Assange ruling sensible, but no implications for press freedom

Jan 5, 2021

The judge accepted the legal arguments presented by US lawyers, saw no inherent threat of potential injustice, but denied the extradition request on health grounds. However, dumping, unfiltered, thousands of files on to the web is not journalism.

It was time for more humane treatment of Julian Assange. Guilt or innocence aside, nobody should be treated the way he has allegedly been treated.

However, while Assange is not in good health let’s not applaud what was a dangerous practice and a dubious precedent – posting unverified information on the internet that could potentially risk peoples’ lives and create unforeseen collateral damage. How would you feel if it had included sensitive and confidential information about you?

I don’t dispute the value of the WikiLeaks material, which exposed activities about which people are entitled to have serious concerns. However, that’s quite a separate matter from whether or not each document contained accurate and truthful accounts.

A fundamental onus on journalists includes verifying the accuracy of what is published. At the very least WikiLeaks arguably violated the privacy rights of people named in otherwise confidential documents.

Dumping masses of unfiltered material on to the internet is not journalism. To me, Assange is a hacker and a whistle-blower. And one with seemingly admirable intentions.

If he had leaked directly to the media outlets that subsequently, but very selectively, published reports based on some of his WikiLeaks files he probably would not be subject to US legal action. Assange’s identity as a ‘source’ would have been protected.

Australia’s most well-known contemporary international journalist Peter Greste – who spent more than 400 days in an Egyptian jail after being arrested on terrorism charges he denied – is one who has challenged the view that Assange is a journalist and maintains WikiLeaks is not a news organisation. “There is an argument to be had about the libertarian ideal of radical transparency that underpins its ethos, but that is a separate issue altogether from press freedom,” Greste has written.

On the other hand, back in 2011 the MEAA – the Australian journalists’ union – gave WikiLeaks a Walkley Award, which is its highest acclamation. It should be noted though that it was WikiLeaks, not Julian Assange, that received the award which was for “contribution to journalism”.

After much thought, I agree with Greste. In my mind journalism involves taking important steps that he and WikiLeaks ignored. At its heart it requires efforts to ensure the veracity of any information published. It also involves protecting innocent people who could be indirectly affected. And it involves providing context and analysis of material used in a report, preferably including comments from experts in the relevant area.

As Greste states, rather than “sorting through the hundreds of thousands of files to seek out the most important or relevant and protect the innocent, he dumped them all on to his website, free for anybody to go through, regardless of their contents or the impact they might have had”.

Last year my friend and colleague Quentin Dempster gave a poignant speech in which he defended Assange. He observed: “Whether you’re a taxpayer, a citizen, a consumer or a shareholder expecting to live in a free and fair society with peace and prosperity, you certainly need whistle-blowers and the journalists prepared to seek out and publish their revelations”. I agree wholeheartedly. I just don’t think that what Assange did is journalism in the sense in which I have always understood the role.

The WikiLeaks saga highlights the need for effective 21st century whistle-blower protections. Laws that govern the circumstances in which it is reasonable for someone to reveal information that exposes official wrongdoing, and provisions within those laws governing the means by which investigations into suspected leaking of sensitive material can be made.

The other side of the whistle-blower equation is the right of media organisations to report what they learn, irrespective of the source. This is a fundamental right and responsibility underpinning a modern democracy.

We need to agree on what and who we want to protect. We need to determine the degree to which official actions should be subject to external scrutiny and the extent of the publics right to know.

As for Assange, he will no doubt continue to split public opinion as to whether he’s a journalist or a whistle-blower.

He’s not out of trouble yet. The US Government has a right of appeal. So it’s not too late for his advisors to negotiate a plea bargain and see him reunited with his family and friends.

Laurie Patton is a former journalist and media executive. He is a member of the MEAA. An earlier version of this article was published in The Lucky General.

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