Most people reading this will not be fans of Julian Assange. I’m not a fan, and I had plenty of opportunity to form a thorough opinion of him: I worked at WikiLeaks for a few months, and even shared a house with him for a portion of that time.
Many of the criticisms levelled at Assange are entirely fair: he can be arrogant, high-handed, a terrible house-guest, and even a narcissist.
On another level entirely, he managed never to face questioning in Sweden after facing allegations of rape and sexual assault (which he denied). He was granted bail, took every possible appeal up to the UK Supreme Court, and then fled to the embassy of Ecuador when proper judicial procedure went against him.
Years of running down the clock worked – with only months left on the statute of limitations, and with only the most serious allegation left, Sweden gave up on its investigation.
The women who, way back in 2010, accused Assange of sexual assault and rape will never get their day in court, despite having faced horrific online abuse and harassment, to the point of forcing them into hiding and into adopting false identities.
“We do not get to pick our figureheads – and it’s in cases exactly like this that our freedoms are challenged.”
Assange, then, does not cut a sympathetic figure now that he’s facing a new extradition attempt – this time to the US. This is a problem, because as little as many of us may care about Assange himself, this prosecution is political, illiberal, and a threat to free speech and government accountability.
Assange is facing extradition to the US over his work with WikiLeaks to obtain and publish classified US military and diplomatic documents in 2010. The revelations from these documents made headlines and led news bulletins across the world.
They included the now-famous “collateral murder” video, which showed a US Apache helicopter in Iraq gun down a group of suspected militants, later found to include civilians and Reuters journalists, before firing a hellfire missile at another site as an innocent bystander walked by.
They include hundreds of thousands of records of the Afghanistan war, detailing among other things the existence of US army assassination squads, and records of the Iraq war, which shed unprecedented new light on the civilian death toll of the US action.
These, and the diplomatic cables, were judged to be of such import and public interest that editors of some of the world’s largest and most respected papers – the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais – placed teams of journalists on the project for months at a time, before publishing their findings.
The reporting enabled by the documents’ release won journalism awards across the world, including from human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
We also now know the source of these documents: Chelsea Manning, then a private in the intelligence division of the US army, who admitted in a military trial that she leaked the documents from her base in Iraq.
It is for this leak that Assange faces extradition and decades in US jail, not for later leaks which emanated from hacked email accounts of prominent Democrats – attributed to hackers tied to the Russian state – which influenced the 2016 election in favour of Donald Trump.
Assange is facing prosecution for the best thing he ever did, even if he didn’t redact it well, give his motivations well, or even necessarily do it for the right reasons. If Assange can be prosecuted for releasing information like this, there is little to prevent the next prosecution being the editor of the Guardian, Washington Post, or New York Times.
The US authorities are trying to frame the prosecution of Assange as one of hacking, relating it to his apparently foolish agreement to help Manning secure the password of another intelligence analyst (unsuccessfully), in a bid not to secure extra documents, but to cover her tracks as the source (again, unsuccessfully).
A trained journalist would know this went beyond journalistic ethics – and certain legal protections – but it seems hardly proportionate to punish such a violation with decades in prison.
Assange does not cut a sympathetic figure. He is easy to dismiss as a hacker, or an anti-US figure, or even as a “Russian stooge”, thanks to some of his associates and his willingness to work with the broadcaster Russia Today.
But we do not get to pick our figureheads – and it’s in cases exactly like this that our freedoms are challenged. The current US administration has shown time and again it is willing to bypass or potentially even break laws intended to hold it accountable and make sure government is in the interests of the people.
There are populist governments across the world whose citizens need the accountability only the media and whistleblowers can provide. We can ill-afford any erosion of those freedoms against this backdrop. Enabling an extradition of Assange would do just that – and so, love him or loathe him, we must all do whatever we can to prevent an extradition.
Not for his sake, but for ours.