Julian Assange is not a likable person. The WikiLeaks founder and radical secrecy buster, who has been in a British prison for almost three years, is hated by right- and left-wingers in equal measure, distrusted by many of the journalists he has worked with and pursued by Western intelligence agencies who are sore over the huge amount of sensitive, leaked information he has published.
Assange is accused of endangering the state security of the US and its allies, as well as individuals named in the millions of documents that have been published, including victims, children and the mentally ill. WikiLeaks and Assange strongly deny this, saying they do what they can to minimise harm.
When he leaked the emails that helped ensure Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton to get the presidency Assange was accused of working with Russia, which was strongly suspected of being responsible for hacking the emails. Many US Democrats felt he had crossed a line, though they did not object when he published the personal files of Sarah Palin when she was running for US vice-president.
Most journalists Assange worked closely with at the New York Times and Guardian have distanced themselves from him. It appears he behaved so badly during the five years he took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy, including trying more than once to sue them about his treatment, that they threw him out. Why then do free media supporters rally behind him? Why is he a cause célèbre?
It is because the US are going after him under their Espionage Act, usually used against those who leak state secrets rather than journalists or publishers, who are protected under the US First Amendment. Assange faces 17 charges with a maximum sentence of 117 years. If he is convicted it will weaken First Amendment protections and restrict the capacity of all journalists and publishers to publish state secrets — even if they expose illegality and wrongdoing.
Like him or not, Assange and WikiLeaks revealed information about illegal US surveillance of their own citizens (the Chelsea Manning material), conditions at the US’s Guantánamo prison, drone strikes in Yemen, extrajudicial killings by Kenyan police, the 2008 unrest in Tibet, Peru’s Petrogate scandal, the US Democratic Party’s attempts to hinder Bernie Sanders’ campaign, “a serious nuclear accident” in Iran, video of a US helicopter shooting civilians and journalists in Iraq, millions of US diplomatic cables (Cablegate), secret Saudi Arabian government documents and the British National Party’s membership list, inter alia.
With this remarkable scope of global exposé, WikiLeaks pioneered the use of the internet to allow whistle-blowers to remain anonymous, breaking down traditional state secrecy and ushering in a new era of involuntary transparency and accountability.
The nub of the argument about him revolves around whether he is a journalist or publisher and entitled to the protection offered to those categories. Some argue he does not follow the ethical rules — he does not edit, filter, fact-check, offer right of reply or redact to protect the innocent, as a journalist would be obliged to do. Is WikiLeaks, which simply slaps up as many original documents as it can no matter where it comes from, a publisher?
These categories are fungible in the age of digital media, when anyone can publish or purport to be a journalist on a global platform. Assange was investigated by the FBI, and the National Security Agency proposed WikiLeaks be designated “a malicious foreign non-state actor”. But the Obama administration did not charge him, saying that if it went for him it would have to go for the media that published the material as well.
The Trump administration at first flirted with him over the Clinton emails, but then flip-flopped because Trump was keen to go after the media and weaken its constitutional protection. His government asked for Assange to be sent for trial in the US. This week the British courts gave him permission to appeal against the extradition order.
Reporters Without Borders fear Assange’s arrest has “set a dangerous precedent for journalists, whistle-blowers and other journalistic sources”. Human Rights Watch says it is a “major threat to global media freedom”. The American Civil Liberties Union has said it “set an especially dangerous precedent for US journalists, who regularly violate foreign security laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest”. David Snyder of the First Amendment Coalition wrote that Assange had become “a litmus test for one’s true views on transparency, free speech and a free press”.
It is easy to support the free speech rights of those who are friendly, cuddly and agreeable. The test is whether one supports it for dissenters and troublemakers who discomfort, challenge and even threaten us with views we do not agree with. Assange is such a case.