Julian Assange
Ai Weiwei attends a demonstration demanding the release of Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange (Image: EPA/Alexander Becher)

On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, Julian Assange appeared in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court briefly by video link from Belmarsh prison. There, he stated “I do not wish to surrender myself for extradition for doing journalism that has won many, many awards and protected many people”.

After the 15-minute hearing, he was likely taken straight back to his cell, where according to Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Assange has been confined for 23 hours a day since entering the maximum security prison known as Britain’s Guantanamo Bay.

And there Julian Assange will remain until another procedural hearing on May 30, followed by the big one on June 12. Only then will the Trump administration’s lawyers outline all of the charges it plans to bring against Assange for doing the work that has seen him awarded more than 15 journalism prizes, all bestowed while he was a member of the trade union and professional association of Australian media workers, the MEAA. Several of the awards have come since the UK High Court ruling of November 2, 2011, the first line of which described Assange as, “…a journalist, well known through his operation of WikiLeaks.”

Assange was granted asylum and then citizenship by Ecuador on the basis that he was: without “the adequate protection and help that he should receive from the State of which he is a citizen” and due to credible belief and fear that the US sought to prosecute him, a publisher, for publishing — a belief confirmed within minutes of Assange entering court after Ecuador illegally withdrew his asylum three weeks ago.

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For over eight years, the counterintelligence and smear campaigns against WikiLeaks have included fusing Assange’s name to sexual allegations, claiming that his presence in the Ecuadorian Embassy was fleeing justice. This was never the case. It was always about the US extradition. No charges were ever brought against Assange in Sweden. In fact, emails released under FOI revealed that Swedish authorities wanted to drop the arrest warrant for Assange as early as 2013 while the UK government insisted it continue. 

Arguing that the prosecution of Julian Assange is unrelated to publishing is not just a quibbling demarcation dispute or a form of cognitive dissonance. It is a political and legal assertion that he is undeserving of first amendment protections that will have wide ramifications for whistleblowers, the watchdog role of the media in democratic societies, and even for those who like Peter Greste and his ilk arbitrarily believes worthy of the title “journalist”.

Former ABC Mediawatch host Jonathan Holmes responded to Greste’s recent opinion piece by reaffirming these 2011 remarks in which he puzzled over why any journalist would feel inspired to claim Assange and WikiLeaks were not practicing journalism:

I suspect that this is a form of curious jealousy. They are nervous about the world of the internet. They are nervous about the proliferation of journalism on the internet. They are jealous of guarding their position as the gatekeepers, as the people who mediate between the public and information. Of course Assange has always believed that that mediation should be kept to a minimum and the job is just to get the stuff out there.

That’s an argument anyone can have, but if you are going to receive information from a source like WikiLeaks but deny that the person who set that up is a journalist, in the full knowledge that that makes them more vulnerable to prosecution, I don’t know how you can sleep at night.

But who’s sleeping when there is so much to read?

Since 2006 WikiLeaks has published well over 10 million documents. Often forgotten is that each one was provided by a whistleblower who trusted this platform to publish, and who sought reform of how political, corporate & media power elites operate. Each release has shared genuine official information about how governments, companies, banks, the UN, political parties, jailers, cults, private security firms, war planners and the media actually operate when they think no one is looking. I compiled a list here to remind all of us of just how many remarkable releases the organisation has provided, used as evidence in court cases, freeing prisoners and exposing scandals, torture, murder and surveillance for which redress is only possible when the wrongdoing is dragged into the light.

Opposition to the extradition of Assange is growing as it slowly dawns that a precedent is being set that threatens all publishers and the first amendment protections afforded to journalists in the US. The inaction of Australia’s major parties when in government during this saga have been woeful and embarrassing. If our new government presses the UK government to provide diplomatic assurances against extradition to the US, it will be because a concerted campaign effort gets going in earnest, similar to that which brought David Hicks home.

Julian Assange is not perfect — who of us is? But he has sacrificed everything so that we can understand our world, its wars, its trade deals, and how governments, banks and the UN are rendered corrupt and compromised. That is precisely why he is so dangerous. Not because of his mistakes, but his successes.

What are your thoughts on Julian Assange’s current situation? Write to boss@crikey.com.au with your full name and let us know.