The cost of free speech

I don’t know that I’ve written much about Julian Assange over the years, but he’s always been someone I’ve taken a keen interest in. He’s a divisive figure, particularly so after the 2016 US presidential elections. Many blame him for Hillary Clinton losing.

If you discount the disengaged and uninformed – always the biggest part of any society – then people fall into one of two opposing camps when it comes to Assange, and Wikileaks in general. You either support the purpose of Wikileaks, to expose what is hidden and make news democratic; or you see it as the crime that governments purport it to be and a dangerous tool in the wrong hands.

I’ve always been of the former view. I haven’t always been comfortable with the methods, or the consequences, but Wikileaks has done much more good than ill. As a natural democrat, I want our governments to be held to account. Shining a light on shady dealings and shonky practices is never wrong. And when those practices are often corrupt or illicit or plain old anti-democratic then we as a people are entitled to know. When it comes to information I’m a socialist: we’re all entitled to a share of it.

Wikileaks was revolutionary. They exploded onto the scene, and their revelations had a profound impact on international discourse. The scale of information previously hidden was a shock to almost everyone.

Since then they have been under attack by international governments, particularly the US, been constrained by the combined efforts of financial corporations, and been subject to prosecution whenever the US got their hands on them. Chelsea Manning was imprisoned. Another whistleblower, Edward Snowden, fled, and now lives in exile. Assange himself until recently had taken refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, until he was kicked out after seven years. He’s now ill and in an English prison, battling extradition to Sweden on dubious rape charges, and ultimately to the US to face charges of espionage. That would be the end of him.

I’m profoundly disappointed by the general reaction to all this. As an Australian citizen, he should expect support from the Australian government, but that has been sadly lacking. It is as I expected, unfortunately – everyone knows the government is in the pocket of the Yanks. It’s just plain wrong.

Assange lost a lot of support after Hillary was beaten. In my mind, much of that is irrational. He’s accused of being in cahoots with the Russian attempts to subvert the election. Personally, I would understand if he was bitter towards Clinton given some of her rhetoric regarding him, but I hardly think he’s a Trump supporter. What he released might have been controversial, but none of it was untrue. In general, Wikileaks has acted without fear or favour, but the dump of information regarding Hillary’s emails lost him a lot of support.

This has also seemed to me an emotional reaction. As a darling once of the left, he broke their hearts by being seen as turning on one of their own. It was wasn’t meant to work that way. As long as he was attacking the establishment and the right-wing governments around the world, he was a hero; as soon as he turned on someone on the left of the equation, he became the villain. So he has remained, but the truth knows no allegiance.

Who knows what happens to him now, but he’s in a dark spot, and the actual purpose of Wikileaks has been lost in the prosecution of Assange.

I’m more sympathetic to him than most. It may be that he comes from my home town, and very much a product of it. There was curiosity value a few years back also when a friend looking at my dating profile on OkCupid found that Assange was highlighted as someone similar to me. There’s no doubt he’s a maverick. He’s complex and challenging and strong-willed. It may be he’s hard to like, though there are many devoted to him. I admire his independence and determination and resolution in seeking out the truth. He’s clearly highly intelligent, but also uncompromising and blunt, which does him no favours. I don’t know that he can be easily summarised, but that’s in his favour. End of the day whether he is likeable or not is immaterial, though it is something he will always be judged on.

He is a great figure of our times. What he has done has not all been good, but overwhelmingly has been. We should be thanking him for the truth he brought to bear. Instead, he is forgotten or dismissed. Odds on he’ll ultimately be extradited to the US where he’ll face trumped-up laws that basically infringe on free speech and the profession of journalism, and every chance he will be undefended by those who owe him a debt.

Ironic it would be that he is prosecuted by the type of tyranny he sought to expose to the world.

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