Amidst the heat and dust of our general elections, the significance of the arrest from the Ecuadorian embassy in London of Julian Assange, the cyber fugitive holed up there for seven years seems to have been lost.
As a media teacher and practitioner, one has been fascinated by Julian Assange, the Australia born maverick ‘genius’ who rattled the most powerful men and their countries with what came to be known as WikiLeaks. After hiding as a fugitive in the embassy of the Latin American country of Ecuador in London for seven long years enjoying diplomatic immunity, the British police finally arrested him. A New York Times story on Friday [12th April] headlined “As Ecuador Harboured Assange, It Was Subjected to Threats and Leaks” reveals how Ecuador was brow beaten and finally had to allow the British police to arrest their seven year old guest. The report tells it all: “the capstone of an international cat-and-mouse game involving stolen document dumps, promises of more to come, failed efforts to contain him and accusations of blackmail”.
It was by chance that in the second half of 2011, one picked up a paperback quickie, “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by The Guardian foreign correspondent Luke Harding [ then based in Russia, and refused re entry into that country] along with David Leigh. [It may be worth mentioning that Luke Harding later penned another book The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man]. After finishing the book in almost one sitting one felt that what Assange had done questioned the contours and inadequacies of cyber laws, privacy and questions of media ethics. But the book highlighted hacking in all its negative best!
But, who after all is Julian Assange? The answer to this question can be too voluminous to be part of this piece. However, here is a short account to give Assange’s background. He was born Julian Paul Hawkins on 3rd July 1971 in Townsville, Queensland, Australia and has been a journalist and programmer who founded WikiLeaks in 2006 . As a computer expert, it is said that he specialized in hacking as a teenager and practiced it under the name Mendax [‘liar’ in Latin]. He formed a rather successful hacking team named International Subversives along with two others-‘Trax’ and ‘Prime Suspect’. The Australian Federal Police investigated him for cyber crimes and in 1994 Assange was charged with 31 hacking and related crimes. Two years later he pleaded guilty in 25 cases and the other six were dropped. He was treated very leniently with a small fine and released on a ‘good behavior’ bond.
In 2012 Assange had taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault case. The then President of Ecuador Rafael Correa admired Assange for his leaking of secret American documents and allowed him to stay in their embassy in London. After Correa lost power to the new Ecuadorian president Lenin Moreno, Assange’s relations with the South American country soured and when Assange was accused of uploading in cyber space very intimate pictures of President Moreno and his wife which enraged him and this led to his arrest by the British Police. Now both Sweden and the US are demanding his extradition. The Americans want him in connection with his involvement with former US Intelligence Analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010. He in fact was charged with conspiring with Chelsea Manning to break into a classified American government computer at the Pentagon.
Former first lady and Trump challenger in 2016 is still seeking answers from Assange. Hillary Clinton accuses him of seriously denting her presidential campaign with WikiLeaks publishing the emails of her party, allegedly stolen by Russian intelligence officers. Donald Trump was however elated by the release by WikiLeaks of very damaging emails from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.
The emergence of the digital communication technologies, it is said, has turned the whole idea of media regulations upside down. The revelations of WikiLeaks and the enigmatic personality of Julian Assange who masterminded the leaks seems to have exposed the inadequacies of the law and the lack of ability to address the challenges that digital media pose. The whole idea of cyber media regulations has to be viewed from what WikiLeaks exposed.
Alan Rusbridger, former editor in chief of The Guardian in his introduction to the book ‘Wiki Leaks’ by David Leigh and Luke Harding portrays Julian Assange as a new kind of “cyber-messiah”. Here are some interesting quotes from Rusbridger‘s introduction to the book. ”In two cases-involving Barclays Bank and Trafigura-the site had ended up hosting documents which the British courts had ordered to be concealed. There was a bad period in 2008-‘9 when the High Court in London got into the habit of not only banning the publication of documents of high public interest, but simultaneously preventing the reporting of the existence of the court proceedings themselves and the parties involved in them. One London firm of solicitors overreached itself when it even tried to extend the ban to the reporting of parliamentary discussion of material sitting on the WikiLeaks site.
Judges were as nonplussed as global corporations by this new publishing phenomenon. In one hearing in March 2009 the High Court in London decided that no one was allowed to print documents revealing Barclays’ tax avoidance strategies- even though they were there for the whole world to read on the WikiLeak website. The law looked little silly.” WikiLeaks in fact had questioned the whole concept of news dissemination.
Julian Assange, as Rusbridger said in the above introduction to the book, “WikiLeaks” is indeed a new publishing phenomenon. We may question his hacking adventures or use of what is called ‘stolen secrets’; but he has lived dangerously and often not following the rules of the game.
Some of what Assange said may not be palatable to believers in traditional media norms and powerful governments. For example in 1996 he moderated the AUCRYPTO forum, ran Best of Security, a website “giving advice to computer security” that had 5000 subscribers. He questioned systematic abuse of technology by governments against fundamental freedoms of world citizens. In 2012 in the introduction to “Cypherpunks” he contented, “the internet, our greatest tool for emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen.”
Julian Assange might have got into trouble with the law for extraneous reasons but being in democratic West escaped prosecution for the leaks. The story is different in repressive autocratic regimes. There are details of such instances in one of the issues of ‘Columbia Journalism Review’. Under the broad title PRESS FREEDOM WATCH, Joel Simon has a piece entitled, “Repression Goes Digital-“The internet has become a choke point in the struggle for the free press.” Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to protect journalists’ rights further points out, “the more ominous reality the cat and mouse game unfolding between journalists-professional and amateur – and those repressive regimes in Iran and elsewhere. Yes, the twitter and email have made it possible to get fragmented bits of information out of Iran, but the hard line government in Tehran may be winning the information war by forcing correspondents out of the country or keeping them in their bureaus, shutting down reformist newspapers, rounding up critical bloggers and journalists, and, on occasion disabling the internet and cell service entirely.’’
Julian Assange may be without any international support as a result of his acts of challenging the mighty nations and powers. Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of his home country of Australia had said that there will be no special treatment for him, obviously as far as his personal liberty is concerned. He will face trial and punishment for his cyber adventures probably in the US. After all, he has hurt some of the most powerful countries and leaders in the world. Yet he has succeeded in showing the power of the cyber media and espousing the freedom of the media. No wonder there are voices from the media who support Assange as a fighter for freedom and upholder of rights of the media. Before his arrest by the British Police last week the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had ruled that the continued attack on his liberty is arbitrary and therefore illegal under the international human rights law. Ben Wizner, director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] in an interview to NPR’s Scott Simon said, “No one would choose Julian Assange to be the poster child of the freedom of the press. What worries me is that these kinds of bad facts make bad law. If Assange is prosecuted here, he’ll have no champions on the left or the right. Everyone here will, in some sense applaud what happens to him personally. But those are the cases that can create precedents that will be used against people who are much more personally appealing.” [Courtesy- www.npr.org]
It is uncertain whether Julian Assange would walk free and fight for his right to dissent and continue his brand of investigative journalism.