I want to ask my journalist colleagues in Australia: why the silence over Julian Assange? Is it because you don’t think he’s a journalist? Is it the sexual assault allegations? Because he belittles mainstream media? Fear you might lose access to those in power? Fear you might be called an activist? Or have you just forgotten?
Journalists like to think they would go to jail to protect a source. Well Assange is in jail, in failing health in London’s Belmarsh prison, awaiting the resumption of his extradition hearing on September 7.
That hearing will determine whether he is extradited to Donald Trump’s America, where he faces 175 years in jail for exposing how the United States waged war in Iraq and Afghanistan and did business with its allies and enemies.
Assange has been a fine source for Australian journalists for more than 10 years as founder of WikiLeaks. They’ve written countless stories from his leaks and he helped to unlock new ways for media organisations to shine a light on how the powerful operate — with methods WikiLeaks devised so whistleblowers could send documents securely.
Just last year the ABC launched SecureDrop for whistleblowers to contact journalists anonymously.
Now journalists have the chance to put pressure on the government to bring Assange home. If they won’t speak up for him, should they use WikiLeaks’ treasure trove? Is that morally right?
The charges against him under a World War I-era law stem from the release of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, State Department cables and assessments of Guantanamo detainees.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has said the 18-count indictment “criminalises key reporting practices and the publication of information obtained through them. And the extra-territorial application of the US Espionage Act means that any journalist anywhere in the world could potentially be prosecuted for publishing classified information”.
Assange represents something that needs to be protected.
Did the global community have the right to know how the US military conducted war in Iraq and Afghanistan? Absolutely. Just watch the “Collateral Murder” tape Assange released in April 2010.
It showed for the first time what the war in Iraq really looked like: an Apache gunship kills a dozen people in Baghdad on July 12, 2007, including two men from Reuters: photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver/fixer Saeed Chmagh.
I was the Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad. Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh were killed on my watch.
That classified video, obtained by Chelsea Manning when she was a low-ranking military intelligence officer in Baghdad, catapulted Assange into the international spotlight. It made WikiLeaks a household name. You can imagine my shock to find it missing from the charges against him. I soon realised why. This is a world the Pentagon never wanted you to see: potential war crimes and cruel pilot banter.
Why would the US government put that in a court of law, let alone the court of public opinion? It’s why the Pentagon refused to give Reuters a copy of the tape.
As far as some of the reasons journalists might be silent about Assange, I believe any woman about sexual assault or harassment. I believe what the two women in Sweden said about him. But that’s a separate issue. Read this 2019 statement by the UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer on the handling of the allegations by Swedish authorities.
And whether Assange is a journalist or not is irrelevant. What matters is the precedent: the potential jailing of a foreign national in America for exposing government secrets. Recall that last year the Walkley Foundation board said it opposed his extradition. It gave WikiLeaks an award for most outstanding contribution to journalism in 2011.
I’m not saying Assange hasn’t made errors of judgement — or worse. He should never have published the Iraq and Afghan war logs without scrubbing the names of individuals whose lives could have been put in jeopardy.
And his case is also not about activism — it’s about protecting our profession.
Look at the ABC’s Dan Oakes. Australian Federal Police (AFP) have asked the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to consider charging him for publishing classified information over stories on potential war crimes by SAS soldiers in Afghanistan.
The accuracy of his reporting from 2017 has never been challenged. Defence asked the AFP to investigate him. The final decision will be made by the attorney-general. Does that sound like democracy?
Why did I take so long to speak up? For many years I buried what happened to Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh. I buried all the trauma I experienced as a journalist. Then came PTSD, moral injury and three admissions to the ward 17 psychiatric unit in Melbourne.
When I began to think about Assange, I found him troubling and unlikeable. Then several months ago a friend, Peter Whish-Wilson, Greens senator for Tasmania, came to see me. He asked if I’d consider speaking up for Assange by talking about Collateral Murder. He set out what was at stake.
I took 30 seconds to make up my mind. I’m in, I said.
It’s not too late for Australian journalists to push back against those who want to keep the public in the dark.
Dean Yates was a journalist, bureau chief and senior editor at Reuters for 23 years until he was diagnosed with PTSD in early 2016. He was head of mental health and well-being strategy at Reuters for nearly three years until January 2020. He lives in Tasmania.