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Assange and the Ongoing Attack on Freedom of Speech

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Roar writer Emma Harrison on the resurgence of Julian Assange and the threat to freedom of speech.

There is a real threat to expression and freedom of speech, especially in journalism, and I wasn’t aware of it until last week. I became cognisant of this issue when a group of protestors passed me a leaflet that said “Free Julian Assange.” I wondered why I had never heard of his case and why it was so evidently important to the group of people who had spent their Tuesday afternoons campaigning to make it more heard, even just a little bit. The answer to both of these questions became very clear when I began to read about them.

Although this case broke out in 2006 and was heavily covered in the media previously, it was largely unknown to me due to a shocking lack of current media coverage, perhaps showing not only a lack of concern with freedom of speech but also perhaps a discouragement from it. If it is not covered, then maybe it will not inspire others. Its importance is a twofold injustice, to Assange but also to the general public who are only granted freedom of speech when it doesn’t interfere with the government.

Julian Assange is a flawed man: although never prosecuted, he was accused of rape by two women and he was removed from the Ecuadorian embassy due to being a bad guest with bad hygiene and described as “discourteous and aggressive.”  In spite of being very much unpalatable to some, myself included, his fight for freedom of speech, justice and truth is very much respectable.

Assange is an Australian editor, publisher and activist who founded WikiLeaks in 2006, a webpage that publishes government leaks, the most well-known being the leaks of the US army intelligence. This included the Afghan and Iraq war logs and field reports, “Cablegate” which is a message exchanged between a diplomatic mission and actually the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain.

The most shocking leak of all was the Baghdad airstrike collateral murder video which showed US soldiers in a helicopter shooting 18 Iraqi civilians. Assange stated in previous interviews that his hope for the leaks, especially the war logs, was that it would “correct some of the attacks on the truth that occurred before the war, during the war and which has continued after the war,” evidently condemning deception and expressing the value of truth to him. The publications of these documents into the public inevitably had huge, inescapable consequences for Assange as he became targeted by the US for the following 10 years, and even into the present.

The US launched an investigation into Wikileaks in response to the confidential military documents being leaked and began to attempt to extradite Julian Assange. He took refuge in the embassy of Ecuador in London,  in a small office that was converted into a bedroom, to avoid this. They granted him asylum due to political persecution but after a seven-year stay, he was forced to leave the comfort of the embassy for a laundry list of reasons, including Ecuador wanting better relations with countries such as Spain.

He was soon taken into custody by the metropolitan police for violating bail conditions and taken to Belmarsh prison in April 2019. The United States attempt to extradite him was dismissed due to Assange’s safety as his mental state was considered fragile but he remains in Belmarsh indefinitely until their appeal is over.

Assange has been facing harsh consequences due to his activism for freedom of speech for years, to the point of being put in the UK’s toughest prison with the highest amount of violence and the most notorious prisoners, including Huntley, a caretaker who murdered two 10-year-old children.

The inequity and hypocrisy, in this case, runs deep as the US has been chasing Assange for nearly ten years and desperately trying to convict him for an act of freedom of speech when they consider themselves to be the country of freedom and independence.

Although the United States’ attempt to extradite Assange was dismissed, it was on the basis of his mental health rather than the principle of his actions being within his right and hardly punishable. This highlights how freedom of speech and expression is a  threat, as it is something that can be considered a crime by the government and even punishable by an indefinite sentence at the toughest prison in the UK.

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