Journalism has a relatively clear objective. You find a story and you report the story to give people the best possible information. Sometimes the story jumps in your lap, other times you need to dig a bit to find it. This process serves to shine a light. If you see an elephant in the corner of a dark room, you point the flashlight at the elephant for all to see. This flashlight represents the medium of journalism. It is the narrative, the way in which people see and discuss this elephant.
The case of Julian Assange did not quite follow this pattern. It started the same. The elephant was the US government, and Assange, with the help of Chelsea Manning, shone the light to uncover war crimes. But this time was different. Something unexpected happened. The elephant snatched the flashlight and pointed it at Julian Assange. Suddenly we could no longer see the elephant, and the world’s eyes turned to Assange. This time the elephant got to dictate how we viewed this new subject. A new story was told, and the world forgot what we were ever looking at to begin with.
This analogy was given by UN Special Rapporteur for Torture, Nils Melzer, as he described his experiences with the Assange case. He had been called upon by the UN to examine Assange as he spent years stuck in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the effects of psychological torture. Melzer admits himself that he was never particularly sympathetic to Assange. He, as much of the world, had heard of an egotistical monster with rape accusations hanging over his head. Once he scratched the surface, however, Melzer found that perhaps the flashlight was not quite showing the full story.
So why the fuss? With so much speculation built up around Assange himself, it is easy to fall into the trap of forgetting about why he is in such hot water. That’s the trick. Julian Assange is the founder and de-facto leader of Wikileaks, a disclosure portal set up in 2006 originally in the Wikipedia model where volunteers could write up legally threatened material submitted by whistle-blowers.
In 2010, WikiLeaks published a series of damning leaks from the CIA provided to Assange by the then US Army Private, Chelsea Manning. These leaks included hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, war logs for Iraq and Afghanistan, and most damaging of all, a video entitled ‘Collateral Murder’.
The video, shot on the 12th of July 2007, showed three air attacks from a US Apache helicopter in Baghdad during the Iraqi Insurgency after the Iraq War. The full 39-minute video is nothing short of shocking. It shows the helicopter firing on and killing multiple unarmed men, including two Reuters journalists, while laughing and joking about it.
There were three distinct strikes. The first displays a sense of panic as the soldiers observe a group of men, most of whom are unarmed. After a back and forth with command to obtain permission to fire on the group, the camera of Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen is mistaken for an RPG (a rocket propellant weapon) . This leads to an airstrike in which all but one of the men are killed. The sole survivor of the initial attack, the other Reuters employee Saeed Chmagh, is observed by the helicopter in an injured state attempting to crawl away. The video catches the soldier commenting “C’mon buddy, all you gotta do is pick up a weapon”.
The second, and most publicly damaging of the attacks occurs when a van of unarmed humanitarians attempt to aid the stricken Chmagh. With no arms observed, the soldiers open fire once more, killing Chmagh, his two rescuers and severely injuring two children in the van, to which one of the soldiers can be heard saying “well, it’s their fault for bringing kids into battle.”
They subsequently laugh and joke about the incident before the video cuts to a third strike on a different location. Here, armed men on a building are observed, however as the helicopter prepares to launch missiles, unarmed civilians are seen walking by the building and these civilians ultimately die in the blasts.
The release of the video sparked global outrage at US military behaviour, with The Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald noting it to be a “plainly unjustified killing”. In the US, much of the coverage and chatter from the Obama administration focused on the lack of context provided by Wikileaks as to the battle that surrounded the strikes. However, as noted by famed Watergate leak Daniel Ellsberg, “It would be interesting to have someone speculate or tell us exactly what context would lead to justifying the killing that we see on the screen.”
Almost as soon as the outrage subsided however, it was replaced with many political figures in the US attacking the legitimacy of Wikileaks and its founder. For her part, Chelsea Manning was arrested and sent to prison. No one involved in the airstrikes were subject to any legal proceedings or military investigations.
Soon attention turned to Manning’s accomplice in shedding the information to light. Wikileaks became a source of great embarrassment for the US Government. A month after the leaks, a Swedish court ordered a European Arrest Warrant for Assange over rape allegations, which he denies. He was freed on bail, however after Westminster Magistrates Court ordered his extradition to Sweden in 2012, Assange walked into the lobby of the Ecuadorian embassy and into political asylum. He remained there for the next 7 years, until in 2019 Ecuador revoked his asylum and police carried him out to jail for skipping bail.
