Ecuador continues to review WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange’s request for political asylum. Ana Albán, Ecuador’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, met with President Rafael Correa and other heads of state to discuss the potential implications of granting asylum to Mr. Assange. In the meantime, he remains in the Ecuadorian embassy in the United Kingdom. The Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino has said people can be holed up in embassies for a day, three weeks or five years waiting for a decision on asylum requests.
Ecuador has received a steady stream of messages supporting Assange’s request for asylum. The country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs recently stated, “More than 10,000 emails have been received at the moment…Thousands of people asking the Ecuadorian government to accord asylum to Julian Assange.”
Part of this stream includes a letter of support for Assange that was recently hand-delivered to the Ecuadorian embassy in the UK. More than four thousand people signed the letter. And over eighty prominent people, including filmmaker Michael Moore, actor Danny Glover, filmmaker Oliver Stone, comedian Bill Maher, Salon writer Glenn Greenwald, Guardian contributor Naomi Wolf, Vietnam war whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, journalist Chris Hedges, writer Noam Chomsky, historian and filmmaker Tariq Ali, Patch Adams, MD, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley, FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, Guantanamo habeas counsel Kent Spriggs, etc, signed a version of the letter. (I signed it as well.)
The letter declares, “We believe Mr. Assange has good reason to fear extradition to Sweden, as there is a strong likelihood that once in Sweden, he would be imprisoned, and then likely extradited to the United States.” It warns of what might happen to Assange if he was extradited and subsequently charged for any crimes in Sweden and highlights the US Justice Department’s criminal investigation into founders, managers, and staffers of WikiLeaks including an empaneled grand jury. The letter also calls attention to the fact that the US is pursuing him because he committed an act of journalism:
We also call on you to grant Mr. Assange political asylum because the “crime” that he has committed is that of practicing journalism. He has revealed important crimes against humanity committed by the U.S. government, most notably in releasing video footage from an Apache helicopter of a 2007 incident in which the U.S. military appears to have deliberately killed civilians, including two Reuters employees. Wikileaks’ release of thousands of U.S. State Department cables revealed important cases of U.S. officials acting to undermine democracy and human rights around the world.
The show of support stands in stark contrast to commentators and pundits in the media in the UK and US, who have cast Assange’s decision to seek asylum as something lunatic and preposterous. They’ve sneered at him for seeking asylum to “postpone” legal proceedings. They’ve scorned him for wanting to go to a Latin American country that they perceive to be “anti-press.” They’ve ridiculed him for engaging in this act that they see as just another one of his “narcissistic exploits” and even expanded their bewildered exercises in punditry to include taking aim at his supporters.
Here are a few examples from Twitter:
Additionally, there’s Nick Cohen of The Observer (UK) who argued, “The right does not have a monopoly on paranoia, as the conspiratorial fantasies of supporters of Julian Assange show” and lays into Glenn Greenwald for promoting a “‘leftist’ defense of an alleged rapist.” Janet Albrechtsen of The Australian lambasts supporters, too, in this column where she recycles prior criticisms levied against WikiLeaks and stated, “Julian Assange, a class-A narcissist, has collected quite an entourage of adoring, useful idiots around him.” Ian Dunt of Politics.Co.UK accused Assange and supporters of dismissing sex crimes charges (that do not exist) and believing that “being an activist who challenges American imperialism somehow exempts” him “from criminal responsibility.” An editor for The Economist jeered at the request, suggesting both Assange and Correa are “thin-skinned, narcissistic and selective when it comes to media freedom.” And Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics and Political Science concluded Assange is “forsaking the due process of law. He is also abandoning his supporters. He is running from the fight. He really must feel that his case is scuppered. Perhaps he has fallen victim to the conspiracy fantasies of his supporters.”
