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Thursday, 11 April 2019, saw the eventual arrest of Julian Assange, controversial figurehead of Wikileaks by British police. Following his expulsion from the Ecuadorian embassy in London ending his seven-year asylum. He had taken refuge there to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault case that has since been dropped. After his arrest, Julian Assange was found guilty of skipping bail in 2012 and is due to be sentenced in May 2019. Assange has been wanted for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion by the U.S. government since he released documents revealing less than savoury U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010 through Chelsea Manning, facing up to five years imprisonment. The U.K. will now decide whether to extradite Assange to the U.S. Wikileaks has released thousands of other documents in a bid to increase transparency in global governments. However, the nations which have had documents pertaining to them released, label Wikileaks a terrorist organization. This poses the question, “is it a greater crime to hack a government network or is it a greater crime to commit the crimes which have been exposed by the leaks?” The witch hunt for Assange over the past ten years suggests it is the former. Setting a precedent for the arrest of journalists for exposing the actions of governments and a significant hit to free press, something which is heralded in the ‘free world’.
Most notable of the leaks was the release of the Afghan and Iraq war documents. These documents contained harrowing information about the U.S. military intervention in both the countries, with under-reported civilian deaths. It also included footage of U.S. military personnel murdering civilians. The Afghan War Diary revealed how coalition forces had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents and uncovered the involvement of the governments of Pakistan and Iran in the insurgency. The three news agencies; Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and The New York Times which broke the story unanimously, believe the release of this information was in public interest. The Iraq war documents revealed much higher estimates for civilian casualties during the Iraq war and most famously included the ‘Collateral Murder’ video showing a U.S. gunship gunning down 18 civilians including two Reuters journalists in Baghdad. Bringing much praise from transparency advocates and civil libertarians.
In order to gain access to these documents, Assange used Manning to hack the Pentagon database to access files above her security clearance. This is seen to be beyond journalistic methods. More recently, Wikileaks published material hacked from the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 U.S. elections to tip the election in favour of the current President, Donald Trump. This information was supposedly acquired by Russian intelligence agencies. However, leaks also identified sensitive person identities, releasing U.S. Diplomatic Communiqués that named foreigners living in conflict zones or authoritarian states and liaising with American officials. Support for Wikileaks mission to increase transparency came from people including the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former President of Ecuador Rafael Correa, the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Spain’s Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias, and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.
The arrest of a journalist for releasing information in a move similar to that of an authoritarian state, in a bid to censor the media and control their output of it is contrary to their narrative using criminal law. Governments should be forthwith in releasing information to their citizens. Citizens should be fully aware of the actions of their country in order to completely understand international conflicts. However, whilst a large amount of the information released was vital in providing transparency to the government, some information released was sensitive to current operations. Wikileaks’ release of personal information of numerous informants effectively put their lives in mortal danger. This poses an interesting quandary, although I support increased transparency of information, sensitive material was leaked and could be viewed as detrimental to security operations and individuals’ lives.
By arresting Assange the British and the U.S. governments have set a dangerous precedent of arresting journalists in the freedom of the press. This extradition is also a demonstration of the U.S.’ extraterritorial power of being able to arrest Assange in another country. Furthermore, the extradition would rely on Assange being charged with espionage and having no proven links with any foreign intelligence agencies it should not be possible to classify his leaks as spying. The U.S. government believes Assange to be a hacker, not a journalist as information in the famous 2010 leak of Iraq and Afghanistan war documents was acquired through hacking. However, it can be argued that even if the information was illegally acquired it should still be made public knowledge if it is highlighting wrongdoings by the state. Furthermore, the revelation of the wrongdoings of states should not be drowned out by the crime of hacking and leaking of information. A question of relevance here would be, “what can be considered a greater crime, committing atrocities in overseas military operations or the crime of acquiring information on these operations and exposing them?” It is indispensable to remember that all of the information released in the leaks was true, contrary to traditional media output. Previous U.S. administrations opted not to pursue charges against Assange, realizing that it would set a dangerous precedent for journalists. However, the Trump administration has sent an indictment for the extradition Assange.
The contention does not solely derive from the arrest of Julian Assange, a highly contentious character, accused of two counts of sexual assaults also holding anti-semitic and anti-feminist sentiments. We must separate the character from the story and see this for what it is, a flagrant disregard for freedom of speech and the rights of journalists. Assange’s character is not the issue here, the issue is the freedom of media. Controlling the narrative of these leaks by demonizing the character behind it is an attempt to control the narrative behind. The more disturbing fact is that the governments were unable to claim that the information leaked was untrue. The revival of rape allegations made in 2012 has been used as a justification for Assange’s extradition, however, the Swedish Justice Department is unkeen on reviving the case.
It is interesting to think of the backlash within the media, had someone leaking information pertaining to the Russian government, was seeking asylum in China had been extradited to Russia. The clear message presented to the American people is to not speak out against the ‘regime’. The criminality of whistleblowing is inherently flawed but how is it a crime to release documents revealing the murder of innocent civilians? It is paramount to fight Assange’s extradition to the U.S., setting a dangerous precedent where any journalist could face imprisonment in the U.S. for publishing truthful information about the U.S. This is the case Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s lawyer, is putting forward. Controlling media output and arresting journalists are the actions of an authoritarian state, not the leader of the free world. The release of these documents was intended by Chelsea Manning to spark debates around foreign policy, showing the true actions of the U.S. military within these far away states. Citizens should be aware of the actions their countries are making on their behalf. With increasingly complicated international politics, the political landscape in media has increasingly become smoke and mirrors, as it continues to become harder to distinguish between truth and fiction. Wikileaks’ mission of enlightenment and governmental responsibility is a quest that may reign down collateral damage. The truth, however, is too important to keep hidden. The governments’ best defense against hacks is voluntary transparency, disclosing information to citizens. If there is nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear.