Despite surely expecting the moment to arrive one day, it must still have been a shock to Julian Assange when the police entered the Ecuadorian Embassy on 11 April 2019 to arrest him.
After nearly seven years in hiding, cramped into the recesses of the embassy in London, Assange was hauled from his hermit existence and dragged into a police van. With his white beard and long hair, he emerged looking more like a character out of Game of Thrones than a notorious international hacker wanted by governments the world over. His demise in the public eye and attention was perhaps best captured by the fact that only one TV network, Russia Today, was there to capture the event. International news networks had decided that bigger stories lay elsewhere.
Ecuador revoked Assange’s asylum after he was deemed to have committed a ‘violation of international asylum conventions’ and was charged and found guilty of failing to surrender by British Police. However, his bigger concern is the possibility of being extradited to the US to face charges of conspiring with Chelsea Manning to release top-secret military documents.
These charges date back to the first episode that announced Assange and his organisation, WikiLeaks, on the international stage. In 2010, WikiLeaks published video logs from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan along with sensitive diplomatic cables. Some of the footage showed a particular incident where an Apache helicopter fired upon and killed a number of people, including Reuters journalists. The video rightfully caused an international outcry.
In 2012, Sweden issued an arrest warrant for Assange on sexual assault charges. He dismissed the allegations and believed it to be part of an international effort to extradite him to the US where he would face charges of treason. To avoid arrest and the risk of extradition, Assange entered the Ecuadorian Embassy and successfully applied for asylum.
In 2016, WikiLeaks released 20,000 DNC emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign at a critical juncture in the election. While the effect of these emails on the election result remain unclear, many experts (including Clinton herself) believe it played a role in helping to elect Donald Trump as president.
With Assange’s arrest, many freedom-loving citizens around the world have been asking themselves whether he deserves their sympathy and advocacy. Is his arrest a violation of press freedom or does Assange have a case to answer?
It’s not only ordinary citizens who have asked themselves this question and found answers hard to arrive at. Journalists − one of the labels associated with Assange − have been asking themselves the same question. Perhaps the key to answering this is to ask if Assange is actually a journalist.
Former editor-in-chief of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger, who co-published Assange’s leaked documents in 2010 and subsequently published Edward Snowden’s revelations, recently expressed his view. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post titled ‘Partnering with Assange was unpleasant. But work like his is crucial’, he defends Assange.
While mentioning Assange’s many failings and his personal disapproval of the hacker’s decision to publish ‘unredacted classified material across the Internet’, he believes that the First Amendment’s protection to freedom of speech should ultimately apply to Assange. Even though Rusbridger calls Assange a ‘shape-shifter’ who is only ‘part-journalist’ among many other labels, he argues that he ‘sometimes carry out the functions of a journalist’ and should, therefore, be protected as one.
Peter Greste, an Australian investigative journalist arrested for his reporting in Egypt in 2013, disagrees. For him, Assange does not qualify as a journalist and thus arguments of press freedom are invalid. His article’s headline in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Julian Assange is no journalist: don't confuse his arrest with press freedom’, leaves the reader in little doubt about the substance of his argument.
Greste agrees with Rusbridger that many of the 2010 revelations that Assange published with The Guardian were all ‘newsworthy’, but goes beyond simply disapproving of Assange’s decision to publish the unredacted files on WikiLeaks:
Instead of sorting through the hundreds of thousands of files to seek out the most important or relevant and protect the innocent, he dumped them all onto his website, free for anybody to go through, regardless of their contents or the impact they might have had.
Greste argues that ‘Journalism demands more than simply acquiring confidential information and releasing it unfiltered onto the internet for punters to sort through. It comes with responsibility.’ For him, The Guardian and The New York Times’ more conscientious approach to Snowden’s leaked documents and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ handling of the Panama Papers stands in stark contrast with Assange’s approach.
‘Journalism,’ Greste argues, provides ‘context and analysis to explain why the information is important, and what it all means. It has never been about opening up a hosepipe of information regardless of the consequences.’ Greste insists that understanding public interest and being willing to act in its favour is key to defining oneself as a journalist.
On the other hand, Assange has always practised and pursued a very libertarian ideal of radical transparency. In his mind, the means justifies the end. His sense of responsibility to innocent sources is exemplified by a quote from journalist David Leigh. Interviewed in the US on Frontline, Leigh explains that when The Guardian insisted on the need for redactions in 2010, Assange simply responded by saying, ‘These people were collaborators, informants. They deserve to die.’
Ironically, this view led to his efforts being supported by those who don’t value transparency at all. Assange has developed close relationships with Russia, who are hardly a beacon of press freedom and transparency. He has even hosted his own show on the Moscow propaganda news network RT and they have become his staunchest supporters in the last few years. Putin’s Russia has driven a concerted campaign to undermine faith in freedom and democracy across the Western world, with the most obvious example being their interference in the 2016 US election.
We know that Assange explicitly encouraged Russian sources to publish 20,000 of Clinton’s emails via WikiLeaks. There is also evidence that he was in contact with the Trump campaign. Regardless of your political leanings, it’s hard to understand how publishing Clinton’s emails served the public interest − it seems far closer to an opportunistic smear campaign.
However, Rusbridger perhaps rightly reminds us that Assange currently does not stand accused of colluding with a foreign power or explicitly putting lives at risk. The current Department of Justice charges relate to his activities in 2010 that journalists, like Greste, admit can be called ‘newsworthy’. Yet nothing is stopping them from bringing further charges forward.
It is important to protect press freedom so that journalists can publish leaks in a free and democratic society, but it is also crucial to recognise that with that role comes responsibility to publish in the public interest, not simply for the sake of it. Journalism is important to the functioning of a healthy democracy and yet the levels of trust in the industry are declining. Arresting that trend is just as important as press freedom. One step to regaining that trust is to perhaps be more rigorous with the definition of what constitutes a journalist and by what standards we judge them. Would Assange fit into that category? I’m not so sure.
Hendrik Jacobs is a freelance writer and graduate politics student at The University of Melbourne.