So Julian Assange has finally been dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy by UK police.
Soon to be extradited to the United States, this development – as dramatic as the scenes were – was hardly surprising: and has been on the horizon for a very long time. If anything, I’m shocked at how long it’s taken: I expected the Ecuadorian government to be coerced into compliance years ago.
According to his lawyer, Assange was arrested based on a current US extradition request. It is highly unlikely he is going to be pardoned by the Trump administration or the US authorities – though this is the claim that most Trump die-hards and MAGA enthusiasts appear to be clinging to in their attempt to square the extradition request with the president’s previous expressions of gratitude to Wikileaks. According to official statements, Assange is being charged with a specific instance of computer hacking in 2010, involving whistleblower Chelsea Manning: as opposed to any specific leaks Wikileaks has been involved in the last several years. But it is probable that further charges will be pursued down the line.
We could talk all day about the stark contrast between President Trump’s “I love Wikileaks” statements during the 2016 election and his oddly delivered statement today that he doesn’t really know what Wikileaks is. But to be fair to Trump (who’s presidential bid was massively aided by Assange’s and Wikileaks’ disclosures about the DNC and Hillary Clinton), this probably has very little to do with him and is more a case of the US security state going over his head.
But I’m interested in the UK’s position here: aside from the obviousness of the UK accomodating the United States’ wishes (or, as Assange supporter Pamela Anderson put it, being “America’s bitch”), there’s a lot to be said about the UK’s general position regarding whistleblowers and freedom of information.
In 2016, after an in-depth investigation, the United Nations ruled that Assange’s legal and human rights had been violated and that the Wikileaks founder was being illegally detained since 2010. They requested his immediate release, safe passage and compensation. The UK government rejected the UN’s statements and refused to take any action in accordance with their findings.
Two years ago, not long after the UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill (or ‘Snoopers’ Charter’) was passed into law, the British goverment was also said to have been preparing a potentially Draconian operation against journalists and whisteblowers.
Draft legislation reportedly aimed, among other things, to raise the jail terms for leakers and whistleblowers from 2 years all the way up to 14 years. The plans seemed blatantly designed to cripple journalists, intimidate whistleblowers and prevent any exposure of bad behaviour, corruption or activities that are contrary to the public interest or any activities whose exposure is in the public interests.
In short, the plans sought – arguably – to criminalise real journalism. Now we could argue back and forth about whether Julian Assange qualifies as a ‘journalist’ or not: but ‘journalist’, ‘whistleblower’, ‘leaker’, etc, all seem to be increasingly treated as one and the same: certainly this was the impression created by the UK’s overhaul of the Official Secrets Act and the new Data Protection Act.
The result, arguably, is that the media is no longer able to challenge the conduct of powerful people or of political or financial elites. In the new state of affairs, things like the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers would never have been allowed to come to the attention of the general public. With Wikileaks in mind, so too would such things as war crimes committed in Iraq have been kept from ever being made public knowledge.
Essentially any journalists or whistleblowers involved in those disclosures would be classed as foreign spies and locked up for up to 14 years.
In other words, it’s not just ‘leakers’ or ‘whistleblowers’ at the source who are regarded as criminals, but also any journalists who publish or use any of the information provided by said leakers or whistleblowers.
As an Open Democracy piece in 2017 pointed out, ‘Whistleblowers who leak official information could be prosecuted and jailed regardless of the public merit of the information they revealed, or whether any damage to national interests was actually caused…’
Or as a 2017 article at The Verge pointed out, ‘Under these suggested laws, The Guardian’s former editor Alan Rusbridger could have faced criminal charges for the paper’s part in publishing the Snowden leaks in 2013. These revealed the existence of secretive (and illegal) surveillance apparatus in the UK and the US. Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group told The Verge that the proposed legislation is an attempt to “make sure that the public never hears about any wrongdoing or lawbreaking by the security agencies“…’
Taking care of Julian Assange would appear to be a massive part of that at the propaganda level, as he is by far the highest-profile ‘leaker’ out there: and Assange remaining untouched, safe in the Ecuadorian embassy, for all this time has been an unacceptable source of defiance and embarassment.
What is happening now – with Julian Assange’s case being a central part of it – might be a final assault on real journalism and real freedom of information, to try to bring even those last vestiges of genuine, honest journalists into line. That is, in part, what these new whistleblower laws are about.
Where the Snooper’s Charter is aimed more at policing the public, the Law Commission proposals are aimed squarely at the sources of information for the public: specifically, journalists and whistleblowers.
Liberal Democrat peer and civil liberties campaigner Paul Strasburger remarked at the time the British government was discussing new whistleblower laws, “These proposals might be appropriate for a banana-republic dictatorship. They are completely out of the question in our democracy which depends on brave whistleblowers and a free press to hold the government to account when they let us down through incompetence or corruption.“
Likewise, Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists told The Guardian, “We need to protect the public from a government which seems intent on threatening journalists from finding information the government finds inconvenient to be exposed.”
If there’s already a major lack of journalists in mainstream publications willing to go against the tide when concerted propaganda operations are in swing (take Syria as a chief example), this is going to be even more the case in the future, when journalistic conformity is not simply a case of peer pressure or careerism but the fear of penalisation or even jail time.
This is no exaggeration: in France, there were calls for anyone who published the leaked emails on Emmanuel Macron to face jail.
What’s going on with Julian Assange isn’t just about data protection, the vulnerability of governments’ secrets or about hackers or ‘leakers’ breaking the law: it’s about policing the general population’s right to information and trying to put an end to all of the inconvenient exposures and embarassment.
Read more: ‘Assange Lawyer Assassinated in London‘, ‘The Murder of Serena Shim and the ‘Suicide’ of the BBC’s Jackie Sutton‘, ‘Seymour Hersh, My Lai & the Decline of Real Journalism‘, ‘Did We Just See an Asasssination Attempt on Julian Assange‘, ‘The Skripal Poisoning & a Massive Rabbit-Hole‘, ‘The Death-Squads & the Murder of the Environmentalist‘…