'Julian Assange: A heroic figure or a radical revolutionary seeking to overthrow society’s safeguards?'

Mick Le Moignan

By Mike Le Moignan

THE release of the ultimate whistleblower, Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, after seven years of asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and over five years of incarceration in HM Prison Belmarsh, concludes a long battle over freedom of information.

From his teenage years, Assange was a prodigious computer hacker who ultimately released a huge amount of data highly embarrassing to the USA, including details of its secret agent networks and footage of its troops committing war crimes in the Iraq and Afghan Wars.

The US Department of Justice sought his extradition from Britain to face charges carrying up to 175 years in jail or even the death penalty. While British courts sought assurances that he would not be executed, Australian PM, Anthony Albanese, Ambassador to the US, Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Penny Wong sought to secure his release on humanitarian grounds.

While in prison, Assange married one of his lawyers and fathered two children. Most Australians and a majority in the federal Parliament believed he had been punished enough for the alleged crimes and deserved the chance to lead a normal life.

In the end, Assange accepted an offer from US authorities to plead guilty to one breach of the Espionage Act and be sentenced to the 62 months jail time he had already served in Belmarsh. The hearing took place on 26 June in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US Pacific territory, and Assange flew home to Australia immediately afterwards.

The case will undoubtedly be used in the USA to limit journalists’ freedom. Currently, Assange is seen as a heroic figure who made a public stand for freedom of information and narrowly avoided martyrdom. In future, when the effects of the legal precedent become clear, he may be regarded less favourably.

In fiction or drama, there is generally a clear consensus about who is the hero and who is the villain. In real life – not so much.

Opinions differ, for example, about the moral qualities of Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu. Both are currently conducting “limited military operations” which they claim are vital to maintaining their nations’ territorial integrity and the safety and security of their citizens. Both wars have killed more than 35,000 innocent civilians (mostly women and children) and destroyed the homes and livelihoods of millions.

Many, including prosecutors at the International Court of Justice, regard both Putin and Netanyahu as unrepentant war criminals trying to mask their attempts at genocide with a cloak of patriotism. Their supporters persist in regarding them as heroes.

One person’s whistleblower is another’s traitor. David McBride was a legal officer with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2013, the latter with special forces. He became convinced that Australian soldiers had committed war crimes and their commanders had conspired to conceal them.

Documents he provided clandestinely to the ABC prompted an official inquiry, which found Australian forces had unlawfully killed 39 Afghans during the war, including unarmed men and children as young as six. Several of these accusations were aimed at Australia’s most celebrated living war hero, Ben Roberts-Smith VC.

In spite of his revelations being vindicated, McBride was sentenced in May to five years and eight months in jail for stealing and sharing military secrets. The judge called it “a gross breach of trust” and said McBride had shown “no contrition” for his actions.

The Australia Director at Human Rights Watch, Daniela Gavshon, commented: “It’s a stain on Australia’s reputation that some of its soldiers have been accused of war crimes in Afghanistan, and yet the first person convicted in relation to these crimes is a whistleblower, not the abusers.” Independent MP, Allegra Spender, said: “We need better whistleblower protections urgently.”

Roberts-Smith VC sued the Nine Network, which includes The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, for alleging he had committed war crimes, including murdering unarmed Afghani prisoners. His employer, the Seven Network, backed him to the hilt in court – but overwhelming evidence from former SAS colleagues and even his ex-wife cost him the case and his reputation. An appeal is pending.

Assange is a polarising figure, who can be viewed as anything from Mandela to Macchiavelli. Trump’s Vice-President, Mike Pence, thinks he got off lightly; many Australian right-wingers agree with him.

Freedom of information is a very complex issue. Around the turn of the century, we dreamed we were entering a golden age of information, with all the world’s wisdom at our fingertips. Now, we know misinformation and disinformation (deliberate spreading of falsehoods) are equally available. One person’s shining truth is another’s heresy.

The American press baron, William Randolph Hearst, said “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed”. There is still much truth in that aphorism.

Julian Assange’s actions sprang from his belief that people have an innate right to as much information as possible and governments have no business hiding their actions or their statements from those who elected them. Does this make him a journalist, as his defence claimed, or a radical revolutionary, seeking to overthrow society’s safeguards?

It’s telling that governments, whether totalitarian or democratic, whenever they want to silence or curtail the activities of an individual, invoke “national security”. Often, what they are really trying to protect is their own leaders’ reputations or finances.

The standard charge in such cases is espionage – which relieves those governments of the need to supply too much detail. At least six Australians have recently been imprisoned overseas on such charges – journalists Cheng Lei in China, Peter Greste in Egypt, film-maker James Ricketson in Cambodia, academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert (Assange’s cousin) in Iran, and economist Sean Turnell in Myanmar.

Happily, all those have now been released. The notable exception is writer, blogger and political commentator, Yang Hengjun, who is still in prison, threatened with execution in China.

Freedom of any kind is precious – and its price is eternal vigilance. Anyone brave enough to blow a whistle on corruption deserves our admiration and gratitude – and our help, if needed, to regain their own freedom.

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