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Sunday, 8 January 2012

Assange, in free-fall, needs people to speak out

Julian Assange, tall poppy,
London, November 2011
It's been said that Julian Assange is the most famous Australian currently in the world and you'd have to be pretty isolated not to at least ask yourself if that were true. For some, Assange has been a presence for several years. I remember watching him, via a live link, at a podium in some European country in 2009 talking about what he was passionate about, and because he is Australian I paid special attention. Jumping around on stage, Assange gave off a geeky vibe. Another reason to listen. Then there was what he was talking about. Yet another reason to pay attention. Pretty soon, people started to pay a lot of attention to Assange.

Julian Assange knew he was going to attract attention. He knew that he would be a person of interest for many people. One segment of his audience cheered at first, and this was the big media franchises: the New York Times and the Guardian in the UK. Here was this solitary crusader for free speech with strong opinions about right and wrong, but instead of the usual blogger or leftie protester, Assange was delivering the goods in a way that forced the media franchises to sit up and listen. Because he wanted to maximise the impact of the information WikiLeaks possessed, Assange decided to work with the media companies. For their part, the media cos chosen to participate in the preparation of material for publication were enthusiastic. At first at least. But Assange had his own way of doing things and it seems that he didn't pay enough attention to the needs of these companies. Never get between a reporter and an exclusive!

The same self-reliance that made it difficult for WikiLeaks to work with the media companies had enabled Assange to reach the point at which he had something that they wanted a part of. But as a sole operator, Assange failed to ensure that he could rely on the media companies to support him if things got complicated, which they did when he was accused of rape in Sweden. Things got even more complex when a US Army private, Bradley Manning, was arrested for allegedly giving information to WikiLeaks. Because of this new event the US government began to put together a case against Assange in Virginia. They put Manning in solitary confinement and then they put him up before a military tribunal, hoping to extract information from him that would implicate Assange in the process of leaking the material that caused such a sensation when it was released in early 2010.

It's all a bit cinematic, in fact. Everyone has let go and Assange is in a sort of free-fall, heading toward the crushing jaws of some infernal judicial machine that aims to inflict maximum harm. It seems the only link that is keeping Assange from falling is his successful appeal, in the UK, to take his case against extradition to Sweden to the Supreme Court in London. Of course, lots of people are baracking for Julian Assange, some of them people with a high profile. But the Australian government has failed to take up the suggestion that it approach the US government on Assange's behalf. One Greens senator has talked with the Swedish authorities. But the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, and the foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, remain silent. Gillard's contribution, when the merde hit the fan, was that Assange's activities were "illegal". The Australian federal police looked into it and said that, no, they were not. But the pollies here stay mum.

It's hard not to pass some of the blame onto the media. Assange was cool and they were happy to work with him when he had something they wanted for themselves. But he pissed them off and now they also remain largely silent as Assange dangles helplessly in space desperately holding onto that last link to the normal world. The media companies have placed their pride in the balance with the truth and found that their self-esteem is more important than are the principles that animated Julian Assange in the first place. Thanks for the footage and the lists and the stories but, sorry matey, you're on your own now. Their embarrassment, like the embarrassment the US government felt when the information WikiLeaks possessed became public, is of greater moment than are the values they - and the United States - routinely use to justify their actions: truth, justice, transparency, accountability.

Assange is being consumed by the organisations he has come into contact with, not the least of these being the global public. He is being martyred for his ideals, and while many people experience feelings of horror as he dangles in space, even more do nothing. As the days tick off on the calendar the silence in official quarters sounds more and more ominous to our ears. If they will do nothing and say nothing, it is up to us to at least say something so that people in positions of influence at least take a few moments to think about what they are doing. So that, if Assange does go to court in Sweden, they can hear us complain. And if Assange does go to court in the US, they can also hear us complain.

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