Journalist or cyber terrorist? Whistleblower or spy? Messenger of truth or attention-seeker? The Julian Assange arrest has got many deliberating on whether he crossed the line.
British police arrested the silver-haired Australian — co-founder of international non-profit whistleblowing organisation WikiLeaks — on April 11 on an extradition request from the United States to face hacking charges. He is also accused of breaching British bail conditions in 2012 by seeking refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted on rape charges. Assange went into self-exile over fears that the allegations in Sweden could ultimately lead to his extradition to the US.
Trigger for Arrest
The high-drama arrest came after Ecuador, under pro-US President Lenin Moreno, grew increasingly frustrated with Assange’s stay and withdrew the nearly seven-year political asylum. Justifying his decision, Moreno told The Guardian that the Wikileaks founder violated his asylum rules many times and attempted to use the embassy as a “centre for spying”. He accused the 47-year-old of hacking into his private details after photos of him on a hotel bed with a giant platter of lobster on his birthday were leaked.
Many believe that the lobster-in-bed photo triggered the arrest of the ‘journalist’. This was followed by snapshots of 200 private e-mails, texts, documents and other photos of Moreno and his wife on lavish European vacations, posted on the anonymous website INApapers.org in March. The heavy dose of ‘truth’ could taint the Ecuadoran President’s image because he ran as a center-leftist and was implementing austerity measures in the country.
Referring to the leaked pictures, Moreno said: “We cannot allow our house, the house that opened its doors, to become a centre for spying. This activity violates asylum conditions. Our decision is not arbitrary but is based on international law… It is unfortunate that there are individuals dedicated to violating the privacy of people”.
The Ecuadoran President also accused Assange of hosting numerous hackers at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London to direct them on how to propagate information on topics important to the WikiLeaks founder and his financiers. Swedish programmer Ola Bini was one of the hackers who visited Assange at least 12 times at the embassy. Bini, who lives in Ecuador capital Quito, was detained last week just hours after Moreno kicked out
Assange from the embassy. The President said Bini hacked cellphones and online accounts of private citizens as well as Ecuador’s government.
The data leak was the last nail in the coffin, but the Ecuador Embassy officials were also thoroughly fed up with Assange’s “undeserving and disrespectful” behaviour. He argued with embassy officials at the drop of a hat and rubbed excrement on walls. “He exhausted our patience and pushed our tolerance to the limit…,” Moreno told BBC.
Accusing Assange of meddling in the affairs of other states, Moreno stripped him of the nationality he was given in 2017 under the previous government of Rafael Correa.
Assange was able to operate equipment and collaborate with embassy staffers for a long time, thanks to the support of Correa, who granted asylum to Assange in 2012. The arrest triggered controversy back home in Ecuador — Correa accused Moreno of “crime humanity will never forget” and described him as “the greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history”.
“UK must resist!” Assange shouted as he was hauled away from the embassy in London by men dressed in dark suits and ties. UK must resist US’ extradition request is what he meant. The US charges him with “conspiracy” for working with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password stored on Department of Defence computers in March 2010. This was when WikiLeaks became a household name — it revealed the death of civilians, torture and clandestine military operations with the release of five lakh US documents on the Iraq and Afghan wars.
The most damaging leaks began with a video showing a US military Apache helicopter firing and killing two journalists and several Iraqi civilians on a Baghdad street in 2007. While the then Australian government termed the disclosure illegal, police said Assange hadn’t broken the country’s laws. But the US and its allies accused him of risking lives by revealing information on sources, intelligence techniques and key infrastructure sites.
There are also questions about his relationship with Russia, with WikiLeaks identified in Robert Mueller’s probe into interference in the 2016 US election. Mueller found that Russian government actors hacked Hillary Clinton’s campaign “and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks”.
The Real Fight
Assange has every reason to be worried about his extradition to the US as he is not guaranteed a fair trial there. A UN rights expert recently questioned the US justice system’s credibility in national security cases. Assange’s friend, Spanish member of European Parliament, Ana Miranda, also expressed concern about his arrest. “We are faced with a humanitarian imperative now….High ranking officials of the US — including President Donald Trump — threatened the publisher with death,” she said.
Assange, too, had several times said the Swedish extradition was just another means for the western giant to trap him. After his arrest, his lawyer said they would continue to resist any bid to extradite him to the US.
As protests erupted outside Belmarsh prison where Assange is jailed and support poured in for him from across the world, his homeland Australia didn’t seem to have any sympathy for the seasoned hacker. In a cold response, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a local news channel that Assange would get the same support that any other Australian would and that he was not going to be given any special treatment. “When Australians travel overseas and they find themselves in difficulties with the law, well, they face the judicial systems of those countries, it doesn’t matter what particular crime it is they’ve alleged to have committed. That’s the way the system works,” he said.
The footage of the Metropolitan Police dragging a frantic-looking bearded Assange out of Ecuador’s Embassy building in London made many rethink the definition of free speech and journalism. Edward Snowden, who leaked top-secret information of the National Security Agency, staunchly opposed the manner in which his counterpart was treated.
“Images of Ecuador’s ambassador inviting the UK’s secret police into the embassy to drag a publisher of — like it or not — award-winning journalism out of the building are going to end up in history books. Assange’s critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom,” he tweeted.
Soon after the incident, the European Parliament on April 16 overwhelmingly voted for rules aimed at protecting whistleblowers from reprisals following corporate scandals such as Dieselgate (Volkswagen was discovered to have used devices to hide diesel emissions) and Cambridge Analytica (the now defunct British data consultancy accused of having harvested data of millions of Facebook users without their permission). It said EU member countries must offer whistleblowers “comprehensive and independent information” on how to report breaches and pursue their cases while providing them with legal, financial and psychological support. But protection for whistleblowers is patchy across the bloc with only 10 countries providing comprehensive legal protection: France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden and Britain.
On the other hand, his critics call him an informational terrorist, spy, publicity-seeker. Kathy Kiely, professor and Lee Hills Chair of Free Press Studies at University of Missouri-Columbia, wrote in The Conversation: “These days, anybody with an Internet connection can be a publisher. That doesn’t make everybody a journalist. This distinction has become more important than ever…”