An unkept Julian Assange was dragged out from the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge, ponytail and all, into a police van on 11 April. For seven years Mr Assange remained free in the embassy, evading rape and sexual harassment charges brought by the Swedish authorities. He has dismissed any wrongdoing, in a very Trumpian manner, claiming the charges are part of a “radical feminist conspiracy” and has attempted to conflate the complaints with the wants of the CIA to put him under lock-and-key. His reasoning for not facing trial in Sweden – that he would then have to recon with extradition to the US – has always been dubious and something he has used to keep his waning support alive.
Mr Assange and his WikiLeaks organisation vociferously split opinion. Many view Assange as a fraud, a hostile agent to the west and at worst a danger to democracy. Whereas some think him a maverick who has done more to uphold, rather than undermine, freedom of expression and democracy: giving the electorate more information about the government it elects and the wars it engages with. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, holds this view and has consequently said the potential extradition of Assange to the US for “exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan be opposed by the British government.” Hilary Clinton begs to differ, asserting Assange “should face what he’s done.”
WikiLeaks has certainly been a valuable source for allowing whistle-blowers to safely publish documents that some in government and various secret service institutions would have rather kept under maximum security. It has exposed atrocities that every citizen in a democratic country should be aware. We should know what our governments and militaries are up to in our name. Hence, in this blog’s view, WikiLeaks is, or at least once was, a utility used to expose corruption and abuse of power, holding our institutions to account.
WikiLeaks’ practises, however, have at times been irresponsible bordering on the immoral. For instance, it led an online dump of thousands of unredacted secret diplomatic cables, probably exposing the individuals named in the documents to certain danger. Assange, too, is no angel. He constantly conjures up conspiracies when it suits, threatens his “enemies” and smears any who criticise the validity of his actions; engaging in practises he says he would like to expose and is in opposition to.
Assange is certainly a narcissist who enjoys wielding power in ways he claims to oppose. But, no matter the integrity of his character, it can be under no doubt the danger that could be incurred to all free journalistic practises by the indictment he faces in America. The charge Mr Assange faces in the US is “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.” The US allege that Assange conspired to with former US solider Chelsea Manning “to break a password to a classified US government computer,” in order to allow Manning access to the computers through a false username: making it “more difficult for investigators to determine the source of the illegal disclosures.”
One could suppose, then, that Assange is being charged with helping a source conceal her identity rather than engaging in any genuine computer hacking. This is normal in the journalist world and happens all the time. Remember Watergate’s “deepthroat” who gave Woodward and Bernstein classified information that guided them toward the extent of President Nixon’s wrongdoing. Referring to the indictment, the US claim “it was part of the conspiracy that Assange encouraged Manning to provide information and records from departments and agencies of the United States against him.” Again, imploring and persuading sources to provide more information than they’re initially willing to handover is all part of the journalist’s job.
The wording and intent of the US indictment poses a clear danger to all journalistic behaviour and, inevitably, undermines press freedoms. This does not mean that we should overlook the rape charges that the Swedish authorities are considering reopening. And if the Swedish prosecutors do wish to reopen this case, the British government would be forced to make a decision on which extradition case should take priority. Due to all the reasons mentioned above, the best-case scenario would be for Assange to face trial in Sweden.