Julian Assange: martyr or crim?

The release of Julian Assange from a British jail puts an end to a running sore in relations between the United States and Australia. But it is also a call to re-examine his status as a martyr for journalistic integrity.

On Thursday Assange landed in Australia with a brief stopover in Saipan, the capital of a US territory in the Pacific, where he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information. The judge sentenced him to time already served in a British prison and he walked free.

Thus ended his years-long battle to evade facing a US court on charges of espionage, a crime which could have been punished with as much as 170 years in jail. 

This saga began so long ago that most people have forgotten why it mushroomed into one of the biggest-ever controversies about freedom of the press.

Assange is a complex and polarising man. Some loathe him and what he stands for; others regard him as a visionary and a hero. His public life began as a 25-year-old in 1996, when he was convicted of hacking in Australia. Ten years later, he founded WikiLeaks, a website which collected and published leaked and confidential documents.

He was wildly successful.

In 2010, Assange published a series of leaks from US Army intelligence analyst Bradley (Chelsea, after a sex change) Manning of footage of a US airstrike in Baghdad, military logs from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and diplomatic cables. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in a maximum security prison (but later pardoned by Barack Obama) and the US launched a criminal investigation. According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, it was “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of our country.”

During the 2016 US election campaign, Wikileaks released hacked emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.

Those were just two of the most controversial leaks. They had dramatic consequences. Some American agents in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been exposed and possibly murdered. The Democrats were embarrassed and Hillary Clinton’s campaign may have been weakened. It was alleged that the US election leaks were engineered by Russians to favour Donald Trump. Assange has denied that he was effectively a Russian stooge.

In 2010 Assange was accused of sexual assault in Sweden. Fearful of being extradited from Sweden to the US, he jumped bail and fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012. There he stayed, an increasingly disagreeable houseguest, until he was booted out in 2019. The British police immediately locked him up in Belmarsh Prison and there he stayed, fighting extradition to the US. This week the long farce ended.

Is Assange a journalist?

This is a question on which the extremes agree.

An article on the website of the world Trotskyist movement contends: “Julian Assange is one of, if not the most significant journalist of the 21st century.” And Chloe Rafferty, of Socialist Alternative, Australia’s largest Marxist revolutionary group, says that: “His crime is journalism. Assange and Wikileaks did more to expose the lies and war crimes of the US and its allies during the War on Terror than all of the rest of the media combined.”

On the Right, John Daniel Davidson writes in The Federalist that “From the earliest days of Wikileaks, Assange’s goal was to publish information that was beyond the control of states, specifically the U.S. government. Today, most major news organizations publish only what is acceptable and approved by the government. Put simply, what Assange did is no different than what The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and many other corporate media outlets do every day: they publish and report on classified material that was stolen or obtained illegally by sources.”

But is that all that real journalists do?

Assange’s philosophy is that from ancient times to now, secrecy has been the foundation of power. One way to break the power of corrupt regimes is to reveal their communications. And since he regarded the US “empire” with particular loathing, he felt no compunction in releasing classified information.



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But not just the secrets of the evil empire, but of other institutions. Scientologists, for instance, found that some of their secret documents had been published on the internet. When they objected, Wikileaks released several thousand more pages. “If the West cannot defend its cultural values of free speech and press freedoms against a criminal cult like Scientology, it can hardly lecture China and other state abusers of these same values,” Wikileaks declared.

Assange’s philosophy was simple: because secrecy is power, secrecy is bad. Complete transparency will bring harmony and justice.

As American journalist Tish Durkin put it: “everything about every secret meeting held from Peshawar to Pyongyang, these problems that these evil capitalist imperialist lackeys insist upon portraying as complicated and dangerous would disappear in a magic bolt of general enlightenment."

But if Scientologists have no right to privacy because they have been found guilty in an unaccountable WikiLeaks Star Chamber, how about the rest of us? What about our medical records, our tax returns, our college records?

Who decides who gets hacked and who will not be hacked? “Hey, Julian, … why should every controversial operation on earth be subjected to the most searing scrutiny imaginable — except yours?” asks Durkin.

