Julian Assange’s arrest by the UK police from the Ecuadorian Embassy after the Moreno administration withdrew his asylum, has drawn worldwide condemnation. Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire are among the leading figures who have condemned Assange’s arrest. In India, N.Ram, Arundhati Roy, Gopal Gandhi, Indira Jainsing, P.Sainath and Romila Thapar, condemning the arrest, stated, “His (Assange’s) arrest, and the attempt to extradite him to the US are, clearly, attacks on freedom of the press and its right to publish.”
After Assange’s arrest, his reason for seeking asylum was confirmed: the US unveiled a secret Grand Jury indictment against Assange. Assange had always maintained that if he surrendered either to the UK or to Sweden, the US would extradite him to face trial in the US. The Grand Jury indictment against Assange is for a “conspiracy” under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, has already described Wikileaks as a non-state intelligence organisation, and therefore the possibility of enhancing the charge to espionage, which carries significantly higher penalties including the death sentence.
While the new digital technologies have created social media, surveillance capitalism and the new security state underpinned by mass surveillance, Assange used the same technologies to create a new kind of journalism. He showed that journalists and whistleblowers can communicate and exchange information without their privacy being compromised. This was his crime, to show that the surveillance state could be beaten at its own game.
It is important today to remember the crimes that Assange brought to the world’s attention. He showed, through the WikiLeaks Iraq War logs and Afghanistan War logs, the US war crimes in those countries, the most well-known being the video Collateral Murder that shows US soldiers celebrating the shooting down of civilians including Reuters journalists in Baghdad. In Cablegate, the exposure of 250,000 US diplomatic cables, showed its worldwide subversion of foreign governments using bribery, blackmail and threats of violence. This is what Chelsea Manning provided to Assange that brought out starkly the brutality of the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and its global neocolonial regime. These are the exposures that the US has not forgiven and for which it wants to punish Assange and Manning.
Chelsea Manning had tried to get the war crime shown in Collateral Murder published in mainstream media. She failed; Wikileaks is the only one which published the video. That is why Manning and Assange are in jail today, and mainstream media condemns Assange for “not being a proper journalist”, and Manning a traitor. That is why the attempt to bring Assange to “justice” in US Courts and put Manning back into prison for refusing to testify against Assange before the Grand Jury.
The Wikileaks and Assange legacy continues to grow, a reminder of why the US and the UK are so determined to “punish” Assange. On 25th February of this year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave its Judgement on Chagos Islands, better known to the world as Diego Garcia, a group of islands leased out by the UK to the US for a military base in the Indian Ocean. The Judgement found the UK guilty of illegally separating Chagos Islands from Mauritius, and deporting its people – the Chagossians – in order to build the US military base. The basis of the Judgement against the UK was a cable in the Wikileaks Cablegate files, showing the UK and the US conspired to declare the islands a “Marine Reserve” so that the Chagos islanders would not be able to return.
For those in India, Diego Garcia has a particular resonance. A number of people and groups, including the CPI(M) have demanded the demilitarisation of Diego Garcia. We now have to add this a new demand: hand over the islands to whom it really belongs, the Chagos islanders.
The statement that Ram and others have issued, brings out the core of Wikileaks journalism. It was “a journalism of outrage — outrage against the injustices and atrocities that take place round the world — but always with an eye to factuality, substantiation, and precision.” And as the statement observes, it “operated on a scale that is unprecedented.” The scale of Wikileaks disclosures, be it the Iraq and Afghanistan War logs, or Cablegate was huge, the numbers simply mind boggling. And Assange used his skills to make this treasure trove of US dirty secrets searchable.
Why is the attack on Assange so dangerous for the press everywhere? The US charges are not that Assange breached the Official Secrets Act and published classified documents, but that he was in a “conspiracy” with Chelsea Manning, to help her secure classified documents and transmit them to Wikileaks. The indictment reads, “The primary purpose of the conspiracy was to facilitate Manning’s acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defence of the United Sates so that Wikileaks could publicly disseminate the information on its website.”
The problem here is that it is the duty of journalists to help their sources to protect themselves and facilitate safe transmission of documents and information. If this becomes criminalised, then all public disclosure of confidential documents could be brought under criminal law, claiming the act of publishing is not criminal, but discussing with a source and helping her give the journalist documents is. This would mean that New York Times could be brought under charges of conspiracy with Daniel Ellsberg for the Pentagon Papers; or The Hindu for the Rafale papers!
The statement by Ram and others brings this out, “Charging Assange with conspiracy bypasses the protection of law that exists for the press internationally -- including the First Amendment in the US. This indictment strikes at the very heart of journalism and creates a precedent to attack the press anywhere.” The statement continues, “Protecting sources, freedom to publish — without these there is no freedom of expression and journalists will not be able to speak truth to power.”
For the journalist community, what Assange did was not only to break the conspiracy of silence that the state and mainstream media have created, but also the tools to do so. Courage is necessary, but not enough. In the complex world we live in, the technology we use also leaves digital footprints everywhere. We need to see how Snowden and Assange operated, and to know that if we are to practice investigative journalism today, we need to understand technology. What the US Grand Jury indictment condemns as conspiracy – encrypted communication such as Jabber, Signal or Telegram – are now standard practice. So are encrypted messaging and emails. Assange had also created the technology of secure drops: electronic boxes in which large amounts of documents could be dropped by the whistleblower without the journalist actually learning who it was. This way, the whistleblower could transfer documents without disclosing her identity. A number of news organisations today use this and other tools routinely as a part of their journalism. All this might have come about without Assange, but it was he who was the pioneer.
A last word on Wikileaks. It was commonly accepted that if the server on which Wikileaks was hosted removed it from its server, and the US deleted Wikileaks from the Route Server entry that shows the domain and its mapping on a server, the Wikileaks website would be inaccessible. Wikileaks had foreseen this possibility and had a huge number of copies of its site, making it impossible for it to be removed from the internet. In this battle of David and Goliath, like David, Wikileaks won against the Goliath of the US state and still maintains its presence on the internet. It still continues to publish critical information exposing the US state. That is why the vindictiveness with which the US has pursued Assange and Manning. And that is why we need to raise our voices against this tyranny.