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Assange, strongmen, democracy and free press


(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 19, 2017 Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks on the balcony of the Embassy of Ecuador in London. – British police have arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at Ecuador’s embassy in London after his asylum was withdrawn, the police said in a statement on April 11, 2019. (Photo by Justin TALLIS / AFP)

Arrest of WikiLeaks co-founder Mr. Julian Assange last Thursday at the Ecuadorian Embassy in the U.K. after Ecuador revoked his political asylum has again provoked questions about press freedom in this age of the strongmen who also advertise transparency and open society.

He was arrested for failing to surrender to the U.K. court in 2012 where he was being tried at the time for alleged sexual assault.
That same day, a judge found him guilty of breaching his bail conditions. Assange could face up to one year in jail, the U.K. Press Association had hinted.

Shortly after his arrest, an indictment from the U.S. Department of Justice was unsealed. He was charged with “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.” Those charges reportedly stemmed from his contribution to the leak of thousands of classified documents that were later posted on WikiLeaks. The Australian faces extradition to the U.S. where the Department of Justice alleged he committed the crime.

Many human rights organisations and people have decried the arrest as a violation of human rights and the publisher’s right to free speech, which is the essence of the ‘First Amendment’ in the United States. There are two cases against him. One is allegation of rape and the other conspiracy.

In the sexual assault case, In August 2010, Assange was accused of rape and molestation by two Swedish women. One charge was dropped, but an international arrest warrant was issued, and the publisher surrendered himself to police in London.

Assange denied the charges, saying at the time that they were a smear campaign after the unprecedented release of thousands of U.S. documents.
The accuser in the case told U.K. newspaper The Guardian that, for her, “this was never about anything else than his misconduct against me and other women and his refusal to take responsibility for this.”

After securing bail, Assange requested political asylum from the Ecuadorean Embassy in 2012, where he has been living for seven years. In 2017, Swedish authorities dropped the investigation into the rape allegations, citing time constraints. Curiously too, Swedish prosecutors said they were asked to reopen the case following Assange’s arrest last Thursday.

Assange had said he wouldn’t leave the Embassy over fears of charges and extradition to the U.S. He was first arrested last Thursday for not adhering to the bail conditions that stemmed from the sexual assault investigation. But shortly after, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges relating to the leak of classified documents.

Trouble began for the artful Australian when in 2010, hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. documents were leaked to WikiLeaks by former American soldier Chelsea Manning and published by various news outlets.

Among the documents published were those known as the Iraq and Afghanistan “war logs” as well as documents about U.S. military prison Guantanamo Bay. Assange was secretly charged in March 2018, a U.S. official told Reuters.

In unsealed documents after Assange’s arrest, U.S. officials said Manning worked with Assange in a “hacking conspiracy” to gain passwords to a U.S. government computer.

“Cracking the password would have allowed Manning to log on to the computers under a username that did not belong to her. Such a deceptive measure would have made it more difficult for investigators to determine the source of the illegal disclosures,” a statement from the Department of Justice reads.

Critics decried the leak of the documents, saying Manning and Assange put U.S. and NATO military operations at risk as well as the lives of the soldiers. This risk analysis could be troublesome for the publishers sooner than later.

After the arrest of Assange in London, his lawyer was quick to mark it as an assault against the rights of journalists who seek to uncover secrets in global context. But was it quite clear? Does WikiLeaks actually do journalism, or is it something else as some analysts have asked? The answer wasn’t evident when the organisation burst into public consciousness at the top of this decade with the release of government documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems even less so now.

Launched in 2006 as the vision of Australian computer hacker, WikiLeaks produced raw data, not stories — things like Sarah Palin’s personal emails or membership rolls of neo-Nazi organisations. The thousands of memos, cables and other documents about U.S. war efforts revealed when Assange allegedly conspired with Chelsea Manning to break into a Pentagon computer, took WikiLeaks to another level. Some have viewed Assange as a hero, others as a traitor.

In any case, it was a heady time. WikiLeakswas considered a new type of news organisation, fueled by the power of the Internet and what some analysts have described as ‘democratisation of information’.

“There is a desperate need for our work,” WikiLeaks member Sarah Harrison explained in a 2016 column in The New York Times. “The world is connected by largely unaccountable networks of power that span industries and countries, political parties, corporations and institutions. WikiLeaks shines a light on these by revealing not just individual incidents, but information about entire structures of power.” This sounds journalistic anyway.

