It is election season and no ordinary election at that. It is never too late though to realise that if these elections are being fought for the soul of India, to protest the arrest Julian Assange, the publisher of Wikileaks in London, is for the free speech and media freedom on a global scale.
Except for a statement by some prominent Indians condemning the arrest of Assange (Assange’s Arrest an Attack on Journalism, Say N Ram, Arundhati Roy, Indira Jaising Among Others) and few other voices of condemnation, reaction in India has been muted.
The near-silence is neither deafening nor conspiratorial. It could well be the result of the lack of information about Assange and the kind of journalism Wikileaks has spearheaded since its inception in 2006. It is equally possible that the Indian public too has fallen prey hook, line and sinker to the venomous and ingenious disinformation campaign unleashed against Assange from even before he was granted asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London seven years ago.
The latest inmate of Belmarsh Prison, which is also known as the “British version of Guantanamo Bay”, Assange is, for his supporters, the “first media hero of the 21st Century”, while his foes, including President of Ecuador Lenin Moreno, vilifying him as being a “discourteous” man “with poor personal hygiene”. Even if it were true, it wouldn’t rate as a “crime” worthy of banishing him to maximum security prison or, worse, extradite him to the United States to face a possible lifetime in solitary confinement in prison!
Media hero or the embodiment of narcissism, Assange and Wikileaks has shaken governments across the world, especially the United States, even as it desperately attempted to remain the enforcer of the world. In his daring attempts to afflict the powerful, Wikileaks has collaborated with some of the best mainstream media organisations across the world, including with The Hindu, on the diplomatic cables.
The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and El Pais like The Hindu were party to the Wikileaks-led ‘Cablegate’ “through an arrangement with WikiLeaks that involve[d] no financial transaction and no financial obligations on either side.”
Wikileaks has shorn light on how war can dehumanise people with the release of the Collateral Murder video that showed US soldiers in Iraq laughing at hapless civilians and journalists from a military helicopter even as the continued raining bullets on their victims. It did rile the US administration. So did the other exposes by Wikileaks, be it with Iraq war logs or the Afghanistan war logs. The benign wars were proven by Wikileaks to not so benign after all. It obviously didn’t go down well in Washington.
But it has not always been about the U.S and the wars. The story on Kenyan ex-president Daniel Arap Moi and his family’s corruption was Wikileaks first big story, which received international attention when Assange gave the story to The Guardian.
Wikileaks has published a cache of emails of the Syrian government and its opponents. The release of emails sent by the top echelons of the government and even its opponents has caused a lot of embarrassment to both warring parties.
The website released in 2016 almost 300,000 emails of Turkish president Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, even as Ankara grappling with the aftermath of a failed military coup.
The couple of expose around the Democratic Party in the US in 2016, first, a tranche of emails sent and received by US presidential contender Hillary Clinton, and, second, emails of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta had significant impact not only US domestic politics, but also exposed the cinch in the Democratic Party’s ruling clique. But these expose did lead to some erosion of support for Assange and Wikileaks around the world.
Assange is a veteran of some bruising battles against organised attacks, institutional, technological and propaganda.
The website has been target of relentless attacks would not come as a surprise, but it has also weathered boycott’s and denial of service by company’s like Paypal, which refused to allow Wikileaks to seek donations using the service.
But what has surprised many is the way The Guardian newspaper has all but led the attacks on Assange. Surprising that its former editor Alan Rushbridger described ‘Cablegate’ in 2010 as “the greatest scoop of the last 30 years,” not too long ago. In an article in November last it claimed that Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaigns manager, had met Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy thrice. An accusation made by Assange’s one-time collaborator at the paper Luke Harding, without producing a shred of evidence since. Nevertheless, the paper did concede in an editorial before his imminent arrest that Assange should not be extradited to the US.
So what is the crime that Assange’s has actually committed. Why should he be or not be extradited to the US?
Let us go local. In early March the Attorney General of India K.K. Venugopal told the Supreme Court that the Raffale documents that were published by this newspaper had been “stolen” from the Defence Ministry. Venugopal had sought an investigation to find out if their publication should be deemed a crime, and a violation of the Official Secrets Act. The Editors Guild, the Press Club of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps and Press Association said that the AG’s statements had “the potential of sending out a chilling effect to one and all in the media.”
It is precise this “chilling effect” that the United States is hoping to have on every single journalist across the globe by putting Assange in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison in the US for years. For the exposes that Assange has spearheaded, the US intends to make him an example. For that it blatantly hopes to assert its prosecutorial authority over a person who is not a US citizen. What more, Assange’s journalism was never conducted on US soil, and yet.
There is no case against Assange in Sweden. The fact is, the international arrest warrant over allegations of sexual assault and rape that Sweden had put out against Assange was suspended by Swedish prosecutors. They suspended the investigation and applied to revoke the European arrest warrant way back in May 2017.
Glen Greenwald and Micah Lee quote in an article in The Intercept Assange Barry Pollack. He said: “The factual allegations … boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source. Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges.” In the context of journalism, any investigative journalist who receives classified information indubitably abets that crime. If it were not so, there would be no investigative journalism.
It has nothing to do with the alleged rape in Sweden or for “hacking” crimes, the US government is merely trying to make Assange example what will befall any journalist from any part of the world who dares to do an Assange on the US.
Assange will be in Court on May 2. It will be a protracted process to extradite him to the US. But it is encouraging that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has unequivocally said: “The extradition of Julian Assange to the US for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed by the British government.”
If therefore Assange should be a free man, there is need to build an international campaign against his continued incarceration. It is after all, to ensure that journalism, free, fair and courageous cannot be allowed to trampled by two democracy, who otherwise claim to be best of the breed.
An edited version of this was published in The Hindu.