, since his arrest, the two camps have taken polar opposite views on what should be done about Assange.

His supporters say we should all be protesting in the streets to prevent him becoming a martyr for free speech and democracy.

Jennifer Robinson, his long-time Australian-born lawyer in London said his arrest “set a dangerous precedent for all media and journalists in Europe and around the world” and could mean any journalist could face similar charges for accessing government documents to publish “truthful information about the United States”.

Back in his home country, some high-profile supporters have called for a popular uprising in defence of Assange.

Australia’s Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the union Assange has been a member of since 2007, publicly called for the UK and Australian governments to oppose his extradition:

“We believe a prosecution of WikiLeaks’ personnel will have a chilling effect on the public’s right to know what governments do in the name of their citizens. Extradition of Mr Assange and prosecution by the United States would set a disturbing global precedent for the suppression of press freedom.”

But his detractors argue it is about time he faced justice for his crimes. There seems to be no middle ground.

FOR journalists, in particular, the potential prosecution of Julian Assange in the US poses a major dilemma.

Assange’s background was as a computer hacker, and he had never worked as a journalist or for any conventional media organisation. But it’s apparent that he wanted to be considered and respected as a journalist. He described himself as the “editor” of WikiLeaks and he reveled in the attention of journalists. When WikiLeaks worked with newspapers of such as esteem as the New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and Le Monde, it conveyed upon him the legitimacy he so desperately craved.

Yet many journalists refuse to countenance Assange being described as one of them.

Australian journalist Peter Greste, who was himself imprisoned in Egypt for over a year along with two Al-Jazeera colleagues and now heads the Alliance for Media Freedom, sums up the views of many journalists that “Julian Assange is not a journalist, and WikiLeaks is not a news organisation”.

Greste wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that because he is not a journalist, Assange’s extradition to the US is not a press freedom issue.

“He cannot claim to be a journalist or hide behind arguments in support of press freedom,” Greste wrote. “The distinction matters because of the way the digital revolution has confused the definitions of what journalism is and its role in a democracy.”

Much of Greste’s argument rests on the practice of WikiLeaks of simply dumping uncensored and unredacted documents on its website.

“Journalism demands more than simply acquiring confidential information and releasing it unfiltered onto the internet for punters to sort through. It comes with responsibility.”

But Greste’s argument is far from convincing. He fails to acknowledge that the work of WikiLeaks that had the greatest impact and for which Assange now faces prosecution — the Iraq and Afghan war logs and the diplomatic cable files — was produced in conjunction with major media organisations. The documents were carefully filtered and analysed, and care and responsibility was taken.

Nor does he answer why Assange should be prosecuted but the editors of The New York Times and The Guardian — his publishing partners — have not been.

GRESTE’S opinion piece was widely shared and cheered by many other journalists. And Greste is technically correct that Assange isn’t a journalist in the traditional sense.

But since the revolutionary democratisation of the media caused by the internet, definitions of journalism have become more fluid. No longer do you need a fortune and massive infrastructure to become a publisher. Anyone with a website can do it, and in effect, they are journalists. Citizen journalists.

But old school journalists continue to insist that only they should be able to define on their terms who is or isn’t a journalist. They hold the view of journalists as gatekeepers who are the only ones who should be privy to information and decide how it is shared with the public.

In the second decade of the 21st century, it has to be said that taking this position smacks of elitism and privilege.

This highlights a gap between those who maintain traditional “objective” journalism is the only journalism, and those who say the old rules have become useless in the face of government and corporate spin and obfuscation, and the only way for journalism to reclaim its role as the fourth estate is to reinvent it. They see activist-journalists like Assange as being at the forefront of that change.

Many journalists have always resented Assange and WikiLeaks because it directly challenged the traditional model. WikiLeaks said bring us your secret documents, your hacks, your leaks and we will publish them without fear or favour. We will not pull our punches because we need to curry favour with governments or powerful corporations. We will not compromise because our owner’s commercial interests may be threatened or our advertisers may be upset. We will allow full and unfiltered disclosure and transparency.

Suddenly, the exalted position of gatekeepers that the legacy media had enjoyed for centuries was being challenged by this upstart. Wisely, WikiLeaks agreed to collaborate with mainstream outlets like The New York Times, but it was shortlived and eventually Assange’s prickliness and his ego saw those relationships break down.

But whether Assange is a journalist or not is a moot point.

Alan Rusbridger, who spent many days working closely with Assange in the lead up to the publication by The Guardian of the Iraq and Afghan war logs in 2010 and 2011, says it doesn’t matter whether Assange fits the classic mould of a journalist. The press freedom issues his extradition raises are real and should trouble every journalist, Rusbridger says.

“Assange is a shape-shifter — part publisher, part impresario, part source, part activist, part anarchist, part whistleblower, part nihilist. And that new 21st-century creature: part journalist. However, Assange does — sometimes — carry out the function of a journalist and thus should benefit from First Amendment protection, just the same as “real” reporters.”

