Assange explainer: The years of headlines

Julian Assange supporters opposite the Embassy of Ecuador in London. | Newsreel
Julian Assange supporters opposite the Embassy of Ecuador in London during his time in exile there. | Photo: Cobalt (iStock)

By Professor Matthew Ricketson

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” is a famous quotation usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson, a founder of US democracy.

For Julian Assange, the price of freedom has been five years in jail while he fought extradition to the United States to face charges no democracy worthy of the name should ever have brought.

It is profoundly heartening news to see Assange’s release from London’s Belmarsh prison and flight home to Australia via a US territory in the western pacific.

It is profoundly disheartening, though, to see the lengths to which a nation state has gone to punish a publisher who released documents and videos that revealed US troops allegedly committing war crimes in the Iraq war two decades ago.

Assange has been a controversial international figure for so many years now it’s easy to lose sight of what he has done, why he attracted such fiercely polarised views, and what his incarceration means for journalism and democracy.

What did he do?

Assange, an Australian national, came to prominence in the 2000s for setting up WikiLeaks, a website that published leaked government, military and intelligence documents disclosing a range of scandals in various countries.

Most of the documents were released in full. For Assange, this fulfilled his aim of radical transparency. For critics, it led to the release of documents that could endanger the lives of intelligence sources.

This remains a point of contention. Some have asserted Assange’s attitude toward those named in leaked documents was cavalier and that the publication of some documents was simply unnecessary.

But critics, especially those in the US military, have been unable to point to specific instances in which the release of documents has led to a person’s death.

In 2010, Joe Biden, the then vice-president, acknowledged WikiLeaks’ publications had caused “no substantive damage”.

Then US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the time countries dealt with the US because it was in their best interests, “not because they believe we can keep secrets”.

The key to WikiLeaks’ success was that Assange and his colleagues found a way to encrypt the documents and make them untraceable, to protect whistleblower sources from official retribution.

It was a strategy later copied by mainstream media organisations.

WikiLeaks became famous around the globe in April 2010 when it released hundreds of thousands of documents in tranches known as the Afghan war logs, the Iraq war logs and Cablegate.

They revealed numerous alleged war crimes and provided the raw material for a shadow history of the disastrous wars waged by the Americans and their allies, including Australia, in Afghanistan and Iraq following the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks.

Documents are one thing, video another. Assange released a video called “Collateral Murder”. It showed US soldiers in a helicopter shooting and killing Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists in 2007.

Apart from how the soldiers in the video speak – “Hahaha, I hit them”, “Nice”, “Good shot” – it looks like most of the victims are civilians and the journalists’ cameras are mistaken for rifles.

When one of the wounded men tries to crawl to safety, the helicopter crew, instead of allowing their US comrades on the ground to take him prisoner as required by the rules of war, seeks permission to shoot him again.

The soldiers’ request for authorisation to shoot is granted. The wounded man is carried to a nearby minibus, which is then shot to pieces with the helicopter’s gun.

The driver and two other rescuers are killed instantly while the driver’s two young children inside are seriously wounded.

US army command investigated the matter, concluding the soldiers acted in accordance with the rules of war.

Despite this, US prosecutors didn’t include the video in its indictment against Assange, leading to accusations it didn’t want such material further exposed in public.

Equally to the point, the public would never have known an alleged war crime had been committed without the release of the video.

Going into exile

Assange and WikiLeaks had no sooner become famous than it all began to come to a halt.

He was alleged to have sexually assaulted two women.

He holed up the Ecuadoran embassy in London for seven years to avoid being extradited to Sweden for questioning over the alleged assaults, from where he could then be extradited to the US.

Then he was imprisoned in England for the past five years.

It has been confusing to following the byzantine twists and turns of the Assange case.

His character has been reviled by his opponents and revered by his supporters.

Even journalists, who are supposed to be in the same business of speaking truth to power, have adopted contradictory stances towards Assange, oscillating between giving him awards (a Walkley for his outstanding contribution to journalism) and shunning him (The New York Times has said he is a source rather than a journalist).

Personal suffering

After Sweden eventually dropped the sexual assault charges, the US government swiftly ramped up its request to extradite Assange to face charges under the Espionage Act, which, if successful, could have led to a jail term of up to 175 years.

Until this week, most of the recent headlines about Assange have been about this extradition attempt.

Most recently, he was granted the right to appeal the UK Home Secretary’s order that he be extradited to the US.

This brings us to now. The long, protracted and very public case, legal or otherwise, has raised questions yet to be fully reckoned with.

Nils Melzer, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, thoroughly investigated the case against Assange and laid it out in forensic detail in a 2022 book.

In it, he wrote:

“The Assange case is the story of a man who is being persecuted and abused for exposing the dirty secrets of the powerful, including war crimes, torture and corruption. It is a story of deliberate judicial arbitrariness in Western democracies that are otherwise keen to present themselves as exemplary in the area of human rights.”

He’s also suffered significantly in legal and diplomatic processes in at least four countries.

Since being imprisoned in 2019, Assange’s team says he’s spent much of that time in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, has been denied all but the most limited access to his legal team, let alone family and friends, and was kept in a glass box during his seemingly interminable extradition hearing.

His physical and mental health have suffered to the point where he has been put on suicide watch.

Again, that seems to be the point, as Melzer writes:

“The primary purpose of persecuting Assange is not – and never has been – to punish him personally, but to establish a generic precedent with a global deterrent effect on other journalist, publicists and activists.”

So while Assange himself is human and his suffering real, his lengthy time in the spotlight have turned him into more of a symbol.

This is true whether you think of him as the hero exposing the dirty secrets of governments, or as something much more sinister.

If his experience has taught us anything, it’s that speaking truth to power can come at an unfathomable personal cost.

 – Matthew Ricketson is a Professor of Communication at Deakin University.

This article was first published in The Conversation