Free Assange. Free Manning. Defend WikiLeaks.
5 May 2019
The forced removal of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and his subsequent court appearance in relation to a US extradition request mark a dangerous stage of the ongoing campaign by the US and its allies to silence this important source of dissent.
It also brings a clarity to a number of matters. The first of these is confirmation of the threat to Assange as an individual. Despite claims from the British government that he was free to the leave this refuge at the embassy at any time – subject only to minor charge of breaching bail conditions – Assange was detained on the basis of US extradition request that cited his association with the whistle-blower Chelsea Manning. This shows that the fears of Assange and his supporters – which were often dismissed as paranoia – were well founded. Indeed, evidence of the preparation of a charge against Assange – dating back to 2011 – is already on the record. This has become even more explicit in recent months with the official confirmation of the existence of a Grand Jury to examine these matters and the imprisonment of Manning for her refusal to co-operate with it.
It was also clear that Ecuador has been working alongside the US and the UK for some time to revoke Assange’s right to asylum and facilitate his removal from its London embassy. In the latter months of his seven year residence there Assange was barred from communications with the outside world and subjected to prison like conditions. All this was done despite the fact that under international law (to which the US, UK and Ecuador are signatories) Assange was recognised as a political refugee and the recipient of asylum – a status which was confirmed by a legal ruling of the United Nations Working Party on Arbitrary Detention. In the effort to prosecute Assange the law (in Sweden, the US and the UK) has been twisted and turned every which way to fit the desired outcome of his pursuers. The latest example of this is the unprecedented fifty week sentence that has been imposed on Assange for the breach of bail conditions charge that will conveniently keep him in detention for the duration of the extradition hearing.
Another example of legal machinations against Assange is the indictment that forms the basis of the US extradition request. Rather than the Espionage Act it instead makes a charge that falls under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – accusing Assange (as part of WikiLeaks interactions with Manning) of conspiring to break passwords to government computers. On the face of it this is a lesser charge which carries a prison sentence of up to five years. However, this is merely a pretext to get around any potential legal barriers to the extradition of Assange. For example, the US-UK extradition treaty excludes transfer for “political offenses,” including espionage. The British government will be able claim in the courts that exclusion of charges related to espionage from the indictment allows for extradition. It will also claim that extradition can go ahead as Assange will not face the threat of the death penalty. This is not about protecting Assange but providing the British government cover for his extradition and also the Ecuadorian government cover for the revoking of his asylum status. Once Assange is in the hands of the United States, he will quickly confront a series of additional charges, including espionage.
One of the most insidious attacks on WikiLeaks is the claim that its work is not a legitimate form of journalism. Ironically, but not surprisingly, this charge has been made in the long established organs of the liberal media. An element of this is the material insecurity caused the decline of the traditional print media and the rise of new digital platforms. Another factor is undoubtedly a degree of jealously over WikiLeaks role in generating what a former newspaper editor has described as “the greatest scoops of the last 30 years.”
In the beginning the liberal media were prepared to co-operate with WikiLeaks in publishing information. They wanted the prestige of breaking big news stories and also the financial boost it gave their own publications. However, it wasn’t long until they turned around to become its most hostile critics. Leading the charge has been the Guardian which has run a slew of hostile reports and commentaries over recent years. The latest one of these is the false claim that Assange had met with Trump’s campaign director Paul Manafort in the run up to the 2016 US presidential election - a clear attempt to do damage to Assange and WikiLeaks by linking them to the manufactured controversy surrounding alleged Russian meddling.
What the turn against WikiLeaks shows more than anything is the limitations of an established media which has a very narrow spectrum of what is considered news worthy and which is heavily invested in the political and economic status quo. For them WikiLeaks – a digital platform that for the first time in history gave ordinary people a glimpse of how ruling classes acted and thought – was beyond the pale of what was deemed to be legitimate journalism. Of course, one of the consequences of the questing of legitimacy of WikiLeaks - and that must be by design - is to undermine the traditional legal protections that have attached to journalists and to publishers.
