The campaign by Julian Assanges’s lawyers to stop his extradition and the support that his campaign has won and is winning across the globe shows just how torn the fabric of our democracies has become.
Assange’s ‘crime’ is that he exposed US war crimes in Iraq. There is a strong chance that he can expect to spend the rest of his life behind bars for telling the world the truth! Those who fired on and murdered civilians, and those complicit in the crime, remain at large.
Western democracies have been built on the premise that certain truths, freedoms and rights are inviolable. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” It has become for most of us a statement that defines what makes a just society. What has been happening in the most recent period is making a lie of the UN statement and of much that we hold to be true.
It is because the people have a belief in the rule of law, in human rights, in the right to a free press, that the case of Julian Assange has gained such strength. In early February, a petition signed by over 280,000 Australians was presented to the Australian parliament. It is the fourth largest petition ever to be put before the Australian parliament, but apart from a small parliamentary support group, the petition and the entire issue of Assange has been effectively ignored by both the Coalition and the ALP. This raises questions that deserve some attention. If there is an apparent groundswell of public opinion in favour of freeing Assange, then why are our politicians ignoring it? Is it simply a question of showing support for the USA? How does this fit with attacks on press freedom here in Australia?
Support for the USA, regardless of moral or humanitarian issues, does play a part. It is in this light that we can see the Australian government spending $1.1billion to upgrade the Tindall airbase in the Northern Territory to allow US bombers greater access to the Asia-Pacific region. It may be money poorly spent but it sets even further in concrete the alliance between the two countries. An oft-repeated refrain of our leaders is that the US has no greater ally than Australia. Given such a mindset, it is unlikely that an Australian government will act on behalf of one its own citizens if it could be viewed as acting against the wishes of our ‘great’ ally.
Then there is the issue of the assault on the rights of the media, the concept of a free press, and attacks on the rights of journalists. While Assange languishes in Belmarsh prison, the rights and freedoms of Australian journalists are being trampled underfoot. Last June, the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC offices were raided by the Federal Police. It was in connection with alleged Australian Special Forces involvement in atrocities committed in Afghanistan. The ABC took the matter to court but in mid-February Justice Wendy Abraham ruled that ‘national security’ overrode both media freedom and the right of the public to know the truth. What began as an attempt to intimidate investigative journalists has now been elevated to legitimate behaviour. Much has been written about protecting ‘whistle-blowers’, but all that is now in the past tense.
This brings us back to Julian Assange and the implications that his arrest and persecution have for us all. We are told he is not a journalist and yet he is a winner of a Walkley Award for journalism. Nils Melzer, the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture, first reported in May 2019 that Assange had been subjected to an unprecedented nine-year campaign of persecution by Britain, Sweden and the US, resulting in medically verifiable symptoms of ‘psychological torture,’ He has expressed concern that since then his inquiries and recommendations have been ignored. If extradited to the USA Assange can expect a sentence of 175 years!
Australia has hardly covered itself in glory over this. Successive governments have turned a blind eye. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard is on the record as wanting to take away Assange’s passport and have him charged, until she was shown that he had not committed a crime. Our current PM, Scott Morrison recently declared that Assange should ‘face the music’. Such statements do us no credit, but do not make him guilty of any crime other than reporting the facts, of telling the truth.
As children we are told to tell the truth. Honesty, we are told, is the best policy. It has been ingrained upon our psyches and has been the stuff that has given legitimacy to our political institutions. This is being torn up before our very eyes. The fabric of our democracy is threadbare. Julian Assange deserves the right, not just to freedom but to tell the truth. This right is shared by all journalists and yet is being ridiculed and virtually outlawed. We are all of us heading into some rather dangerous waters. There needs to be many more Julian Assanges.
Dr William Briggs is a political economist, affiliated with Deakin University. His special interest areas are in the fields of political theory and international political economy. His latest book, Removing the Stalin Stain, will be published later this year.