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It was a colleague, a good and sensible Cape Bretoner, who said of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, that while she found him repellent, “at the heart of this story is freedom of speech and forcing sunlight into dark places; those are things I work for every day.”
I suppose she is right about that, at least on some level.
The problem with Assange is that the light he shone was so mercilessly and recklessly deployed and almost always ideologically driven by his loathing of America.
As Nick Cohen wrote eight years ago in The Guardian, in a conversation with the journalists who wrote a history of WikiLeaks, Assange was asked over a meal about putting U.S. secrets online without taking the basic precaution of removing the names of Afghans, who after all were fighting against the murderous Taliban and thus had co-operated with U.S. forces or spoken to U.S. diplomats.
“Well, they’re informants,” Assange told the journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding. “So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.”
As Cohen wrote, “A silence fell on the table as the reporters realized that the man the gullible hailed as the pioneer of a new age of transparency was willing to hand death lists to psychopaths.”
The reporters managed to persuade Assange to remove the names before publishing the U.S. State Department’s Afghanistan cables, though apparently he always rued that decision.
There’s the difference I like to imagine there is between the best of us — journalists — and Assange, and why I cringe every time I see or hear him described as a journalist.
We are in my business grossly imperfect, none more than me, but very few of us I think would deliberately, knowingly place another human being at real risk of murder.
The 47-year-old Australian, who was this week dragged scruffy and protesting out of his hidey-hole in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, putting an end to his almost seven-year-long bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced questioning in a sexual assault investigation.
Assange had surrendered in December of 2010 to United Kingdom authorities on an arrest warrant issued by a Swedish prosecutor. His lawyers unsuccessfully appealed the validity of the warrant and a subsequent extradition order. Both times, he was bailed out, but failed to surrender to police as required on June 29, 2012.
In fact, five days earlier, he had presented himself to the Ecuador embassy, claiming asylum.
That decision, while undoubtedly what Assange thought best for Assange at the time, was less than optimal for his nine sureties, some of whom were of limited means. One of them, a retired professor, was required by the October 2012 decision out of Westminster Magistrates’ Court to repay only half of what she’d put up.
Assange’s appeal against his extradition to Sweden eventually went all the way to the High Court and the U.K. Supreme Court, where it failed in May of 2012.
A secondary hearing on whether it was in the public interest that Assange be extradited held at Westminster Magistrates’ Court just last year found that the arrest warrant was “certainly not against the public interest.”
As Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot wrote on Feb. 13, 2018, “The impression I have, and this may well be dispelled if and when Mr. Assange finally appears in court, is that he is a man who wants to impose his terms on the course of justice, whether the course of justice is in this jurisdiction or in Sweden.
“He appears to consider himself above the normal rules of law and wants justice only if it goes in his favour.”
Even his conduct as a guest of the Ecuadorian embassy was entirely ugly.
As a story in the Times of London this week reported, he played football and skateboarded in the halls of the small eight-room embassy, smeared feces on the walls, spent 9,000 pounds of embassy money in the first year alone on takeouts, and at least in the beginning, was visited by an endless parade of celebrities and musicians.
Oh yes, and also, allegedly, Assange hacked embassy devices to spy on their diplomatic correspondence.
“It is virtually impossible to conduct a normal diplomatic relationship when you are also functioning as a one-man boutique hotel,” one Ecuadorean diplomat told the Times.
A new Ecuadorean president, Lenin Moreno, began trying to force him out two years ago, by tightening security, searching visitors, and ordering him to take better care of his cat and its litter box.
Finally, this week Ecuador revoked his asylum and officers from Scotland Yard moved in.
Within hours, he was at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where a judge promptly found him guilty of failing to surrender to his bail.
As Judge Michael Snow said: “His assertion that he has not had a fair hearing is laughable and I’m afraid is the behaviour of a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests.”
Assange now faces a maximum one-year prison term, and must serve six months before the legal wrangling over his extradition starts up.
The U.S. Department of Justice also unsealed an indictment for his extradition on various computer crimes and conspiring with Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, to hand over hundreds of thousands of classified documents she downloaded, including the Afghanistan activity records.
Swedish authorities, meantime, are considering whether to re-open the sexual assault investigation into Assange.
Just this week, when I was writing about a young school shooter and mentioned the cousins he’d killed, I didn’t use their names. The shooter’s name was under a publication ban, but not the cousins’. But they shared a last name, so I didn’t use it.
That’s the thing about journalism: We too may seek to shine the light, but we have to be careful, and there are rules — laws that should be obeyed, conventions that good practitioners follow. We may still be hacks, but we’re better than hackers.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019