The campaign to free Julian Assange has intensified in recent weeks following the decision by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel to approve the extradition request from the United States. The WikiLeaks co-founder and publisher has been held in Belmarsh high-security prison for the past three and a half years, stuck in an illegal limbo, while he undergoes extradition proceedings in the UK. The US seeks to try Assange under 18 different charges, 17 of which are under the infamous Espionage Act, and together hold a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
The persecution of Julian Assange by the US and its allies has been met with strong backlash from progressive forces across the world. Press freedom groups and campaigns such as Article 19, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), International Federation of Journalists, Don’t Extradite Assange, and others have been fighting for Julian Assange’s release and amnesty since the start of the persecution against him.
People’s movements and trade unions part of the International Peoples’ Assembly such as the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil, the Socialist Movement of Ghana (SMG), the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and others have also taken to the streets and social media to mobilize their support to Julian Assange and defend the right to tell the truth about crimes of imperialism.
The support to Assange has not only come from civil society. Prominent politicians from across the world have also challenged the actions of the US government with regards to Assange and the precedent it sets regarding press freedom globally.
On July 6, the German parliament voted in favor of a petition condemning “in the strongest possible terms the psychological torture of journalist Julian Assange and the associated attack on press freedom in Germany and Europe.” In the same week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador stated in one of his morning addresses that he would discuss the case of Julian Assange with his US counterpart Joe Biden during his visit to Washington DC on July 12 and declared “If (Assange) is brought to the United States and he is condemned to a maximum sentence to die in prison, we must start a campaign to tear down the Statue of Liberty that the French gave them…because it is no longer a symbol of freedom.”
These words inspired political cartoonist from Brazil, Carlos Latuff to express his solidarity to his friend and colleague, Julian Assange, once again. He drew the famous Statue of Liberty telling US President Joe Biden to “drop the charges” and “Free Assange now!”
Julian Assange is a strange inkblot test for official Australia. For the official secrets culture of Canberra, Assange is so confronting as to be incomprehensible.
Since WikiLeaks burst on the world, official Canberra hasn’t wanted to find meaning in Assange or grapple with his Australian identity. Much simpler to damn and ignore.
The rest of Australia has had a dozen years to form an Assange view. But in Canberra the secrets culture means that no real Assange answer comes. Canberra still lives the horror of “Cablegate” in 2010, when Wikileaks began releasing secret cables from 274 US diplomatic missions.
The paradox, as Phillip Adams dryly observes, is that Australia gave birth to the two most powerful media figures in the world: Rupert Murdoch and Julian Assange. “Both creating global empires from provincial beginnings. Both seen as dangerous, problematic. Both blamed for changing the course of history.”
Murdoch and Assange share the outsider perspective of Australia. Both have had a significant impact on the United States — the way America understands itself and the way the world thinks about America. Both are interlopers who shook the established media order. Murdoch did his first revolution in Australia, then in Britain, and now in the United States where he’s become an American citizen. Long gone from Australia, Assange fights extradition to America.
In the United States, Assange might well be cleared by a court because of the Constitution’s First Amendment and its guarantee of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
In Australia, by contrast, this Australian citizen would be in jail. There’s no ifs or buts about the way the official secrets culture would deal with a heretic like Assange. It’d be little use to argue for press freedom or, indeed, that WikiLeaks “largely released material that was embarrassing to governments and militaries but has been of little lasting security harm.”
In Australia, the High Court could find only an implied right of free speech in the constitution in 1992, and even that implied right has been questioned as not “settled law.”
The hesitation about free speech is the twin of Canberra’s secrets culture. See that culture as defined by one of the capital’s longest-serving journalists, Jack Waterford, former editor of The Canberra Times, who argues “the primary purpose of laws against leaking has been to conceal bureaucratic incompetence and double dealing, and hypocrisy, political cupidity and criminality by Australian politicians, soldiers and intelligence officers”.
In official Canberra, the default setting is secrecy. The internal struggle and argument is always about how much should be made public. The culture loves the TOP SECRET stamp and then asserts the need to enforce absolute secrecy. As Waterford notes: “No modern common law state has laws so draconian, and court processes defying almost every principle of natural justice. It is what we have come to when the guardians are allowed to be their own guardians.”
In ending the Commonwealth prosecution of the Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery over the release of classified information about spying on East Timor, the attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, opted for justice not secrecy. But it was a rare moment for an Australian politician to look beyond the mystique of the TOP SECRET label.
The enduring Canberra truth about the Collaery case was the four years the system spent pursuing the prosecution to serve the secrecy taboo.
Canberra’s secrets culture struggles with the way that US First Amendment norms have shaped journalism here and in much of the world. The long-established freedoms of the US become contested, implied rights in Australia. No wonder Canberra has a hard time comprehending Assange. In this town, the secrecy obsession feeds on security fears. This prompted a remarkable moment in Australian journalism in 2019 when major newspapers blacked out their front pages to protest at the culture of secrecy. Raiding journalists — both Australian and Chinese — is one element of how Australia seeks security.
This official culture is challenged on many levels by the Enlightenment-on-steroids force of the First Amendment, one of the most revolutionary bits of political/legal language ever laid down by statute — a key marker of the US as the most successful-ever revolutionary state.
Back in 2011, I wrote a column about Wikileaks and the US First Amendment:
If Julian Assange ends up before a US court, the bludgeon aimed at his head will be the WW1-inspired blunt instrument, the 1917 Espionage Act. His best shield will be the protection of free speech and the press in the First Amendment. The US would try to nail Assange for enabling the mass leakage of secrets. Assange would claim the protection of being a publisher, no different to the New York Times.
That column about Assange as journalist/publisher was picked up by US academics creating an encyclopedia on the First Amendment. The argument that Assange was doing First Amendment work to reveal dark secrets will grow ever louder in the struggle over his threatened extradition from Britain to the US “to face the clearly preposterous sentence of 175 years in prison” for espionage.
The “preposterous” line is from Philip Johnston, assistant editor of London’s The Telegraph, that newspaper bulwark of Toryism and John Bull Britishness. Things are stirring in Britain when even The Telegraph worries about a “proxy vendetta against an irksome exposer of nefarious state activities,” as Johnston writes:
There is an unmistakeable sense that Assange is being punished because he took the lid off some of the appalling activities of the US military to stop similar investigations in future. The British government’s acquiescence in this enterprise is worrying and came before the publication of a British Bill of Rights which is due to enshrine a commitment to free speech as one of its central provisions.
So, centuries after America got a Bill of Rights, Britain contemplates something similar. Take your pick whether that’s a radical or conservative move. Nothing similar is in view in Australia.
Australia’s government has been mute about Assange because he’s such a challenge to its official secrets culture. And because Assange so discomfited its great ally, the US. Not least of that discomfit is that Assange challenges America using its own magnificent First Amendment values.
If Prime Minister Anthony Albanese acts on his belief that “enough is enough” in the Assange case, he’ll have to do more than persuade Washington. He’ll also have to push against the norms and nostrums of Canberra.
Graeme Dobell was made a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in 2011 ‘for his distinguished contribution to journalism through his reporting on politics and international affairs’. He has been a journalist since 1971.
/ WikiLeaks = People Dispach