The organisation’s methods can be and sometimes are seen as a threat to the journalism’s traditional gatekeepers of power. But journalism has encompassed many traditions over the decades and centuries.So, WikiLeaks has been influential in two positive trends for journalism over the past decade, says Lisa Lynch, a journalism professor at Drew University who has written about the unique organisation. It emphasised the importance of data-driven journalism, an increasingly valuable tool in today’s world that Simon Rogers, News Editor of United Kingdom’s The Guardian has written a significant book about: data and investigative journalism entitled, Facts Are Sacred.

Since WikiLeaks was often willing to work with traditional outlets on how it released data, it encouraged news organisations to cooperate more in chasing stories. The 2016 “Panama Papers” investigation that revealed the offshore financial havens of political leaders, showed what can indeed happen when journalists team up.

As David Bauder noted on this phenomenon, elsewhere, information isn’t always merely information; government files can reveal wartime informants and put people’s lives in danger. And information can be weaponised through decisions about what to reveal and what not to reveal. For example: Many people saw Assange’s decision to publish the private emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman as a sign of coziness with Russia and a contributing factor in Donald Trump’s election as president.

Yet some of history’s most prominent journalists have been advocates as well, and have expressed clear points of view.

Upton Sinclair, a progressive “muckraker” in the early 20th century, made no secret of the fact that his expose of the meatpacking industry, “The Jungle,” was an attempt at jump-starting reform. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he wrote later.
In the same vein today, news outlets across the political spectrum, from the U.S ‘The National Review’ to ‘Mother Jones’, from ‘Fox News’ to MSNBC, are considered to be journalism — albeit delivered from a distinct vantage point.

Add into the mix the rise of blogging and social media, which permit anyone with an internet connection to use the term “journalist” and be immediately and globally amplified, and the result has been ambiguity about who is a journalist and who isn’t at the moment as Bauder has also noted, in the circumstances. In that environment, Assange, too, presents an ambiguous image.

“I had trouble seeing him as a journalist from the start,” said Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin, a frequent writer about the media. “But he certainly was a publisher. It turns out he was not just any old publisher, he was a publisher with a distinct angle. And his angle is anti-democratic.”

Certainly Assange, a prickly personality who may never be forgiven by many Democrats for WikiLeaks’ role in the 2016 election, doesn’t cut a sympathetic figure. Does that disqualify him from the mantle of journalist, though? The answer again is blowing in the wind.
‘Between Journalism and cyber-leak crime’

As the critical ‘The New York Times leader has succinctly noted, ‘The government charged Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, not with publishing classified government information, but with stealing it, skirting — for now — critical First Amendment question’.

The worry now is that the arrest of the unusual publisher, Assange may have ended one strange saga, but it may have also opened a legal drama that is likely to stretch over many years and could probe uncharted areas of press freedoms and national security in the West and indeed most democratic nations in the digital era as the NYT too has artfully observed. There are good reasons to be watchful as the case unfolds. The -47-year-old Australian, had spent almost seven years holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy, initially to avoid arrest by Swedish authorities in a sexual assault investigation that has since been dropped, then British charges of skipping bail. But extradition to the United States was what Mr. Assange really feared. Just like the biblical Job, what he feared most is what may happen to him no thanks to the strongmen.

The Obama administration was cautious in pursuing Mr. Assange because WikiLeaks was essentially involved in investigative work common to a free press as some of the then president’s men have noted. But the Trump administration saw Mr. Assange and Wikileaks as targets as soon as it took office.

President Trump reportedly loved WikiLeaks in 2016 when it was embarrassing top officials of the Clinton campaign. Two years ago, as director of the C.I.A., Mike Pompeolabelledthe same WikiLeaks “a nonstate hostile intelligence service” after it released a cache of CIA hacking tools.
Doubtless, the WikiLeaks saga has raised contextual issues in national security and press freedom. The case of Mr. Assange, who emerged noisily as a computer hacker, illuminates the conflict of freedom and harm in the new technologies. That can help draw a sharp line between legitimate journalism and dangerous cybercrime. Specifically,in the United States, the Assange case too can become a useful source on how Russia allegedly orchestrated its attacks on the Clinton campaign.

In the main, the U.S government has begun well by charging Mr. Assange with a specific and indisputable crime. But civil society organisations (CSOs) should be watchful in several developing countries where strongmen may wake up someday soon and begin to charge investigative and data journalists with cyber crimes for purely journalistic legworks that they claim threaten national security. African leaders and their reputation managers should study this WikiLeaks complications well so that they do not have conceptual misunderstanding between investigative,public service journalism and cyber-leak platform, which involves cryptography and virtual drop boxes – that has become an indisputable ‘crime’ of Mr. Assange.

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