Julian Assange: criminal hacktivist or beacon of free speech?
After seven years of stalemate with Assange hiding within the confines of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, his arrest on April 11 may finally mark the end of him being able to evade justice. Yet, what is it that Assange should be held accountable for? To finally face trail against the alleged rape of a Wikileaks volunteer in Sweden and to serve his UK sentence for breaching bail conditions in 2012? Yes. However, the indictment for Assange’s extradition to the US should be assessed more tentatively.
The narrow parameters of the extradition are entirely misleading. It appears to focus only on Assange working with former army soldier, Chelsea Manning, in hacking a military computer to obtain thousands of classified documents mainly on US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the language within the actual incitement focuses on how Assange is guilty of committing simple journalistic procedures that propagate freedom of speech and enable democratic accountability. For instance, the indictment included how ‘Assange and Manning took measures to conceal Manning as the source,’ and how Assange had the ‘manners and means of conspiracy.’ This could be applied to any other example of investigative journalism where journalists have to be careful to ensure the confidentiality of their sources and hold governments to account.
Further, the information that Assange made public knowledge is a lot more criminal than the hacking of a password. Video files revealed US-led forces killing hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan; another piece of video footage included US aircrew laughing after slaughtering a dozen innocent people which included two Iraqi employees of Reuters. Executive Director of the Henry Jackson Society, Alan Mendoza said on Newsnight: ‘it is about hacking into a military computer, at the end of the day.’ Per contra, the footage published and Assange’s purposes for doing so - holding the US government accountable for its injustice s- undermines him being seen as a political criminal. Assange is not a member of a terrorist organisation seeking to compromise national security, but the founder of a site that epitomises free speech and a free press.
Notedly, the Obama administration failed to make a case against Assange without it jeopardising press freedom. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that Trump is going in the opposite direction with this indictment. Ironically, however, it was Wikileaks that Trump continually commended during his presidential campaign; he mentioned the site 164 times in the last month of the election. At one point he termed the site a ‘treasure trove’ due to it releasing emails that undermined Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.
Now though, Wikileaks poses a threat to Trump. The signing an executive order last month to cover up civilian deaths by drones in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan marks the end of his proclamations of love for Assange’s website. Thus, setting a dangerous precedent of criminalising journalistic procedures and imperilling the first amendment does not seem to faze the Trump administration.
The democrats also being in consensus with a hard-line approach against Assange, with Clinton stating that ‘Assange must answer for what he has done,’ is even more worrying and foolish. Both sides seem to be in a love-hate relationship with the first amendment; they only seem to show it some love when it suits them.
The UK government must therefore make the right decision of extraditing Assange to Sweden without the overhanging threat of US extradition. This is especially the case, considering there is no secure knowledge that Assange’s indictment will focus on the narrow remit of charging him for hacking a military computer.
So, a political criminal? Perhaps not. But a common criminal? Absolutely. The mainstream debate around Assange hardly mentioning the fact that this is a man suspected of rape is truly insulting. Let us remember that this was the original reason for him entering the Ecuadorian embassy. Elizabeth Massi Fritz, the lawyer representing the woman who accused Assange of rape, stated that it was a ‘scandal that a suspected rapist can evade the law and therefore escape trial by court.’
The debates in the House of Commons, dominated by Sajid Javid and Diane Abbott mentioned, not once, the sexual assault allegations. Swedish case. It took a letter written to Javid and Abbott, signed by 70 MPs and peers, for them to pay attention to the Swedish case. Which is even more imperative considering that Assange has already been granted impunity for the 2010 allegation of molesting another Wikileaks volunteer due to the statute of limitations. It is a matter of urgency that he is put on trial for suspected rape before the same statute comes into effect next year.
Henceforth, Assange’s case is a box of contradictions: him being a cherubic figure promoting public-interest journalism and free speech on the one hand, and a man who has cunningly avoided being trialled for one of the most horrible of crimes, on the other. MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Philips puts it pertinently: ‘political freedom looks…like a man with whom we would be scared to be alone.’