He is a hero to some and a scoundrel to others, and many believe President Joe Biden, a close friend of Barack Obama, will not rest until Julian Assange is locked up in a US prison.
What is the purpose of journalism?
This might sound like an obvious question to ask. Nevertheless, it’s an important one. Twenty years ago, the authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel wrote the following: “The purpose of journalism is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ.” Rather, they explained: “The principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”
The primary purpose of journalism is to give readers the facts. The only agenda should be the agenda of truth. Today, however, truth appears to be in short supply. In the world of journalism, the line between reporting, activism and performativism has become increasingly blurry. In the United States, for example, objectivity, to a large extent, has been replaced by fact-free narratives. Tribalism now masquerades as truth. Genuine journalists, such as Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald, for example, are in short supply. The latter has done more than most to highlight grave injustices occurring in the United States and beyond. In recent years, Greenwald has devoted a great deal of time to defending Julian Assange, a man who now looks likely to be transferred to the United States and sentenced to an inordinate amount of time in prison. On December 10, the UK High Court ruled that the Wikileaks founder can be extradited to the US. Why, though? What is Assange wanted for, exactly?
In April 2010, WikiLeaks released the “Collateral Murder” video, which clearly showed US soldiers fatally shooting innocent civilians from a helicopter in Iraq. Among those killed were two journalists for Reuters, Namir Noor-Eldeen and his assistant Saeed Chmagh. Prior to the release, under the Freedom of Information act, Reuters had made a request to the US government for the “Collateral Murder” video. Not surprisingly, the request was denied. Seven months later after the video was released, Assange and his team published the Iraq War logs, a collection of almost 400,000 United States Army field reports from the Iraq War covering the period from 2004 to 2009. The logs clearly demonstrated the ways in which hundreds of innocent civilians were murdered. They also outlined the ways in which prisoners were tortured in the most inhumane of ways, with electric drills being used to extract confessions. Then, in 2011, to rub even more salt in the US government's wounds, Wikileaks released the Guantanamo Bay files, which outlined the abuses occurring at the detention camp.
This is why Julian Assange is a wanted man. He exposed the truth, unvarnished in the extreme. Does he deserve to go to prison for the “crime” of reporting the facts? I asked Donald Rothwell, one of Australia’s leading experts in international law and a man intimately familiar with the Assange affair, for his thoughts. First off, I asked, has Assange broken any laws? “The only law that Assange has actually broken since the issuing of the August 2010 Swedish European Arrest Warrant until today was his breach of UK bail conditions which arose in June 2012 when he entered the Ecuadorian Embassy and sought asylum.” That, according to the esteemed expert, “was the basis for him to be arrested and sentenced to 50 weeks in jail in the UK in April/May 2019”. He added: “The US extradition request relating to his Wikileaks activities has not gone to trial in a US court and can only do so if Assange is extradited to the US to face trial.”
If extradited to the US, and found guilty, I asked, how many years does Assange face in prison? “Potentially 175 years,” responded Rothwell. “That assumes he is found guilty on every count and the maximum sentence is imposed. That is most unlikely given the way the US criminal justice system operates. But in any event, a lengthy sentence could see him imprisoned for the remainder of his natural life.” But Assange is an Australian citizen, I added. Shouldn’t we be concerned that a non-citizen of the US could be extradited to the “land of the free” and sentenced to decades behind bars? Yes, said Rothwell. “The extradition of any Australian citizen raises issues as to their human rights and the quality of foreign justice they will face. This is especially the case when the citizen has been pursued politically and the crime that is the basis of the extradition is one that was not physically committed in the US.”
His guilt or innocence — it doesn't matter
To criminalise Assange is to criminalise actual journalism, it seems. However, Robert Goldman, a professor of law and faculty director of the War Crimes Research Office, disagrees. He thinks Assange “did violate the law”.
“I understand your point about criminalising investigative journalism and there is indeed a fine line that should be examined on a case by case basis,” said Goldman. Nevertheless, he added: “It is one thing to write a very focused piece exposing how a government might be lying to its citizens about a specific programme, quite another to dump thousands of pages of classified documents that potentially could harm genuine national security and expose individuals to harm.”
Is extradition to the US a given, I asked. “It will be some time before he is extradited as I expect his lawyers to lodge a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. While I was the UN’s Independent Expert on human rights and terrorism, I strongly opposed so-called diplomatic assurances that the US and European countries after the 9/11 attacks got from countries notorious for torture, like Jordan, Syria and Egypt, before sending terrorist suspects to them for interrogation. This was outsourcing torture and besides the assurances could not be enforced or effectively monitored. On the other hand, the assurances that the US has given the UK, as I understand it, in Assange’s case that he’ll not be subject to the death penalty, will be tried by a civilian court etc. are verifiable.” What are the chances of him being held in solitary confinement? “I’m not sure if the US guaranteed that he’d not be held in solitary confinement for an extended period of time which I think could well violate the European Convention’s proscription of cruel and inhuman conditions of detention,” stressed Goldman.
So, I asked, is Assange actually a villain guilty of actual crimes? “I am rather agnostic on this; he’s a hero to some and a scoundrel to others.” Goldman does not like “governments hiding behind national security to persecute and prosecute their perceived enemies, especially reporters”. However, he adds: “What Assange did was so indiscriminate and frankly irresponsible that he should have known that he might run afoul of US law. It was after all the Obama government, hardly a group of hard-right people, who sought his extradition in the first place.” They sure did. Obama wasn't the only president who harboured ill feelings towards Assange, His presidential successor, Donald Trump, according to reports, wanted Assange dead. I asked Rothwell for his thoughts on Goldman’s comments. A "determination of Assange’s guilt or innocence will depend on the evidence the US would present in any trial Assange would face if he is extradited to the US," he said. Importantly, he added: “These are not matters under consideration before the UK courts in the Assange extradition case.” At present, according to Rothwell: “The key issues in the Assange extradition matter do not relate to his guilt or innocence, but whether Assange is subject to extradition to the US to face trial on the US charges.”
Will Assange be extradited? I certainly hope not. However, one imagines that President Joe Biden, a close friend of Barack Obama, will not rest until Julian Assange is locked up in a US federal facility.