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WikiLeaks and Julian Assange: press freedom, asylum and citizenship

When Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, faced sexual assault allegations in Sweden in 2012 he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for fear of later being extradited to the US over his role in disclosing classified material a couple of years before. WikiLeaks is probably best known for publishing a video which is available under the name Collateral Murder, showing a mass killing conducted by the US military in Iraq in 2007. The video is a good example why Assange is a controversial figure. Heralded by some for showing the atrocities committed by the US military, others have accused him of a political agenda, argued that the Collateral Murder video was partly edited, and blamed him for evading his accountability as a journalist.

A lot has happened since 2010, when WikiLeaks released thousands of classified military documents concerning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (the Guardian has provided a timeline of Assange’s situation since then). After spending more than five years in the Ecuadorian embassy, Australian-born Assange was granted Ecuadorian citizenship on 12 December 2017. It seems this was done in an attempt to give Assange diplomatic immunity, as Ecuador subsequently, and unsuccessfully, asked the UK to recognise him as a diplomatic agent. After Ecuador suspended his citizenship and revoked his diplomatic asylum, the British police arrested him shortly after on 11 April 2019. Assange had also received a new Australian passport in September 2018, after his old one had expired years before. This leaves open the possibility of Assange being extradited to Australia.

Assange had been granted asylum status under former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa but fell from grace under current president Lenín Moreno, the official reason being related (as explained by Moreno in a video address) to Assange’s personal behaviour in the embassy (as shown in some security footage here) and to his using the Ecuadorian embassy as a centre for spying. Assange was accused of still running WikiLeaks and thereby intervening in the internal affairs of other countries.

It has been noted, however, that Moreno saw Assange “as a hangover from the Correa years and an impediment to better relations with the United States”. Indeed, a $4.2 billion loan agreement that Ecuador signed last March with the International Monetary Fund was only possible with the United States’ approval, leading to speculations that Assange has been sold to Washington for an IMF loan. A US indictment of March 2018 accuses Assange of conspiring with whistle-blower Chelsea Manning with the aim of hacking a US government database and subsequently sharing the classified information obtained with WikiLeaks.

The commentaries on the Assange-case address at least two issues. First, his citizenship and asylum status, including questions relating to diplomatic protection and extradition to a country that has the death penalty. The University of Melbourne has already looked at the case from the perspective of Latin American practices regarding diplomatic asylum, and more academic commentaries are likely to follow.

Second, there is much talk of WikiLeaks in relation to freedom of speech and press freedom. This also touches on questions such as who has the authority to decide what is real and what is fake news, the close interconnectedness of governments and mainstream media, as well as controversial initiatives for a “European Agency for the Protection of Democracies”, as proposed by French president Macron, and the EU’s “OrwellianAction Plan against Disinformation. Jonathan Cook is especially outspoken in his support for Assange and strongly attacks the established media, saying that “there will be no indignation at the BBC, or the Guardian, or CNN. Just curious, impassive – even gently mocking – report of Assange’s fate”. Others, like Craig Murray and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, argue that the US is trying to make an example of Assange and that the free press is under direct attack.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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