Calling Assange a journalist is like calling the Sinaloa Cartel a police force. Sure, some of the bad guys will get their come-uppance, but the rest of the population cowers in fear of extortion or death.

Real journalism requires more than dumping unfiltered information on the internet. Assange’s strategy, apart from causing unforeseen collateral damage and violating institutions’ right to privacy, participates in one of the dehumanising features of today’s culture: thinking that the mere application of technology will solve human problems.

It's like making drones completely autonomous on the battlefront where they can kill soldiers and civilians alike without human intervention.

This is scary – but it did not seem to bother Assange. In one chilling conversation with a journalist from The New Yorker, he was asked if he had any qualms about releasing the Social Security numbers of American soldiers in one of his leaks. “He said that some leaks risked harming innocent people—'collateral damage, if you will’—but that he could not weigh the importance of every detail in every document.”

But weighing the importance of every detail is precisely what real journalists do. They assess the credibility of the data; they put events into context; they detect patterns; they ask questions – all before presenting their story to their readers.

Assange has called his endeavour “scientific journalism” – like an article in a science journal, it publishes all the data so that readers can verify its conclusions. But this is a deeply misleading analogy. Where is the craft of authorship? Where is the peer review? Where is the ethics review? The data does not explain itself. Meaning only emerges when a human being studies it.

Assange dreamed of blowing up “authoritarian conspiracies” by exposing their secrets. But in the end, it was going to be WikiLeaks’ Hacker Extraordinaire who would decide who would be exposed. It’s hard to imagine a more authoritarian system.

The News of the World, one of Britain’s best-selling tabloids, was shuttered in 2011 after a phone hacking scandal. Now Wikileaks has been effectively shut down over its hacks. Both of them were sordid and unethical. But I know which I miss more. 

What do you think? Is Julian Assange a grubby grandstander or a heroic journalist?  

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator

Image credit:  flickr / Espen Moe


Showing 11 reactions

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  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-07-01 15:54:07 +1000
    Dear Michael,
    I have just read the article behind your link to the Columbia Journalism Review, which explains the threats of the outcome of the Assange case to the freedom of the press. Everybody should read it.

    As already laid out I agree with the CRJ that the US government has successfully destroyed an important building block of the freedom of the press. Today, the US is clearly a less free country.

    Before this background I would like to recommend that everybody thinks twice about the question why it took the UK 5 – in words: five – years to decide if Assange could or should be taken out of Belmarsh and handed over to US authorities.

    In spite of the actions of Assange’s lawyers, this shows to me that the US and the UK did not want Mr Assange appear in a US court. Why? Because they were well aware that the US would loose in that court!

    Also note that the strange act on the Marianas island (the Marianas ???!!!) was NOT a trial, but only a confirmation of an administrative decision.

    Now, the US government can simply classify all documents that could be used as proof for their crimes and threaten to put journalists into Guantanamo bay prison (do you not wonder why this concentration camp still exists?) if they dared to publish something classified.

    The really sad conclusion is that the freedom of the press to report about the really serious matters is gone in the US. And due to their supportive role, also in the UK.

    If the lazy US citizens do not finally wake up, they will loose more freedoms.

    Do not be surprised that when you finally wake up, you will have lost your freedom to worship God in public, to read the religious and philosophical literature of your choice (while porn will remain available to everybody including your children) or to say what you do NOT like.