Perhaps the most difficult barrier to anyone aware of the Assange case to feel truly concerned for him, this writer included, are the persistent reports of rape allegations against him. For this, I refer to the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture’s Nils Melzer’s investigation. This found that in contrast to the reports of rape, the original complaint surrounded an accusation of sexual molestation for the alleged tearing of a condom. The DNA of neither party was found, leading the Swedish prosecutor to say “conduct disclosed by (the complainant) disclosed no crime at all”.
As if by coincidence in the aftermath of the Wikileaks tapes, The case was re-opened by a different prosecutor, reportedly after the original complainant’s statement was modified to contain more prejudicial language suggesting rape, and the mass media were informed. This narrative has since been maintained by Sweden despite no indication the complainant ever made a report of a sexual offence but had been railroaded into doing so by the Swedish police and conveyed the story to the tabloids. In the opinion of the UN Special Rapporteur, the ’rape suspect’ narrative appears to be misused to “deliberately undermine his reputation and credibility”.
Assange’s supporters decry this as a smear campaign against him designed to shift the attention away from the US actions and keep Assange under constant fear of extradition. It is certainly an uncomfortable topic, and as the Special Rapporteur notes, there is a ‘grey area’ as to whether the condom was ripped deliberately or not. What does appear clear is the convenience for this to be the focus of international press, and not the actions of violence displayed in the leaked videos by US soldiers.
There is also a curious intention on the part of the UK to feed into damaging narratives. When the extradition request was made by the UK, Assange breached the 1976 Bail Act in not turning himself in. The UN says he was convicted without time to prepare a defence and without taking into account the previous conflict of interest of another judge who insulted Assange as “narcissist, who cannot go beyond his own self-interest”. Assange has been diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome, so the judges’ comments in that light certainly appear strange.
Assange served a sentence in HMP Belmarsh of 50 weeks, almost the maximum allowed by law, something the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said was disproportionate. The UN even allege the judgement to have been pre-typed. As Melzer noted in the UK, one does not typically go to prison for a bail violation unless you commit a crime while on bail. Furthermore, HMP Belmarsh is a maximum-security prison and Assange is a journalist.
There were also the various rumours that circulated about Assange during the years he spent in asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. The UN has been damning of this saying Ecuador and the UK progressively “either acquiesced in, consented to, instigated, or even initiated or actively contributed to a sustained and unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation against Mr. Assange” Melzer concluded that this all constituted “progressively severe pain and suffering, inflicted through various forms of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, the culminative effects of which clearly amount to psychological torture.”
Melzer, after meeting Julian Assange with psychiatrists submitted a detailed, 18-page document to the UK with the allegation of psychological torture. In response to this the UK’s UN ambassador, Julian Braithwaite, submitted a mere 1 page, two paragraph response denying everything in Melzer’s report.
It was at this time that the US formally sought to extradite Assange to the US to face 17 charges that he conspired to hack US Government computers and violated espionage law, which amounted to 175 years in prison. The Obama Administration did not attempt to seek his extradition, deciding that Wikileaks was too close to journalistic activities covered by the First Amendment. The leaking of the Clinton emails in 2016 significantly angered US intelligence services. In 2019 the Trump Administration formally sought extradition, and the Biden Administration has confirmed they will continue this policy.
For the time being, Assange remains in prison. In January British judge Vanessa Baraitser concluded it would be ‘oppressive’ to extradite Assange. It was deemed too high a possibility that Assange would take his life given his frail mental health in the event he would be taken to the US. The extradition was consequently turned down, however the US is currently appealing.
Julian Assange once wrote, “Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to become passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love.” The lack of public discourse about the plight of Assange over the last ten years is therefore striking, to the point where it is easy to forget that he is not a traitor or hacker but in fact, a journalist. A journalist who, as put by author Anthony Lowenstein, “enlightened the public on the dark corners of wars”.
If his story can be of any benefit, one would hope that his plight does not deter us from shining a light on what other elephants are hiding in those dark corners.