Barring a miracle, Julian Assange will soon be extradited to the United States and face espionage charges. Forsaken by his native country Australia, stripped of citizenship by his adopted country Ecuador, Assange finds himself a persona non grata in hostile territory — Great Britain. To a motley group of die-hard supporters that includes, inter alia, a few Hollywood celebrities and left-libertarians, Assange still remains the bellwether who will lead them in escaping the Orwellian surveillance of the United States. Human rights groups, left-leaning media, left-wing academics, and fellow whistleblowers on the run remain largely sympathetic to his plight. To them, Assange is free speech personified; his extradition will sound the death knell of journalism and press freedom. Assange’s flirtations with Donald Trump and his far-right coteries didn’t yield the result he hoped for; the prospect of a presidential pardon from Donald Trump never materialised.
The extradition verdict came a few days after the Democratic Summit arranged by the United States. In his opening speech, Joe Biden championed freedom of the press. Independent media, Biden argued, is “the bedrock of democracy. It’s how the public stay informed and how governments are held accountable. And around the world, press freedom is under threat.” If Biden is serious about protecting media independence, he should start by forcing his Justice Department to abandon its duplicitous practices that have put independent journalism at great peril. The United States must consider punishing the worst violators of media freedom, including close allies like Saudi Arabia. Any selective punishment will only tarnish the country’s image of a liberal democracy.
Governments that have criminalised whistleblowing make the slippery slope argument that allowing such practice will jeopardise national security and cost innocent lives. Yet an alarming slippery slope event looms in punishing the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Neither of these two whistleblowers could have accomplished their goals without the help of the independent media. Once these whistleblowers are meted out punishment, the next logical step would be to punish their enablers: the free press. Furthermore, this would allow the perpetrators of human rights violations, those these whistleblowers have exposed, to carry on with their impunity. Whistleblowing is the democratic right of a conscientious citizen, and no one should be punished for exercising this right. It will be a travesty of justice to offer carte blanche to human rights violators while punishing those who have blown the whistle on them.
Julian Assange should be set free of all espionage charges, but he should also be held accountable. Assange still needs to account for the sexual assault allegations brought against him. His faithful followers — who have consecrated him to the status of an infallible messiah tout court — will need to take responsibility for their iniquitous smear campaign against the women who accused Assange of sexual assault. Wikileaks should be held accountable for its collaborations with authoritarian governments that have jeopardised the lives of many democracy activists and contrarians like Assange himself. Julian Assange is neither the ruthless Jacobin hell-bent on precipitating a collapse of the global order his detractors claim him to be, nor is he the messiah of truth his supporters claim he is. Painting a picture that captures an enigmatic figure like Assange in his entirety will first require us to move past these absolutist notions. Then, and only then, can we hold Assange accountable for his actions.