    So, sleep well, dream about the next sport event shown on TV, digest your hamburgers and french fries and do not forget to take Ozempic. And dare not to ask the questions that really matter, the questions that would undermine the powers of your overlords here on earth.
  • Martin VIanney
    Journalists gather and publish information, often working in concert with other journalists. National security journalists do (or should) accept and publish leaks. Assange did all that (and yes, he did redact – but David Leigh, a Guardian journalist, let him in for trouble by publishing a code). He paid a terrible price for his work which cannot but have a chilling effect even for the braver journalists.
    Unfortunately the mainstream media is increasingly unwilling to challenge official versions of events. They either naively accept, or cynically collude in, the narratives of those (security state operatives) who lie and deceive us for a living. To get the facts, far better to go to smaller outfits such as declassifieduk which do old-fashioned investigative journalism rather than cosying up to the State.
    If you are going to write about Assange it might be useful to read some books about his case – Nils Melzer, Stefani Maurizi and Kevin Gosztola have examined that case and its relation to journalism. A useful short article on the case can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2023/may/04/julian-assange-us-justice-department-wikileaks
    A modicum of research before putting pen to paper on a grave matter should, I would have though, be part of good journalism. You might, with time, discover that what Assange did and stood for is a little more elevating than the gutter journalism and soft pornography of your preferred News of the World.
  • Michael Cook
    commented 2024-06-30 12:17:18 +1000
    As I wrote, Assange is a polarising figure. This link from Columbia Journalism Review gives an idea of the many view of his activities:

    I note that The Times of London was even less generous than I in its assessment:

    “The Times newspaper in the UK wrote that Assange was ‘not a genuine whistleblower, let alone a test case for journalistic freedom, but a thief,’ and Doug Saunders wrote in Canada’s Globe and Mail that Assange was ‘a fraud who called himself a journalist and whistleblower while greatly hindering journalism and making life harder for actual whistleblowers,’ and was a ‘tool of dictators’ because of the way that some WikiLeaks disclosures (such as Hillary Clinton’s email logs) benefited the Russian government.”

    The main point I wanted to discuss was whether Assange is a journalist, not whether his hacking had good outcomes. I still am not persuaded that he is the real deal.
  • Hosen Kiat
    commented 2024-06-29 15:00:56 +1000
    I admit that when reading most articles in Mercator I don’t know too much about the topic before reading. However, having followed some of Assange’s story for some years I was a little disappointed in the lack of balance of this article, particularly as the title implies that it is asking a question (“Martyr or Crim?”). The potential negative consequences of what Assange did are highlighted and expressed in detail, while the (attempted or real) positive achievements of Wikileaks are brushed off with generalisations and smeared with derision or criticism before they are stated.

    Perhaps the author could also consider placing some more effort in to practicing “real journalism” themselves.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-06-29 03:05:05 +1000
    Tom, the US pursued Assange to teach a lesson to all journalists: keep quite about the crimes of the US government!

    The constitutional protection of the press to uncover government crimes is gone!

    Every journalist now understands, that what they did to Assange, they can do to you.

    The US has become less free.
  • Tom Mullaly
    commented 2024-06-29 00:20:42 +1000
    A certain ‘defensive’ tone to this article. A bit strange, frankly. Scientology has been the object of considerably more scrutiny that simply ‘the star chamber of Wikileaks’ and the peak behind the curtain has proved far from pleasant. “By their fruits …” etc. Is the right to privacy by private citizens really the same as ‘secrecy’ of non-individual bodies, like states, with vast wealth and power behind them? I think not. Then why try and draw an irrelevant parallel?

    I chuckled a bit when I read:
    ‘But weighing the importance of every detail is precisely what real journalists do. They assess the credibility of the data; they put events into context; they detect patterns; they ask questions – all before presenting their story to their readers.’ Is that so?

    ‘Assange is a complex and polarising man. Some loathe him and what he stands for; others regard him as a visionary and a hero.’

    The author of this OP clearly belongs to the former. What if he’s both saint and sinner?

    The one thing we can say with almost total certainty is that he must be/have been in possession of some seriously damaging ‘secrets’ for the US to have pursued him relentlessly for 25 years, in the way they did. And yet, this minor detail is nowhere mentioned in this OP. As I say, strange.
  • Kathy Ungar
    commented 2024-06-28 23:56:52 +1000
    This post is sadly very inaccurate – very disappointing for a Mercator editorial.

    The US could not point to ANY loss of life caused by Wikileaks and has admitted that in court both in the Assange and Manning cases. Assange was actually quite good at redacting and collaborated with many mainstream journalists around the world on checking and making sense of stories. However, a Guardian journalist published a password in a book, allowing another organisation to access and publish online unredacted documents. Wikileaks warned the US government, then decided it was safest to publish in full themselves.

