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Standing up for Julian Assange

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Ensuring his freedom is essential to uphold free speech and media freedom on a global scale

The arrest of Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks, in early April in London, is an attack on free speech and media freedom on a global scale. Except for a statement by some prominent Indians condemning his arrest and few other voices of condemnation, reaction in India has been muted.

 

The near silence could well be the result of the lack of information about Mr. Assange and the kind of journalism WikiLeaks has spearheaded since its inception in 2006. It is equally possible that the Indian public too has fallen prey, hook, line and sinker, to the venomous and disingenuous disinformation campaign unleashed against Mr. Assange even before he was granted asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London seven years ago.

Incisive breaks

Mr. Assange, the latest inmate of Belmarsh Prison (also known as the “British version of Guantánamo Bay”) is, for his supporters, the “first media hero of the 21st Century”. In its daring attempts to hit at the powerful, WikiLeaks has collaborated with some of the best mainstream media organisations across the world on the diplomatic cables. These include The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais and The Hindu.

 

WikiLeaks has thrown light on how war can dehumanise people with the release of footage of the 2007 ‘Collateral Murder’ video that showed U.S. soldiers in Iraq laughing at hapless civilians and journalists from a military helicopter even as they continued raining bullets on their victims. This riled the U.S. administration, as did the other exposés by WikiLeaks, be it with the Iraq or the Afghanistan war logs. These ‘benign’ wars were proven by WikiLeaks to not be so benign after all, and this obviously didn’t go down well in Washington.

But it has not always been about the U.S and the wars. The story on Daniel Arap Moi , former Kenyan President and his family’s corruption was the anti-secrecy website’s first big story, which received international attention when Mr. Assange gave the story to The Guardian.

 

WikiLeaks also published a cache of emails of the Syrian government and its opponents. The release of emails sent by the top echelons of the government and even its opponents has caused a lot of embarrassment to both warring parties.

The website, in 2016, released almost 300,000 emails of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s and his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, even as Ankara grappled with the aftermath of a failed military coup.

The couple of exposés around the Democratic Party in the U.S. in 2016, as a tranche of emails sent and received by U.S. presidential contender Hillary Clinton, and, then emails of Mrs Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta, had a significant impact not only on U.S. domestic politics, but also exposed the faultlines in the Democratic Party’s ruling clique. But some of these exposés which lacked editorial discretion did lead to some erosion of support for Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks around the world.

Multiple attacks

Mr. Assange is a veteran of some bruising battles against organised attacks, institutional, technological and propaganda. That the website has been the target of relentless attacks would not come as a surprise, but it has also weathered boycotts and a denial of service by companies such as PayPal, which refused to allow WikiLeaks to seek donations using the service.

 

So what is the crime that Mr. Assange has actually committed? His lawyer Barry Pollack says: “The factual allegations … boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source... Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges.”

Closer home, in early March, Attorney General of India K.K. Venugopal told the Supreme Court that the Rafale documents that were published by this newspaper had been “stolen” from the Defence Ministry. Mr. Venugopal had sought an investigation to find out if their publication should be deemed a crime, and a violation of the Official Secrets Act. The Editors Guild, separately, and the Press Club of India, the Indian Women’s Press Corps and the Press Association said his statements had “the potential of sending out a chilling effect to one and all in the media”.

 

It is precisely this “chilling effect” that the U.S. is hoping to have on every single journalist across the globe by attempting to have Mr. Assange in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison in the U.S. for years. For the exposés that Mr. Assange has spearheaded, the U.S. intends to make him an example, asserting its prosecutorial authority over a person who is not even a U.S. citizen.

Even in Sweden, there is no longer a case against Mr. Assange. The fact is the international arrest warrant over allegations of sexual assault and rape that Sweden had put out against Mr. Assange was suspended by Swedish prosecutors. They suspended the investigation and applied to revoke the European arrest warrant way back in May 2017. Sweden is, however, considering reopening the investigation.

His complex legal issues continue. A British court, on Wednesday, May 1, sentenced Mr. Assange to 50 weeks in jail for jumping bail when he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy. On Thursday, May 2, the U.S. will also begin its attempt to extradite him, which is said to be a protracted process. But it is encouraging that British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has unequivocally said: “The extradition of Julian Assange to the US for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed by the British government.”

If therefore Mr. Assange should be a free man, there is need to build an international campaign against his continued incarceration. It is after all to ensure that journalism, free, fair and courageous, cannot be allowed to be trampled upon by the U.S. and the U.K., two democracies, which otherwise claim to be the best of the breed.

Subhash Rai is Digital Editor, The India Forum

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2019 2:54:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/standing-up-for-julian-assange/article27005287.ece

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