If journalism is understood
to be keeping the record straight and what veteran documentary filmmaker
John Pilger has described as “calling rapacious power to account” then
the standard set by WikiLeaks has been exemplary. Just consider what
it has been revealed over the past ten years.
These revelations have peeled away the veneer of diplomacy and revealed the corruption and outright criminality of US imperialism and its allies. This is the reason that Assange and WikiLeaks have attracted such hatred from the ruling classes, the functionaries of the capitalist states and their various apologists in the media.
The reaction to the detention of Julian Assange has also served to highlight the decay of the liberal left and its complete collapse into identity politics. In the past the classical liberal position on such an abuse of state power would have been a clear defence of the rights of Assange as an individual and of WikiLeaks as an organisation. But no such defence is forthcoming today. Moreover, the mild criticisms of state power which are expressed are usually undone by the attachment of caveats and conditions that defer to the current trends within identity politics.
In the case of Assange it is the continual linking of him to sexual abuse allegations. This is done in defiance of evidence suggesting that these allegations were politically contrived for the purpose of doing reputational damage to Julian Assange (and by extension WikiLeaks) and drawing him into a process that would leave him vulnerable to legal actions by the US. The fact that is how things played out tends to strengthen this argument. But even if it is rejected the legal principles of assumption of innocence and due process should still apply. That they do not shows the degree to which the basic tenets of a liberal democratic order have been abandoned – not just by the right but also by the liberal bourgeoisie and by sections of the political left. This trend has been accelerated with the rise of the MeToo movement and the creation of an environment in which allegations – such as those against Assange – are accepted without any examination.
WikiLeaks as also been caught in the anti-Russia hysteria that has overtaken the much of the liberal left. In this world view the guiding hand of Russia (and Vladimir Putin) is seen in every event and political movement from Brexit to the Gilet Juanes. In its scope it is comparable to the anti-communist scares that were propagated at the height of the Cold War. Within its framing WikiLeaks is accused of colluding with Russia in the release of information that aided Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election. This is despite the fact that no evidence of collusion has been uncovered (certainly not by the Mueller investigation). The idea of WikiLeaks-Russia-Trump axis is also rendered ridiculous by the hostile stance of the Trump administration towards Russia and its actions in prosecuting Julian Assange.
It must be stated clearly that the ONLY reason Assange is imprisoned and facing extradition to the US is because of his association with WikiLeaks. That there should be any doubt about that fact is testimony to the reactionary role that identity politics has played in creating division and deflecting away from the real nature of the attack on WikiLeaks. Those individuals and organisations (many of claiming to be on the Left) who are giving credence to such a perspective only serve to weaken the opposition to the ongoing imperialist offensive.
A class question
The defence of WikiLeaks and Assange, along with the whistle-blowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, is a class question. By exposing the unadulterated political opinions of the ruling classes and their methods for maintaining domination they have performed a service to the working class and oppressed peoples of the world. Their revelations have played an important role in both provoking and affirming the growing discontent with the status quo that has emerged globally over the past decade. This very point was made in an editorial in the Times of London which bemoaned the role of WikiLeaks in doing “so much to turn public opinion against Western intervention" (i.e. imperialist wars).
As class and anti-imperialist struggles intensify across the world in the coming period such exposures have the potential to become even more damaging to the interests of imperialism. The US and its allies know this and that is why they are making such an effort to make an example of Assange and shut down WikiLeaks. Moreover, it is not just about crushing one source of dissent but is also designed to send a warning to potential future whistle-blowers and publishers.
The fight to free Assange and Manning and to defend WikiLeaks should not be seen as a stand-alone liberal cause (as we have seen liberals have long abandoned it) but rather as part of the broader working class struggle in defence of democratic rights and against imperialism and capitalism. Indeed, it is only through the harnessing of working class power class power that an effective defence of these whistle-blowers be mounted.