John Lloyd used the platform that Reuters affords him to delusionally compare Assange to Satan:
…When we talk of fallen angels, we invoke the original fallen angel, Satan or Lucifer, once beloved of God, the highest in his closest council, whose pride impelled him to challenge for heaven’s rule – and came before his fall to Hell. Assange was an angel of a sort, at least to many. They saw his role as founder of WikiLeaks and leaker of thousands of pages of cables on Iraq and Afghanistan, and then from U.S. embassies all over the world, as the act of a liberator, a rebel with a cause, one who could poke the U.S. in the eye in a new way, with only a laptop at his disposal…
A friend of Assange, Vaughan Smith of the Frontline Club, went on CNN International and was subjected to what Smith called a “gladiatorial” interview by anchor Max Foster, who appeared to “beat” him up as “a token disbursement towards balanced journalism.” Foster kept interrupting Smith. Perhaps, the most revealing exchange in the segment was this:
FOSTER: Explain that, because certainly people look at this situation and think at the very least it’s rather odd that he’s just gone into an embassy in London and he’s hiding.
SMITH: Well, I mean, he’s not hiding, he’s seeking political asylum.
You know, maybe in the west we just can’t get used to the idea that there are western dissidents as well as Chinese and other dissidents. And I think you know Julian has clearly, you know, run out of other options to keep himself from going to Sweden. And I’m 100 percent convinced, I know you know better than most — you know, he feels that if he gets sent to Sweden, he’ll get sent to America and what faces him is life imprisonment or perhaps even death.
FOSTER: Yeah, but that’s your argument and his argument. Another argument is he’s a bit of a coward. He won’t face his day in court. He’s a legal system coward — Britain, Sweden, America, they have respected legal systems and independent groups all regard them as quality systems. What’s he afraid of? Why can’t he go in and have his day in court and address the allegations?
SMITH: Well, I mean coward isn’t the word I think is reasonable to somebody who has taken on, you know, the strongest forces in the world. I mean, I don’t think even his detractors think he’s actually a coward.
Media consensus appears to be that, as Liberal Conspiracy blogger Sunny Hundal wrote, Assange’s request is “morally repugnant because he is avoiding answering to serious rape allegations.” Aside from the fact that it is within his legal right to seek asylum (which Hundal admits), Swedish prosecutors could have questioned Assange by now and decided whether there was enough of a case to actually charge Assange with rape or sexual assault. However, a French non-profit, Liberté-info, that is dedicated to promoting digital freedom and freedom of expression, described in a letter to the Ecuadorian embassy:
The Swedish prosecutor behind the case, Marianne Ny, has consistently refused to interview him through standard Mutual Legal Assistance protocols agreed between Sweden and the UK such as using video-conferencing or even interviewing him inside the Swedish embassy in London. She insists on extraditing him although he has not been charged with any crime, in Sweden or elsewhere. An extradition in this case would consequently not be proportional and would violate Mr Assange’s basic rights, knowing that he has already been under virtual house arrest for 560 days without charge. Such obstinacy strongly suggests that the case built against him has nothing but a political motivation behind it, and mixing politics with justice often results in human rights violations. [emphasis added]
It seems if any party involved in this matter is unnecessarily complicating matters and undermining the cause of the women seeking justice, it is the Swedish authorities.
Then, there’s the simple-minded yet condescending assertion that Assange and his supporters believe in conspiracy theories and it is highly improbable that the US would try to extradite him from Sweden. If Assange supporters are such crackpots, why won’t Sweden offer “diplomatic guarantees” that he will not be extradited to the United States if he stopped fighting extradition to Sweden? The answer is there’s a widespread US Justice Department investigation and agents or officials involved don’t want to be “boxed in” by foreign diplomats.
One journalist, Philip Dorling, did what few of these sneering commentators seem to have done: he looked into whether Assange should be afraid. What did he find? That Assange was justified to be afraid:
[There is] a great deal of evidence — from the public statements of the US government, Australian diplomatic reports released to Fairfax Media under freedom-of-information laws, and disclosures in the pre-court martial proceedings concerning US Army private Bradley Manning who faces 22 charges, including the most serious one of “aiding the enemy” by disclosing classified military information. There has never been that much secrecy about the US government’s determination to pursue WikiLeaks.
