Julian Assange court
WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange arrives at Westminster Magistrates Court in April 2019 (Image: EPA/stringer)

The worsening health of Julian Assange, now moved to the health/hospital ward of Belmarsh Prison in London, would, you would think, surely concentrate the thoughts of those who practice journalism. For their own self-interest, if actual commitment is beyond them.

Assange was charged with multiple counts of espionage and related crimes, under the US Espionage Act a few days after a reliably compliant Australian government was re-elected. The new charges follow the minor charge of illegal computer access, based on alleged assistance to whistleblower Chelsea Manning in obtaining the huge “Cablegate” files. That carried a five-year term. The new charges add up to 170 years in prison.

These charges were prepared years ago, during the Obama administration. A grand jury had been empanelled at the time, as WikiLeaks noted; though this was frequently pooh-poohed by journalistic grandees, who said that Assange was aggrandising himself. Obama declined to prosecute and gave Manning a pardon, just before Trump came into office. But the charges were there waiting to be re-applied.

That opportunity came when Ecuador had an election and power shifted from the left-wing presidency of Rafael Correa to the right-wing side of the same movement headed by Lenín Moreno. Assange’s expulsion has been presented as a result of Assange’s action, allegedly high-handed and conspiratorial. That was pure propaganda, for which the press of the world — including WikiLeaks’ former publishing partners — were willing to act as megaphones.

There’s no question that WikiLeaks and Assange pushed the limit while in the embassy, strategically speaking. Under Correa, an anti-imperialist, they were permitted to continue the global transparency activity they had pursued for years. This included release of the 5 million Stratfor files, leaked from a company deeply embedded in state-corporate relations; the text of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership; and a smaller series of releases including files on Saudi Arabia and Russia, autocracies which the Atlantic security establishment allege WikiLeaks give a free pass to.

Once the Ecuadorian situation changed, Assange became not a protected guest, but an asset to be traded for increased US and IMF aid. The apparent surrender of Assange’s effects from the embassy to the US would appear to confirm this (supposing it were needed).

WikiLeaks had already lost a great deal of centre-left, “progressive” support by this time for its release of the Hillary Clinton/Podesta emails, and an alleged lack of enthusiasm in pursuing Trump’s many secrets. Prior to that the 2010 allegations of sex offenses had done damage to Assange’s image among a core left base. As soon as a rape accusation was raised (the whole substance of which revolved around the alleged early initiation of consented-to sex, the morning after the night before)*, many pro-WikiLeaks cultural leftists simply lost their courage as regards to questioning the actions and motives of the state, and folded meekly into a “face the allegations” routine.

WikiLeaks’ former publishing partners did the rest. The New York Times published a couple of snarky pieces, but it was The Guardian who did the greatest damage, publishing an utterly distorted account of the Swedish police record of interview, presenting consensual rough sex as non-consensual and damning him in the eyes of millions mere days before Assange’s initial extradition hearing in the UK. After that, the Alan Rusbridger-led Guardian portrayed him as a non-publishing partner, in a desperate attempt to limit the spread of state charges to their journalists.

The Guardian twigged pretty late that the US charges Assange is facing would criminalise the most basic processes of investigative journalism — and unilaterally extend the power of the Espionage Act to non-US citizens working off US soil, in conjunction with whistleblowers.

So what’s espionage now? A foreign journo telling a US source “we’ll publish if you can get it”? Does it apply to journalism against US corporations who have national security contracts? And so on. Whether the first amendment comes into play is a question for the lawyers; but acting against the method of obtaining counts as a means to an end run around it.

The US has made most prominent charges relating to informants during the Afghan War, and the alleged release of non-redacted names; it plays to the gallery because this was something that some Guardian-istas cited in their breaking with WikiLeaks. It was always a somewhat weak defence, as if stories about corruption and dictatorships do not routinely endanger people. But together with theses offence allegations, it served to isolate Assange and WikiLeaks from the profession of “journalism”, hallowed by former segment producers becoming hallowed professors of the profession.

Rather late, organisations from Bloomberg to Süddeutsche Zeitung are waking up to the full extent of these charges, their trans-jurisdictional nature, and their criminalisation of standard practice. It will be interesting to see which way Newscorpse will jump on this. And whether major players such as The Guardian will recompense for their sins, and lead the charge to have extradition refused to a fellow publisher and journalist. We live in hope, even of surprises.

Whatever physical health problems Assange has, one would also presume that he is suffering under the shadow of the law and the future — the prospect of disappearing into the hell of a Supermax prison for the rest of his life.

This is surely the point. The US, having renounced the death penalty — something it has reneged on before — is using its surreally cruel incarceration system as an instrument of terror, directed towards the publication of secrets. They’ve gone after Assange there, against Timor whistleblowers here, against teenage autistic exploratory hackers in the UK. The target is investigative journalism, dissent, the open society. The instrument is the state, coming in through the bedroom window or the Wi-Fi. Question all of it, or you’re questioning nothing.

 

* The background, again: during a one-week stay in Sweden, Assange had sex with a woman (SW); stayed over; then initiated penetrative sex in the morning while she was “asleep” or “half-asleep”, according to differing testimonials — by herself and those she had initially spoken to — in the police report. According to the report, SW consented to the sex within seconds but the initial sex had been with a condom and the next morning’s was without. However, to add to the complications of this case, consent is without qualification in Swedish law; non-condom sex is consented to legally, with consent, even if informal conditions are placed on sex.