Julian Assange’s recent arrest in London has divided the public, including senior members of the Labour Party, over how to respond. If extradited to the US, Assange currently faces charges to commit computer intrusion in relation to US government documents released by WikiLeaks in 2010.
The attempt to extradite Assange to the US sets a dangerous precedent for academics. Attacks on whistleblowers, the press and academics all aim to undermine the foundations of democracy. Each group seeks the truth and is a potential thorn in the side of governments attempting to hide their activities from the public.
Assange is a polarising figure, but whatever you think of his libertarian politics is beside the point. Academics should oppose attempts to extradite him to the US as an attack on academic freedom.
It is important to separate Assange’s work for WikiLeaks from allegations of sexual assault against him. The fear is that support for Assange as a freedom of information martyr leads naturally to dismissing these allegations as part of a conspiratorial plot.
But the two issues can be held apart. Assange must face justice in Sweden for the alleged sexual assaults without the threat of extradition to the US. To weaponise these allegations as a tactical move to try him for other crimes trivialises these women’s claims and reduces them to pawns in a larger game.
If Assange were to be extradited to the US this would be a threat to academics across the globe. Academia relies on the principle of freedom of inquiry and the freedom to communicate these ideas in teaching and publications. Governments using broad-ranging powers to clamp down on dissenters that would embarrass them can potentially have a chilling effect across the academic sector.
Academics are repeatedly targeted by governments in crackdowns. In 2018, Matthew Hedges was arrested at Dubai International Airport and sentenced to life imprisonment on suspicion of spying for the British government following a two-week field research trip in the United Arab Emirates. Hedges was later pardoned, but only following a campaign led by his wife, Dr Gertjan Hoetjes, and after spending six months in solitary confinement.
Academics have also been targeted by the Turkish government, which dismissed thousands of academics without due process and brought 148 to trial in 2017-18 for links with terrorism.
In the UK, an essay by a prominent academic on socialism was also flagged through counter-terrorism programme, Prevent, as a potential threat to national security.
What these events reveal is that attacks on journalism and academics are consistently employed by governments that would prefer for their activities to remain hidden.
Both journalists and academics gather information, assemble stories and attempt to cast new light on issues regardless of its effect on powerful interests. As a result, it is these professions that are attacked when liberal democratic institutions come under threat. Academics should be alarmed by the ongoing campaign against Assange because it is part of a global rise of a new authoritarianism and a clampdown on dissenters and whistle-blowers.
It could be argued that Assange broke the law and he should face the consequences of his actions. After all, academics are paid to create knowledge, not to hack government servers.
But the charges against Assange have to be understood in the broader context of the Trump administration’s campaign to punish those who cast Trump in a negative light. This has included considering sending journalists to jail, according to a leaked memo from Trump to former FBI director James Comey.
Extraditing him to the US opens the door to governments using broad-ranging powers and open-ended terrorism laws to threaten or punish those it considers a nuisance.
The information uncovered by Chelsea Manning revealed videos of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan in which civilians were killed. It also showed files on detainees in the infamous Guantánamo Bay where suspects were tortured. This evidence has been used by academics to critically interrogate the actions of the US government in prosecuting these wars.
Assange is disliked in political and media circles and is by many accounts a narcissistic megalomaniac. But it’s the unpopular who most require legal protection. If we turn a blind eye to this extradition, history has shown that academics will soon be next.