Whatever you think of Assange, his case has broad implications.
There are two images of Julian Assange that display the deeply contradictory views of his supporters and his critics.
The first is of Assange at the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, microphone in hand, addressing the media gathered in the street below. That low-angle image captures the hero of transparency, accountability, the scourge of the powerful, who has dug around electronic rubbish bins for secrets that governments would rather keep hidden. It shows a man defiantly standing up to the might of the United States by exposing corruption and human rights abuses and defending press freedom.
The other photo is of a fugitive, unkempt, wild-haired and shackled as he is dragged off to prison. That image is used by those who see an egotistical, misogynistic hacker who has gleefully exposed a swag of national intelligence secrets and placed countless lives and the security of several nations at risk. They are the ones who accuse him of hypocrisy, claiming the moral high ground of press freedom and democracy while cosying up to some of the worst abusers of both principles. To those folks, he deserves everything he is getting.
As a London magistrates court begins hearing the US extradition case against Assange, those voices are only likely to get louder.
But in the shouty polarised world of social media, too many people have become trapped in an absolutist position, seeing either one thing or the other. There is no room for nuance; no space to acknowledge that it is possible to be all those things at once; no recognition that Assange and Wikileaks have exposed gross misdeeds by governments, but at the same time they might also have done harm.
Wikileaks was clearly right to release the “collateral murder” video from a US Apache helicopter gunship, showing the slaughter of at least a dozen unarmed civilians in Baghdad. It was also right for them to publish files that exposed how US-led forces killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan. That’s what press freedom is all about: maintaining the capacity for the media to expose abuses of power by those we entrust to wield it on our behalf.
At the same time, the organisation I represent, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, has also strongly objected to Assange’s decision to publish a huge file of unredacted documents. The AJF and others believe that press freedom comes with responsibilities. It does not include the right to reveal information that places the lives of innocent people at risk, or that unnecessarily exposes genuine national security secrets without a clear public interest. That is simply irresponsible and dangerous.
That is also why in the past, we have argued that Assange cannot claim to have exercised journalistic responsibility and so he cannot use press freedom as a defence.
But the debate about whether Assange is or is not a “journalist” has since become a distraction. Regardless of what you think of him – hero or villain, journalist or hacker – the way the Trump administration is prosecuting Assange’s case has serious implications for press freedom more broadly that nobody who believes in democracy can ignore.
US prosecutors are using the Espionage Act to go after Assange in a way that dangerously threatens any journalist working to expose wrongdoing and keep governments honest. (Australia’s own Espionage Act, passed in 2018, poses similar risks to journalism that remain untested.)
The New York Times reports that if US prosecutors win their case, the indictments against Assange could establish a precedent that could then be used to criminalise future “acts” of legitimate national-security journalism.
Despite the cynical way that the Obama administration also used the US Espionage Act to prosecute journalists and their sources in a startling number of cases, his staff ultimately decided that going after Assange would be a step too far. They realised that if they prosecuted him, they would then have to prosecute the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others for also publishing much of Wikileaks’ material, and in the process do irreparable harm to the constitutional guarantees for press freedom.
It is clear that under Trump, Assange is highly unlikely to have his rights respected or get a fair trial, and those, too, are grounds to oppose his extradition. The manner in which US prosecutors are handling his case, and its implications for anybody who believes in democratic accountability, are too serious to let Assange be extradited without a fight.
This was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.