The case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is not a simple issue of press freedom but at least as complex as the multi-level, multinational legal jungle he now faces after the end of his seven-year diplomatic asylum. And yet those press freedom aspects should not be lost from sight either.
WikiLeaks is unique for the sheer scale of its exposés (an eight-digit number of documents touching virtually every walk of life) and the impact created but the underlying issues of protecting sources and the sensitivity of confidential information remain the same – all journalism stands to be criminalised by the US government’s attempt to prosecute him. The dilemma posed by perhaps the highest-profile WikiLeak – the importance of exposing human rights abuses by occupation troops in Iraq versus the possible risks to the lives of United States servicemen – has surfaced time and again in different forms. The balance of coverage is another yardstick which should be applied to both WikiLeaks and the press as a whole – whether Assange has observed perfect balance in a multipolar world since founding WikiLeaks in 2006 is entirely open to perfectly legitimate challenges but were that to be true, he would be a glowing exception in the media world (not least here in Argentina in this election year).
Nor is the Australian hacker unique on the technological front, increasingly less so with the passage of time. As Heraclitus said 2,500 years ago: “No man steps into the same river twice because neither the river nor the man is the same” – technology has changed with supersonic speed in the seven years of Assange’s sanctuary in Ecuador’s London Embassy (not to mention the 13 since the start of WikiLeaks). The offence is no longer the same – hacking has now become virtually a fact of life while the globe’s mainstream digital multibillionaires are also starting to enter the dock.
The Assange case is complex yet its core undoubtedly lies in the extradition sought by Washington on conspiracy and computer piracy charges relating to leaks affecting the safety of US servicemen abroad but given new impetus by the 2010 ‘Cablegate’ publication of US Embassy papers worldwide and the 2016 US presidential elections. Under the Barack Obama presidency Washington’s approach seems to have been to pursue US citizens leaking information such as Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden (now in Russia) but to respect WikiLeaks itself as a press organisation, defending the public’s right to know. The arrival of Donald Trump has clearly changed this paradigm but the question still arises: If Washington and Quito changed governments 27 and 23 months ago respectively, why now?
The answer probably lies in the recent closure of the ‘Russiagate’ scandal – Trump did not feel comfortable moving against Assange when he himself was under suspicion of collusion with digital manipulation. Yet Trump wants to have it both ways. Russiagate may indeed have been the wrong stick with which to beat Trump (his tax records would be far more relevant) – if, for example, the key state of Pennsylvania was swung by some 40,000 Philadelphia Afro-Americans keener on going out to vote for Obama than for Hillary Clinton, what has this to do with Moscow? In general, recently fashionable theories of electronic manipulation deciding elections seem overrated – was the Brexit triumph more due to primitive anti-immigrant feelings and imperialistic nostalgia than the digital sophistication of the likes of Cambridge Analytica (newer and more sinister players in this game than WikiLeaks)? But if hacking becomes relative here, then surely in Assange’s case too. Trump was delighted with the WikiLeaks role in undermining Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign – why so implacable now?
Yet this is not just Queens versus Queensland (the New York borough and Australian state where Trump and Assange were respectively born). Space prevents a closer look at Ecuador (whose citizenry Assange has adopted but perhaps we need look no further than the US dollar being its official currency) and Sweden (where Assange may once again face rape charges – why not extradite him there?).
Both these Swedish charges and likely collusion with Russia are more reprehensible sides of Assange but in an age in which hacking is so universal, what is so very wrong with taking it one step further and informing the general public? In conclusion, the Australian hacker is neither good nor bad but an all too human figure playing dangerous games in the terrifyingly superhuman world of modern technology.