From top: Julian Assange arrested in central London last week; Bryan Wall
The arrest of Julian Assange by the British police is a watershed in journalism. Or at least it should be. Having fled to the Ecuadoran embassy 7 years ago, he now finds himself in a prison that the British government uses for convicted murderers and terrorists.
What Assange has done to warrant this treatment is to embarrass not only governments but also very powerful people who would rather have their actions hidden away from public view.
Hilary Clinton exemplifies this. In her leaked speeches to bankers she said that change “really has to come from the industry itself”, and not from wider political or social activism. In one speech she lauded herself for the fact that she “represented and worked with so many talented” bankers.
She went so far as to say that she “did all I could to make sure they continued to prosper”. Alas, she told representatives of Goldman Sachs that “there is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives”.
Then there’s the US military itself which is what essentially put WikiLeaks on the map. With the leak of the Collateral Murder video by Chelsea Manning, the US military’s war crimes were broadcast to everyone with internet access. An American Apache helicopter targeted civilians and journalists for having the audacity to stand around on a street in Baghdad.
Of course our own native Atlantic backwater has not escaped mention in WikiLeaks’ gigantic archive. In leaked diplomatic cables Ireland’s relationship with the US at the time of the second Iraq war is described.
The cables say that “U.S.-Irish relations remains as strong as ever” despite protests over the US military’s use of Shannon airport. So strong that it was suggested that Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach, be asked about “his willingness to send Irish peacekeepers to Iraq under a UN mandate”.
And in yet another leaked cable it was revealed that the then American Ambassador to Ireland, Thomas Foley, thanked the then foreign affairs minister, Dermot Ahern, for his “staunch rejection” of demands to inspect US military flights passing through Shannon airport.
This rejection included a demand to “inspect aircraft landing in Ireland that are alleged to have been involved in so-called extraordinary rendition flights”.
The cable noted that Ahern “seemed quite convinced that at least three flights involving renditions had refueled at Shannon Airport before or after conducting renditions elsewhere”. In 2013 a report by the Open Society Foundation identified Ireland as one of 54 countries involved in the extraordinary rendition programme.
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are being punished for this and this alone. It has nothing to do with skipping bail or rape accusations. Assange has embarrassed on a massive scale the political masters of the world.
The defenders of the status quo have rounded on him, declaring that he is not a journalist. This is despite the fact that what Assange and WikiLeaks do is what countless other publications have done and continue to do: They publish documents leaked to them on a regular basis. Assange must be made to pay for the transgression of embarrassing the powerful.
The lead lawyer for the New York Times had this to say:
I think the prosecution of him [Assange] would be a very, very bad precedent for publishers. From that incident, from everything I know, he’s sort of in a classic publisher’s position and I think the law would have a very hard time drawing a distinction between The New York Times and WikiLeaks.
On a similar note, The Intercept reported last year that after years of investigation, the Obama administration decided not to prosecute Assange and WikiLeaks “for publishing classified information”. This was because it surmised that:
‘…such a prosecution would pose a severe threat to press freedom because there would be no way to prosecute Assange for publishing classified documents without also prosecuting the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others for doing exactly the same thing.’
And this was not an opinion lightly taken. Obama prosecuted more “whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all former presidents combined”. Given all of this, then, the stakes are clearly high.
The attack on Assange is an attack on the press worldwide. Take a step back and think about it. An Australian citizen is arrested in Britain at the behest of the American government for leaking documents related to the US military in Iraq.
In theory, American jurisdiction does not extend past its borders. Reality, it demonstrably appears, is very different. But there is an apparent awareness of this.
In Assange’s indictment the government states that his “offense [was] begun and committed outside of the jurisdiction of any particular State or district of the United States”. It also points out regarding the leaks that the “information so obtained could be used to the injury of the United States and the advantage of any foreign nation”.
The contradiction between jurisdiction and supposed criminality is not squared. It is a given that Assange is guilty because the US government and its cheerleaders in the media say he is.
You don’t have to like Assange. You may even loathe him, as many do. But that is a separate issue to the one at play here. Press freedoms across the world are now at risk because of the ability of the US government to arrest a journalist regardless of their citizenship or location.
And it still doesn’t come as a surprise. Despite everything we like to tell ourselves we figured someone, or some government, would get to Assange eventually. His arrest wasn’t a shock so much as the imagery of him being carried out of the embassy by the British police was.
Yet it should be shocking. All of it should terrify and anger us. Fascist totalitarianism has a tendency to be insidious. How we treat whistleblowers can be used as an indicator of how our societies are faring. Daniel Ellsberg’s treatment was no different.
Chelsea Manning is yet again imprisoned. And here on our own shores we have signals of the dangerous potential that lurks.
In 2007 Jonathan Sugarman became a risk manager at UniCredit in Dublin where he witnessed massive liquidity breaches on a daily basis. He wrote a letter, which he hand-delivered to the financial regulator’s office, which outlined the scale of the breaches.
Yet, “apart from the official acknowledgment there was no reaction”. Sugarman soon resigned from his position given the scale of the transgressions and the lack of action taken by the regulator.
He would eventually have a meeting with the Central Bank in May 2011 about UniCredit. He relates that “the Central Bank officials threatened to ‘hand me over’ to the Irish Director of Public Prosecution, should I divulge any further information regarding irregularities at UniCredit Bank”. This was despite the fact that the regulator had “announced that it would consider any information offered about the affair ‘in confidence’”.
Sugarman has paid for this with the loss of his career and a lack of consequences for his former employers.
Whistleblowers and those that publish their revelations are often held up to scorn and ridicule. But their role is imperative given the structure of our societies where wealth and power are hoarded and criminality goes unpunished.
Just as the attack on Sugarman was an attack on all of us, the attack on Assange is just as much so. Different men with different causes yet the consequences of their persecution sets us down a dangerous path which we have already trodden too far.
Top pic: Reuters