    On the Swedish sexual assault allegations (charges were never laid, and the preliminary investigation was repeatedly dropped/raised again/kept simmering for years) see this article https://medium.com/@njmelzer/response-to-open-letter-of-1-july-2019-7222083dafc8. The author is the the former UN special rapporteur on torture, who took up Assange’s case after some initial scepticism and has written a in-depth book on the subject. https://www.amazon.com/Trial-Julian-Assange-Story-Persecution/dp/1839766220/ref=sr_1_1?crid=85Z2VW1KDSGB&dib=eyJ2IjoiMSJ9.brc-WDIYHj7Til2GYEzbi254J4fGJLDoWjMPtVhgsZnt4QpAoiKYcM37ZFseCJ1BIq2a-9xKOtyYFCDXlYjgHfoXMkJJUEBAiMir4A4q7misIC2QBdmjPjWpR7RcnjkVBvBqI2rtUXG_Dj6Tl1oEy2UPLAzqBwqXNpe1H9hxNpUAehHd_4VSQB4R57TVWUfpuOAkUAN_V6AvWFdB71DcbSkUtDI5S5fLxAQFE8cJeyE.XaFMNcVlNlUOe8Rz065Zp951AG7FSUJLIP3hE9_NaAM&dib_tag=se&keywords=The+Trial+of+Julian+Assange&qid=1719582123&sprefix=the+trial+of+julian+assange+%2Caps%2C255&sr=8-1
    We need to know about government war crimes, torture etc etc. Telling us is the job of journalists/publishers who instead all too often recycle national security propaganda, including deliberate smears. There is a very strong public interest in knowing these things and journalists, publishers and whistleblowers should be protected.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-06-28 15:25:53 +1000
    In 1971 the US government lost in the supreme court against the New York Times. The Times had published documents that had been stolen by a government contractor, Mr Ellisberg. The documents described the history of the Vietnam war, including the fake gulf of Tonkin incident. For this reason probably, the documents had been classified. The US had staged that Tonkin incident (btw Nazi Germany did something similar before attacking Poland).

    I assume that the supreme court reasoned that the freedom of the press to report the truth / uncover lies trumps the government’s secrecy classifications.

    The story can be found using the search term Pentagon Papers.

    Before publishing the documents stolen by Manning WikiLeaks redacted them trying to eliminate info that could be used to uncover agents. Of course, perhaps they missed a few things.

    So, under normal circumstances, Assange would have won in a US court.

    Assange is therefore NOT guilty, I would say with a probability of 95%.

    And that is probably the real reason why Assange was kept in the UK prison so long. The US and the UK did not allow him to go to court without previously declaring himself guilty.

    Please check out Judge Napolitano’s assessment, he has been a supreme court judge in the past.
  • Janet Grevillea
    If Assange is wrong for publishing, then warmongers whose secrets were published are even more wrong. There is too much that is hidden from us, including the war plans that the military-industrial complex agents draw up years ahead.
    I see Assange as a journalist, and I understand that some US newspapers published material from wikileaks, but they have never been accused of any wrong-doing.
    Did anyone else hear the Religion and Ethics broadcast this week, summary: “Nicholas Mercer was a top UK military lawyer during the 2003 Iraq War. He’s raised serious questions about the possible involvement of Australian troops in the mistreatment and disappearance of prisoners of war.” ”https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/religionandethicsreport/serious-questions-raised-over-australian-troops-during-iraq-war/103902832" rel="nofollow">https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/religionandethicsreport/serious-questions-raised-over-australian-troops-during-iraq-war/103902832
  • mrscracker
    “Julian Assange: martyr or crim?”
    Perhaps some of both? Espionage & what constitutes treason may differ in the eye of the beholder but if there were deaths caused by the leaks, even unintentionally, that’s something serious to consider.
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2024-06-27 23:08:12 +1000