Assange: what does his arrest mean for whistle-blowers and press freedom?

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange rally outside of British Embassy, Belgium, 2015.

Recently Julian Assange’s stay at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London came to an end after Metropolitan police were called onto the premises to arrest him for breaching bail. The Australian national had resided in the embassy for the past seven years after seeking asylum for being the architect behind WikiLeaks, releasing thousands of sensitive documents illegally obtained with the help of former US soldier Chelsea Manning. Since then Assange has enjoyed a host of famous visitors and public support, from Lady Gaga to Nigel Farage.

To many Assange is an admirable figure; he is credited with revealing several explosive events kept hidden from the public, including the ability of the CIA to break into virtually all hardware, the inhumane treatment of Guantanamo Bay inmates and the Minton Report, a hushed up analysis on the health effects of waste dumping in Africa. To others he is a criminal and a massive inconvenience, and should be imprisoned for the criminal theft of US state secrets. To two women in Sweden, he is an alleged sexual predator, although Assange continues to insist these claims are politically motivated and it is unfortunately unlikely that the accusers will have a chance to see Assange stand trial.  

The decision of the Ecuadorian Embassy to withdraw Assange’s Ecuadorian citizenship and withdraw their offer of asylum is significant; in February Ecuador secured a $4.2 billion loan with the IMF, a move WikiLeaks suggests influenced the ‘betrayal’ of Assange, a theory supported by the former Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ricardo Patiño. The decision to expel Assange can also be seen as retaliatory: Lenin Moreno, the current President of Ecuador has recently come under scrutiny for corruption charges, with WikiLeaks helping to spread leaked documents implicating Moreno and his family. There have also been reports that Assange has violated the terms of his stay at the Embassy, including insulting staff and ‘smearing faeces on the walls’, which WikiLeaks denounces as false. Regardless, the sudden arrest of perhaps the most infamous whistle-blower of modern history has sparked concern on the precedent this sets for whistle-blowers and wider press freedom, as well as the safety and neutrality of political asylum.  

Advocacy groups and (American) freedom of speech experts warn that Assange’s treatment for revealing truths believed to be in the interest of the public undermines the basic principles of journalism, and that the US’s indictment of Assange undermines the first amendment. His treatment may also discourage future whistle-blowers from coming forward, given that Assange has spent close to a decade of his life confined and restricted and in relative instability given his swift arrest and dishevelled appearance. Alongside Chelsea Manning, Assange has been hounded by powerful states such as the US and now faces the likelihood of up to five years in prison. The moral underpinnings of whistle-blowing is something that should be respected and protection given accordingly. Even if the whistle-blowers actions were found to have been against the law, the law is imperfect and constantly open to interpretation. The benefits of important informational being released to the public and the illegal means of obtaining them should be weighed in courts of law, instead of being used as a retaliatory act from those exposed. Whistle-blowing can save lives, expose corruption, illegal acts and environmental exploitation, therefore the practice must be given protective legislature so that whistle-blowers can avoid becoming the victims of the full force of a powerful state or actor. The Executive-Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, has declared that the US’s indictment of Assange, and the UK’s granting of their extradition request for Assange, undermines a powerful cornerstone against government misconduct; investigative journalism. Many of the ways in which Assange is alleged to have obtained sensitive information is standard procedure for journalists dealing with confidential sources and so it is incredibly dangerous to equate this to criminal behaviour.

Journalists have been sent a warning through the treatment of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, who successfully revealed Western atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and exposed the hideous double standards of nations so keen to police others. Regardless of the legality of the way in which this information was obtained, it is the fury over their exposure that has the US and UK so keen to silence Assange’s voice; and that is not a good enough justification for his persecution.

Share this post