It’s a view echoed by Chris Warren, the former Secretary of the MEAA, who in 2011 was one of the trustees who agreed to give WikiLeaks a Walkley Award for its contribution to journalism:

It’s a dangerous moment for press freedom when governments — and some journalists — prioritise the privileges of the craft over fundamental human rights. Yet that’s where we seem to be with the arrest of Julian Assange for practicing journalism.

Warren explains that to constrain the rights of press freedom to the privileges of the profession of journalists weakens both. Rather, he says, the rights that journalists assume are a professional expression of the rights of everyone.

In a detailed analysis of the indictment against Assange, Glenn Greenwald and Micah Lee in The Intercept (Greenwald was the first journalist to interview American national security whistleblower Edward Snowden) day the case against Assange poses grave threats to press freedom because if it was successful, every journalist could face similar charges whenever they worked with a government whistleblower to expose some form of wrongdoing.

Simply using an encrypted messaging service to communicate with a source could expose a journalist to a similar charge to the one Assange is facing.

Furthermore, they write, in 2013 the Department of Justice during the Obama administration decided not to prosecute Assange on virtually identical charges because to do so would undermine press freedom.

They say that the Obama DOJ did not prosecute because “there was no way to distinguish what WikiLeaks did from what the New York Times, The Guardian, and numerous media outlets around the world routinely do: namely, work with sources to publish classified documents”.

“The indictment seeks to criminalise what journalists are not only permitted but ethically required to do: take steps to help their sources maintain their anonymity . . . That’s why the indictment poses such a grave threat to press freedom. It characterises as a felony many actions that journalists are not just permitted but required to take in order to conduct sensitive reporting in the digital age.”

BUT there are other Assange critics who go much further than Peter Greste in arguing that Assange should be prosecuted. In The Atlantic, US author and journalist Michael Weiss wrote that “Assange got what he deserved”.

“He has put innocent people’s lives in danger; he has defamed and tormented a poor family whose son was murdered; he has seemingly colluded with foreign regimes not simply to out American crimes but to help them carry off their own; and he otherwise made that honorable word transparency in as much of a need of delousing as he is. Don’t continue to fall for his phony pleas for sympathy, his megalomania, and his promiscuity with the facts. Julian Assange got what he deserved.”

The role of WikiLeaks in making public thousands of embarrassing emails hacked from the Democratic Party in 2016 is a major gripe of many of Assange’s critics.

In this case, WikiLeaks appears to have been genuinely duped by Russian intelligence services, and detractors say the release of the emails contributed to Donald Trump coming to power. This proves, they say, that Assange is no friend of the Left, but instead a tool of the Right, and a dangerous tool for that matter.

But even setting aside that this exaggerates the importance of the emails in the 2016 election result — conveniently ignoring that Hilary Clinton failed to appeal to enough middle Americans on policy and personality grounds — it is irrelevant to the circumstances for which Assange faces extradition to the US, which are related to the 2010 publications.

And then, of course, there are those who say Assange deserves everything he gets because of the allegations of sexual offences which continue to hang over him.

This seeks to conflate the character of the man with the principles of press freedom. But the two should be treated totally separately.

If the Swedish police do decide to reopen their investigation into the alleged sexual offences, then these should be dealt with the same as they would for any other offender. Assange’s status as a figurehead for press freedom does not and should not make him immune from prosecution for any other crimes he has committed.

If that situation arose, Assange should face the music so the victims get the justice they deserve. But that does not make the principles of press freedom any less significant.

WHATEVER our personal views about Julian Assange, journalists need to unite to oppose his extradition to be prosecuted in the United States.

Only the most cravenly pro-establishment and conservative would deny that the videos and documents WikiLeaks helped bring to light about the Iraq and Afghan wars — revealing the killings of unarmed civilians and numerous other war crimes — was not in the public interest. This work was on a scale of importance with the Pentagon Papers and Seymour Hersh’s expose of the My Lai massacre.

For Assange to now be facing prosecution for his role in the publication of those documents is an affront to the very nature of journalism as an essential part of the machinery of democracy, which is to hold governments and the powerful to account.

This is the principle that over-rides anything Julian Assange has done since and any personal foibles he has.

Any prosecution of Assange would set a disturbing precedent that could be used in future against other media outlets who print or broadcast material the US government would rather keep secret. In an era when the President of the United States throws around the phrase “fake news” at any coverage he doesn’t like and routinely calls outlets like the Washington Post and CNN the enemies of the American people, this is no idle threat.

The principles of press freedom and free speech do not exist solely to protect those that we define, however subjectively, as bona fide journalists. They exist to protect all of us: journalists, editors, publishers, whistleblowers . . . citizens.

It would be nice if Julian Assange was a person whose character was above reproach. But he’s not. He’s a narcissist, a misogynist, and a lot of other unsavoury things, and the US government is obviously hoping that the animosity towards this deeply polarising figure will cause us to turn away from defending him.

The simple fact is we don’t get to pick and choose on personal feelings when to fight for press freedom and when not to. We don’t have to like Julian Assange to defend the principles of press freedom which his likely prosecution raises.

But if we want if journalists to able to continue to reveal unpleasant truths without being jailed, this is one fight we have to take on.

Disclosure: the author works for the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

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