Before founding WikiLeaks, Julian Assange was a pioneer in the emerging computer hacking scene in Melbourne in the late 1980s.
Decades later, he was catapulted into the global cult figure who transformed those humble beginnings into something with tangible and revolutionary impacts on global politics.
He now sits as a lonely, solitary figure in a British prison awaiting his fate from a UK court, and must feel a long way removed from those early days when a group of Melbourne teenagers found themselves at the forefront of a nascent global hacking scene.
Using computers accessed only through Melbourne University servers, the early Melbourne hackers managed to access the computer systems of NASA with the infamous WANK worm that saw Midnight Oil lyrics pop up in US government servers.
It was a time before smartphones, Internet cafes or even DVDs, and Assange quickly emerged as one of the trailblazers of the emerging scene that would ultimately lead to the formation of WikiLeaks — the website dedicated to freeing information.
As someone who was on the outer fringes of the early hacking scene in Melbourne, I can now sympathise with Assange’s plight. The images of the gaunt, hunched figure being forced into a waiting police car in London were enough to make any feeling person have empathy for him.
After Assange’s seven-year stint welled up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, his father John Shipton has called on the Australian government to step in and insist his son be returned home:
I saw him, the way they dragged him down the steps, the coppers — he didn’t look good. I’m 74 and I look better than him and he’s 47. It’s such a shock.
And his father is right — Assange does deserve full consular support from the Australian government just like any other Australian citizen.
Certainly Julian Assange is not a journalist in the traditional meaning of the word. After all, journalism is a craft that requires more investigative work and a more judicious approach to the release of information than Assange has displayed through WikiLeaks.
Think back to WikiLeaks’ release of the ‘collateral murder’ video, made public in April 2010, that showed US military personal laughing while shooting at Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver Saeed Chmagh in Iraq from a US Apache helicopter in a public square in Iraq in 2007.
When an unarmed group of adults and children arrived to try to transport the wounded, they were fired upon as well. At least 12 people died in the attack. The video provided clear evidence that US military personnel had wrongly listed those killed as insurgents, and gave the general public a truer picture of military operations than what they had been led to believe by official US news up until that point.
That video was sourced from the former US soldier Chelsea Manning, who downloaded hundreds of classified files related to US-led war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and allegedly requested Assange help her crack the encryption passwords to gain access to them. Earlier this year she refused to testify to a Grand Jury investigating WikiLeaks and was jailed for contempt of court, and held in effective solitary confinement — she still remains in prison today. In that sense, perhaps Manning is the real hero of this story.
But the fact remains that Assange has facilitated the freeing of classified information that was certainly in the public interest (especially to the relatives of those targeted in this video), and his potential extradition to the United States on political grounds has serious implications for all journalists.
Even the Obama Administration concluded that to prosecute Assange for publishing classified material posed a threat to freedom of the press, guaranteed in the American first amendment. Also, because the bulk of WikiLeaks’ most significant documents were released in concert with the New York Times, The Guardian and the Washington Post, the US Justice Department may also claim it has grounds to prosecute those newspapers.
Some would argue that WikiLeaks has released information that has damaged progressive political parties — such as its cache of emails from Hillary Clinton that the Trump Administration seized upon during his successful presidential campaign. But Assange’s mission has always been to free information without political bias — so in a sense the fact that he has few friends remaining on either sides of politics vindicates the fact that Assange has remained true to his core beliefs.
Assange should be protected from American extradition — as any journalist should be protected for releasing accurate information that is in the public interest. But first he must answer the serious sexual abuse allegations that have been made against him by two women in Sweden that date back to 2010.
The charges of sexual assault must be disentangled for the US extradition attempt which is more about the right to publish classified information that is clearly in the public interest. No progressive thinker should dismiss the seriousness of accusations of rape against Assange — which accuse him of having unprotected sex with a woman while she was sleeping. Accusations he has always denied.
These matters should be dealt with first and foremost.
After all, those charges were never fully dealt with and were only dropped in 2017 when Swedish prosecutors concluded that “all possibilities to conduct the investigation are exhausted.” The Swedish government is now considering whether to reopen the investigation.
If it does, and only if Assange is cleared of those charges, the Australian government should step up and insist he is brought home to Australia.
For his work in shedding light onto the true actions of foreign governments Assange should be applauded as a champion of democratic transparency. But for charges of sexual assault and rape — Assange needs to either prove his innocence or face the consequences of his actions.