ALISON BROINOWSKI. Press freedom is a minefield

May 22, 2017

Julian Assange has cleared the Swedish legal minefield between him and freedom. The two which lie ahead are British and American.

Julian Assange has an enduring capacity to polarise opinion, between those fervently for him and those furiously against him, WikiLeaks, and all they stand for.  And it will endure, because much of the British and American mainstream media (MSM) have a vested interest in demonising the man who out-scooped them, and have led the public for years to suspect and dislike him. Moreover Assange has now cleared only the Swedish legal minefield between him and freedom.  The two which lie ahead are British and American.

The application for Assange’s extradition to Sweden was at last withdrawn on 19 May, more than a year after a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled (in February 2016) that his detention in London was unlawful. The Swedish legal system mishandled the case from the start, when one prosecutor arrested him, another rescinded the warrant the next day, and a third then reopened the case against him. Argument went on for seven years about whether the prosecutor would interview Assange in London, which she eventually did in November 2016. Now Sweden has dropped the case involving rape of two women. Assange was simply never charged with them, or with anything else.

What Assange would be charged with if he set foot outside the Embassy of Ecuador in London is breach of his bail conditions and that, if a court found against him, would mean a maximum 12 months in jail. At the start, he expected to be ‘inside’ for five to seven years, so another year may not seem much to the 46 year-old who, during his five years of self-imposed exile, has been studying the writings of incarceration guru Nelson Mandela. If the British government agreed to an American extradition request, Assange would be served with an indictment prepared by a grand jury, which could result in 45 years in jail for the release of hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic cables in 2010. For WikiLeaks’ subsequent release of secret Saudi documents, Assange sardonically told an interviewer, he would get ‘only’ 20 years, so extradition to Saudi Arabia would be the better option (Weekend Australian Magazine, 5 September 2015: 17-20).

American opinion has for long been divided about Julian Assange. In 2010 people in government and Congress were baying for his blood and calling him a traitor, Hillary Clinton among them. They did not explain how an Australian could commit treason against the United States, or how publishing documents passed to him by an American (Chelsea Manning, now released) amounted to theft or espionage. In the last weeks of Clinton’s election campaign, WikiLeaks published about half of her emails as Secretary of State. American MSM gave the impression that Russia was the source and that this was the end for Assange, showing that he was in Moscow’s pocket and had done it to influence the election.

Precious few counter-narratives are available, but John Pilger’s interview with Assange late last year provided some. ( In it, Assange says the Clinton emails revealed that not just individual Saudi princes but the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar fund Islamic State, America’s and Australia’s notional enemy. When Clinton was Secretary of State a record $US80 billion deal was done to sell US arms to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and several other Middle East governments made large donations to the Clinton Foundation, including ‘pay for play’ deals which paid Hillary millions for appearances and speeches. Assange notes that Citibank was able to nominate most of the Obama cabinet (which may explain why the banks were not held responsible for the GFC). Clinton’s repeated assertion that 17 US intelligence agencies confirmed that Russia hacked her emails and passed them to WikiLeaks ‘is false…the Russian government is not the source’, Assange says, alleging that the FBI increasingly operates as ‘political police’. The MSM ignore the fact that WikiLeaks has published 800 000 documents on Russia, of which ‘most are critical’, says Assange, adding that some have been used in the court cases of refugees and political prisoners against the Russian authorities.

During the 2016 election campaign, a grateful Donald Trump told a rally ‘I love WikiLeaks”. But now, his Attorney-General Jeff Sessions says arresting Assange is a priority, and CIA director Mike Pompeo says it is time to ‘call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.’ Assange, he added, is not a US citizen so he has no First Amendment freedoms. (Guardian US, David Smith in Washington, Friday 21 April 2017).

These issues are still current, and the stakes remain high. A former senior official in the Reagan administration, Craig Roberts, asserted a few years back that ‘there is a concerted effort to nail him – to shut [Assange] up…If the legal attempt fails, he’ll simply be assassinated by a CIA assault team. It’s common practice for the CIA to do that’ (Kellie Tranter,

Successive Australian governments which are happy to talk up freedom and the rule of law have shown no interest in the rights of Assange, an Australian citizen charged with nothing. They have echoed the words their American friends use about him. Yet they went to great lengths to support convicted drug traffickers facing the death penalty in Indonesia, even after Australian police had tipped off their Indonesian counterparts about them. Some in the MSM, it’s true, have been less hostile to Assange. The Sydney Morning Herald, whose freelance journalist Philip Dorling was its channel to WikiLeaks, called Assange ‘the Ned Kelly of the Internet age’, presumably intending that as a compliment (David Leigh and Luke Harding, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, London: Guardian Books, 2011: 224). Guy Rundle joked in The Monthly that Assange in Sweden was ‘…a global bogan-with-a-modem coming into contact with the world’s most feminist state.’ Robert Manne, who traced Assange’s rise from his early days with Cypherpunks, said in the same edition that he and Murdoch were the most influential Australians of our era. (The Cypherpunk Revolutionary: Julian Assange | The Monthly

The negativity towards Assange of the Murdoch press, which was not fed the WikiLeaks material, has been unrelenting, even while it gleefully prints ‘Exclusive’ leaks of its own and in the UK has hacked private phones. Journalists get awards and prominence for publishing leaks, which is their job, and this apparently justifies the means by which they get them. When journalists themselves are shown to be hackers, as several were in the News of the World scandal, they say, probably truthfully, that everyone does it and with the editors’ knowledge. These days, people in the US Administration both hack and leak highly classified information.

Of course governments hate WikiLeaks because they are embarrassed by its revelations of their secrets. Nonetheless it would be good to think Australia would now have a quiet word in London and Washington about Assange. But not, as Eliza Doolittle would say, bloody likely.

Dr Alison Broinowski was an unsuccessful Senate candidate for the equally unsuccessful WikiLeaks Party in 2013.

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