Foreign Policy published a post on Assange’s “legal calculus.” If he ended up in Sweden, according to Cherif Bassiouni, a professor at DePaul College of Law and an expert on international law, “the lack of judicial precedent in Sweden regarding extradition requests from the U.S., probably means that the Swedish courts” would “look to their most established case law on the matter of extraditions. Bassiouni, who “has argued extradition cases between involving Sweden and the U.S., adds that this would likely mean “Swedish courts” would “look to their experience with their Nordic neighbors with whom Sweden has had fairly low extradition requirements.”
To the argument that it is easier to extradite Assange from the UK: Assange is wanted for questioning by Swedish prosecutors. The US would be interfering in this case if they put in a request to extradite Assange from the UK right now. Why not wait until he is in Sweden facing allegations and then pressure Sweden for his extradition?
For the past years the media has done nothing but concoct and lob smears at Assange. The truth is, to most in media he is not one of them. These commentators and reporters that sneer at him do not think he is a journalist. He is an “agitator” with an “ego.” Former New York Times executive editor never considered him a journalist when he partnered with the Times. To Keller, he was a “source.” Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Lucy Dalglish has said she doesn’t think Assange vets information, takes responsibility, or does anything original with the material so he is not a journalist (Judith Miller, known for her role in pushing claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the US invasion in 2003, argued this as well but actually conceded he is a journalist.)
Roy Greenslade of The Guardian succinctly explained in January 2011 why journalists, especially American journalists, would not speak up for him as politicians and government officials called for his prosecution in December 2010. One, they refuse to engage in advocacy and are committed to so-called objectivity and nonpartisanship. Petition-signing is “verboten.” Two, they oppose Assange’s purpose. The “notion of objectivity” makes them “suspicious of WikiLeaks’s journalistic bona fides.” Assange’s interest in disrupting the “functioning of governments” is seen as “advocacy,” which they find bothersome. And finally, they do not like his “methods” or “approach.” They consider his publication of material to have been “reckless.”
What this refusal to stick up for Assange and WikiLeaks has meant is the US government has been able to pursue Assange without much challenge. The US government has been able to enjoy a public that perceives Assange and WikiLeaks as a threat to order, as actors who wish to sow chaos and create anarchy. The State Department even contends Assange’s “political objectives” disqualify him from being able to be called a “journalist,” leaving the door open for any possible effort to prosecute him.
The smug reluctance has not meant the media does not cover him. Smith told Foster on CNN International Assange is accused of “taking the limelight,” but, “if you do a Google search on the most British newspaper sites, there’s about seven times as much interest in Julian Assange than the leaks. If you go to AP, or Reuters, the wholesalers in this industry you’ll find that it’s more like three times.”
The press want it both ways: they want the benefit of scoops that this revolutionary’s organization has managed to uncover by obtaining secret information the United States would have withheld for decades if someone hadn’t provided it to WikiLeaks. They want the clicks and views that come from writing about “WikiLeaks documents” and the hits and traffic that come from articles that sensationalize the story of an Aussie “hacker,” who has embarrassed American superpower. Yet they do not want to speak out for him nor inform the public of what the implications might be if the US successfully pursues and convicts him for engaging in journalism. That leaves the door open for persecution of Assange, which greatly undermines freedom of the press.
This morning Assange was served with an extradition notice by the Metropolitan Police. The police stated. “This is standard practice in extradition cases and is the first step in the removal process. He remains in breach of his bail conditions, failing to surrender would be a further breach of conditions and he is liable to arrest.” WikiLeaks responded on Twitter, “Asylum law suspends extradition law while asylum is being assessed, even in domestic legislation.”
For the latest on the asylum request, here’s WL Central’s live blog.
Denver Nicks, author of Private: Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks and the Biggest Exposure of Official Secrets in American History notes, unlike American reporters or journalists, American journalism school faculty have been supportive. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism sent a letter in December 2010 to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder that asserted Assange had engaged in First Amendment-protected activity and should not be prosecuted.
Photo used with permission from Somerset Bean. Visit Bean’s website for more Assange posters, like the one that appears below.