Much like his WikiLeaks creation, Julian Assange divides popular opinion. Some see him as a truth-seeking hero that bravely challenged censorship, a man who was on a mission to usher in a new age of openness and transparency. But on the flip side, many also deem him a dangerous radical who committed treasonous acts that put lives at risk when he shared unredacted files with the world.
The caches of U.S. military secrets that Assange obtained from former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning inspired a generation of whistleblowers, disgruntled insiders, and self-proclaimed truth-tellers. But after being indicted under the espionage act, Assange now finds himself facing charges for 17 forms of espionage and one instance of computer misuse.
”One of the best ways to achieve justice is to expose injustice.”Julian Assange
It's often said that it's the truth that will set you free. But exposing the cruelties of the war on Iraq has seen Assange pay a hefty price. What happens next could blur the lines of free speech forever and serve a warning to those thinking of following in his footsteps.
What would the extradition mean for Assange?
After spending nearly seven years living inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the WikiLeaks founders' hosts decided enough was enough and swiftly evicted. Assange was accused of behaving like a 'spoiled brat' on his skateboard and even smearing faeces on the walls. He was then found guilty of breaching the Bail Act and received a 50-week sentence in Belmarsh Prison, south-east London.
On September 7, 2020, Assange will leave his cell in Belmarsh Prison in London, and the extradition case that will determine his fate will begin. The events of the last seven years appear to have taken its toll on the defendant. According to his partner, Assange has lost a considerable amount of weight and is in constant pain with a frozen shoulder.
Over 154 lawyers and legal academics have united in declaring that the extradition proceedings are illegal. The stage is set for the high-profile case that could result in Assange serving a sentence of up to 175 years in a maximum-security prison. But the implications of a British judge extraditing a journalist to another country for breaking their laws on secrecy could be far more reaching than many realize.
What would the extradition mean for the future of WikiLeaks, whistleblowers, and journalists?
WikiLeaks has become bigger than Assange with staffers located all over the world. By extraditing a publisher and journalist to the U.S. for engaging in journalistic activities while in Europe would set a dangerous precedent for the future. But any attempts to make an example of Assange would run the risk of transforming him into some sort of whistleblowing martyr figure.
Responsible journalism plays a critical role in exposing war crimes and human rights abuses that politicians and governments have often attempted to hide from the public that elected them. If governments have the power to determine what is and what isn't in the national interest, freedom of speech and the truth could be the first victims.
Assange is a complicated and divisive figure. But the ramifications of any journalist or whistleblower being accused of breaking the official secrets act of another country and put on a plane to be prosecuted should be seen as an alarming precedent. The result could convince whistleblowers to remain silent about the injustices or atrocities that they witness and lead to journalists self-censoring their work through the fear of prosecution. The bigger question is, how did telling the truth become a revolutionary act?
"You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon a lie or ignorance can't lead to a good conclusion."Julian Assange
George Orwell's 1984 was written over 70 years ago, and yet it continues to feel more prophetic than ever. In particular, the line from the book, "in a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." More recently, on the subject of Assange, Ron Paul said, "In a society where truth becomes treason, we're in big trouble." The debate over whether Assange is a dangerous narcissist or transparency activist bringing truth to the people will continue to fill our newsfeeds over the next few weeks.
Rather than getting caught up in the world of binary thinking and feeling under pressure to choose a side, it's important to remember that it's not actually about a divisive figure like Assange. It's simply a story of how a whistleblower gained access to classified information and made it public to expose abuses of power. If a decision is made to shoot the messenger, it will set a precedent that could prevent the truth from setting anyone free again.