Thu | May 23, 2019

Editorial | Why America shouldn’t get Assange

Published:Sunday | April 21, 2019 | 12:12 AM

By most accounts, Julian Assange is not an easy man to like. His personal hygiene, the Ecuadorians say, is poor. Friends and acquaintances concede to his difficult, sometimes unpredictable, personality, which they attribute to a presumption that he falls within the spectrum of autism.

Mr Assange has been accused of rape in Sweden, for which his attempt to avoid prosecution initially caused him to flee to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London seven years ago, when he was granted asylum by the South American country’s then president, Rafael Correa.

For many on the left, Mr Assange is despised for his reported role in helping to bring Donald Trump to America’s presidency. He is believed to have been the conduit for the release of emails hacked by the Russians from Hillary Clinton’s campaign computers that damaged her electoral chances.

Others, primarily on the right, disdain Mr Assange for his dump, via his WikiLeaks website, of thousands of redacted diplomatic cables about America’s activities around the world, which, it has been claimed, could have endangered the lives of thousands of people.

Whatever emotion Mr Assange, 47, may elicit, this newspaper believes it would be wrong if he is extradited by Britain to face conspiracy charges, which is a distinct possibility. It would be a significant blow to press freedom.

Last week, the Ecuadorian president, Lenin Moreno – who has fallen out with his predecessor, is facing allegations of corruption at home, and has pulled close to the Americans – revoked Mr Assange’s asylum, after declaring a long list of grievances against the Australian.

Mr Assange now sits in a London lock-up, convicted of violating his bail conditions when he fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy. At the time, he said he feared that if he was sent to Stockholm, the Swedes would extradite him to the US.

It is not clear whether the Swedes will reopen the rape investigations into Mr Assange, but the Americans want to get their hands on him for allegedly conspiring with former soldier, Chelsea Manning, “to commit computer intrusion”. He, it is claimed, provided Ms Manning, an intelligence analyst, with codes and password to hide her unauthorised entry into computers, thereby encouraging her to provide information and records from US government departments and agencies.

TWO IMPORTANT ISSUES

Two things are important here.

WikiLeaks, at its height, was an important outlet for whistle-blowers. It revealed information about many of the bad things governments did in the name of their people, and of the efforts by the elite to perpetuate their hegemony.

Mainstream media, including this newspaper, were party to the first big global leaks in 2010. Indeed, some of what Jamaicans learnt of the Golding administration’s doings in the Dudus Coke affair, and of the global misbehaviour of Trafigura, was courtesy of WikiLeaks.

Second, whatever Mr Assange/WikiLeaks got up to with Ms Manning, who was court-martialled in 2013 under America’s espionage laws, is really hardly different from what reporters/journalists generally do with their sources – encourage them to provide information, and do all that is possible to protect their identities. If that compact didn’t exist, an important plank upholding the free press and its role in holding power to account in a democratic society would flounder. Even as they seek to protect their information, the best democracies don’t usually go after the free press.

As hard as it is, or may be, for some of us to swallow, Julian Assange, with regard to WikiLeaks, behaved within the precepts of journalism, including those on the right and left, who engage in advocacy, and those who live by the mantra of “publish and be damned”.

If we look sideways when those who make us uneasy are throttled, it becomes easier for the powerful to circumscribe those who are decent and with whom they disagree.