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.
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.