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Julian Assange

Julian Assange. Photo: newsonline / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, licence linked at bottom of article

On Press Freedom Day, Erik Sandberg argues that defending Assange is crucial to protecting human rights and free speech in the West and beyond

This much is all true: I was stepping off a flight at Heathrow the very day that Julian Assange was ejected from the Ecuadorian embassy. There would be a press conference. It was happening outside Westminster Magistrates Court. I decided to attend as an independent observer.

When I arrived there was a small crowd of activists gathered opposite a throng of media among which stood burly police folk — a number of them were uniformed, others evidently not — one guy (from the latter crew) was filming the activists as they went about their demonstrable rites. Sensing that he had started across at me, I decided to reciprocate the gesture. A sort of kicking against the pricks, if you like.

While the monitoring of civilians, activists or political groups is hardly surprising news in the UK, it should never be normalised nor trivialised. That had been my first experience of it in person — taken aback, as I was, by its brazenness. It’s one thing to read about scandals such as spycops and other methods of modern, voyeuristic metropolitan policing activities — but it’s a whole ‘nother at the coalface.

“It’s like a dark, family secret which everybody knows about and yet no-one dares to talk about it. So, I felt I needed to inform the public that the institutions and mechanisms that we have created to protect our human rights: they don’t function in practice when the national security state is being challenged.” — Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur

The sublimated will of the activists that day left an altogether more positive impression upon me. Reading the banners, listening to the chants, I was left with a feeling that they regard Assange as a humanitarian, someone whose work is centered on making progressive change. The consequences of his work are thus: the U.S. is attempting to extradite Assange, the publisher and journalist — via the 1917 Espionage Act. An archaic bit of legislation drafted to go after spies who pass on information to hostile countries.

A better informed spectator will understand that the charges that have been brought before Assange aren’t about any of that. Indeed, his crime was to publish videos, cables, emails and documents pertaining to U.S. war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and human rights violations at Guantanamo Bay. Essentially, he is being sought for extradition as a result of providing a public service.

We need to have an honest discussion about the role the US, UK, Ecuador and Sweden have played in this. Not to mention three failed preliminary investigations in the latter; the allegations that Ecuador’s IMF deal was signed off by the US in exchange for Assange; and the revelations that the UK government paid £8,330 in November ‘18 to bring Ecuador’s defence minister Oswaldo Jarrín to Britain just months before the embassy ejection.

Furthermore all four countries have refused to engage in constructive dialogue with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, who is mandated by these countries to investigate such matters. In a recent interview he said:

“When we observe cases of torture and ill treatment we intervene with governments through diplomatic channels. The governments who have mandated me to investigate these cases, they then take over and investigate the cases in order to bring the perpetrators to justice. In this case, the involved states we are talking about are the US, UK, Sweden and Ecuador — rule of law democracies of the West — all of which have refused to enter into constructive dialogue with me.

They have refused to answer my questions, to give me the evidence I needed and consequently I couldn’t investigate. They refused to take measures to protect Julian Assange’s human rights. I did follow up letters, I informed the General Assembly in New York; I informed The Human Rights Council in Geneva, The High Commissioner and there was no reaction.”

The reputational standing of the West as being a make-up society where journalists can work relatively freely, and 'hold power to account' isn’t just at threat, it’s quickly evaporating abroad and on a mass-scale. So-called 'strongmen' such as the Azeri President, IIham Aliyev, recently drew on Assange’s plight as a barometer when faced with a question about freedom of press by the BBC journalist, Orla Guerin late in 2020 following the Nagorna-Karabakh conflict with Armenia. Meanwhile, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry is pulling similar tricks in parallel with the liberal activist, Navalny; and if engaged, China would easily employ similar tactics if pressed on the Apple Daily publisher, Jimmy Lai.

But “America is back”, according to Biden. Yet, at the time of writing, he and Merick Garland have taken no position on Assange nor looked to consolidate the First Amendment which has been trashed by this Trump-era persecution on journalism. They could drop the charges, or they could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their aforementioned nemeses to the East augmenting a multilateral ideology that reads as clear as spring break: “If you publish something that we don’t like — then we’re coming after you.”

That’s not liberal America — that’s just liberal lawfare.

And as the world stands on the brink of the biggest ever migration of displaced citizens approaching 1 billion in the next 30 years: freedom of speech, human rights and for journalists to document and expose abuses by processes whether intentional or not: that desperately needs to be realigned into our thinking if our democracies are to stand a chance. A chance just to think clearly, soberly again in tomorrow’s world.

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