Archive for wikileaks

Innocent or guilty, if Assange’s rights aren’t upheld then neither are ours

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2012 by Jonathan Kent

I’ve been having heated exchanges with a number of Greens on Twitter about the Assange case.

Seeing people whose politics I identify with tweet “he’s a rapist” or “he’s guilty” frankly makes my blood run cold.  I like to think myself a member of a liberal political movement committed to due process, the rule of law and human rights not a lynchmob.

Clearly it’s better politics to button one’s lip and say nothing but it’s hardly principled to do so.  What might be more useful is a calm overview of what is happening in this case.

At stake are the human rights of three people: Julian Assange and his two accusers.  His accusers have the right to see their complaints of rape and sexual assault properly investigated, and if prosecutors decide there’s a case to be answered Assange should stand trial.

Meanwhile Assange has the right to a fair trial.  He also has the right not to put himself in jeopardy of rendition to the United States where he might face a military tribunal and the possibility of the death sentence by leaving the UK where his activities with Wikileaks have not been judged criminal.

Separating these two cases is hard because the British and Swedish governments make it very hard.  According to the Ecuadorian government which, though it has its own human rights issues, has now offered Assange political asylum, the Swedes have refused to give assurances that they won’t allow him to be extradited or rendered to the United States and the Swedes haven’t contradicted that claim.

Thus we face a damnable Gordion Knot of competing interests.  So let’s start at the beginning and remind ourselves how we got thus far.

Warrants for Assange’s arrest were initially issued late on Friday August 20th 2010 on one charge of rape and another of molestation.  The following day those warrants were cancelled.  Eva Finne, a Swedish Chief Prosecutor said: “I don’t think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape.”

In the days that followed the women’s case was taken up by Claes Borgstrom a lawyer and some time spokesperson for Sweden’s Social Democratic Party on gender equality.   Borgstrom is a committed campaigner, however his involvement in the case inevitably brought charges that it was becoming politicised.

The fact that police subsequently questioned Assange for an hour in Stockholm on Monday 30th August 2010, when he denied the charges, and also that two days later Sweden’s DPP Marianne Ny decided to resume the investigation, only gave those alleging a political motive more ammunition.

Assange left Sweden in late September after an application for a work permit had been refused and, it would appear, after avoiding attempts by Ny to interview him.  There is a reasonable question to be asked why, when police were initially so quick to question Assange, Ny took her time about doing so.  He’d been in the UK for several weeks when on November 18th Ny eventually went to court to secure an arrest warrant for him.

Meanwhile the hacking community came out heavily for Assange.  He was well known on the hacking circuit and many of those who hacked websites, avowedly in his cause, saw the entire episode as an attack on Assange’s work with Wikileaks – which gave the hacker motto ‘information wants to be free’ into its most dynamic and visceral incarnation ever.

Wikileaks had already upped the ante in its FOI campaigning in April 2010 by releasing video of a US helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed a number of civilians including a Reuters crew. Then it distributed hundreds of US diplomatic cables – the first major tranche (of 220) being put out on November 28th with thousands more following over the next year.

Quite disgracefully hackers and supporters outed Assange’s two alleged victims and they were subsequently vilified in social media.   Even Assange’s London defence team, assembled to fight Sweden’s attempts to extradite him, were careful not to demean his accusers.  One of the most neutral accounts of the key proceedings reviewing the evidence is provided by The Guardian.  Close examination of proceedings reveals that Assange counsel was not accepting the alleged victims accusations but was rather, as would be quite normal, taking them at face value for the purpose of testing whether his  alleged actions amounted to a crime under English law which counsel argued they would not.  His critics have chosen to read or have apparently miseread his defence counsel’s remarks as an admission of guilt.  What doesn’t seem to be in dispute is that there were sexual relations but the issue of consent is.  His defence team have not conceded that he committed a sex crime.

That is for a court to decide.  At present no charges have been filed in Sweden.  Assange is wanted for questioning.  He has repeatedly offered to be questioned in London and that offer has, apparently, been refused.  Instead he exhausted his appeals against extradition and was due for deportation when he sought asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy.  Now we have arrived at a juncture where the UK government is apparently hinting it will enter the embassy to seize Assange.

So, what to make of this mess.

Firstly it is impossible to dissociate Assange the FOI activist from Assange the accused.  He has seriously angered some extremely powerful interests, notably the United States government.

The US has been expanding its jurisdiction for several years.  The Gary McKinnon and Richard O’Dwyer cases are examples of UK citizens pursued for the US though they committed no crime in the UK and never set foot on US soil.  The situation has escalated into a major issue in the UK because of the perceived (disputed) difference in the weight of evidence each country needs to produce to secure extradition, with critics saying the bar is set far too low for extradition to the United States.

Likewise European arrest warrants are under scrutiny because British citizens can be extradited and held on remand without charges being levelled and on evidence that wouldn’t bear scrutiny in an English or a Scottish court.

So we face a situation where Assange believes that if sent to Sweden he will be delivered into the hands of the United States and face prosecution, possibly for treason (there is an irony if that is the case since one can only commit treason against one’s own state).

There’s precious little evidence to persuade Assange’s supporters that this isn’t a stitch up.

Put aside the claims of his defence team that his alleged actions wouldn’t be a crime if they had taken place in the UK.  That may be so, but plenty would then ask if they shouldn’t be.

Put aside the fact that he hasn’t been charged in Sweden.

Rather ask yourself this: why, when Britain’s own record on sexual violence against women is so shamefully bad, is the UK government apparently talking about violating the sovereign territory of Ecuador’s embassy in London in contravention of the 1961 Vienna Convention.

Its efforts in the cause of two Swedish women, whose allegations are yet to result in charges, are out of all proportion to the efforts it makes on behalf of thousands of British women who face sexual violence every year.

Still we ask for better street lighting, for more rape suites, for better training for police officers handling allegations of sexual violence and better public education.

And look at the statistics: in 2006/7, 800 people were convicted of rape despite one in 200 women reportedly being raped in that year – a conviction rate of around 1%.  Would the UK government go to so much trouble in any comparable case?  Has it ever prosecuted any foreign diplomat accused of rape in the UK without the explicit permission of that envoy’s government?

None of this means that Assange should be let of the hook.  Whatever he may have achieved in the cause of freedom of information does not absolve him of any crime he may have committed against his accusers.  He should face charges as and when they’re brought.  Every facility should be offered to the Swedes to question him so that a decision on charges can be made.  However he and his supporters fear that Swedish law and the stance of its conservative government would facilitate his speedy extradition to the US where former Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has already called for his assasination and where several prominent members of congress, including heads of key relevant committees, have demanded he face charges of espionage that carry a potential death penalty.

Rather the British government should seek assurances from Stockholm that nothing will happen that is not in accord with European Human Rights law and that Assange will not be extradited to face an unfair trial or possible execution.  No such arrangement has been sought or offered and I suspect it won’t be.  One must ask why an unprecedented ‘threat’ was levelled at the Ecuadoreans when if the real aim is to ensure Assange faces a proper trial in Sweden there are better ways to address what many see as Assange’s attempts to evade justice.

The whole episode leaves his two female accusers bruised and abused not only allegedly by Assange but also by some of Assange’s supporters and by the legal systems and governments of several countries.  They deserve justice and we should support genuine efforts to see they get it.

However we should not be prepare to see their plight hijacked by those who would surrender our hard won rights to a government in Washington that preaches one thing at home and pursues an entirely hypocritical line when it suits it abroad.

There’s another victim in all this – the cause of liberty.  We’re slowly but surely losing any moral standing we have to take despots around the world to task.  Every failing on our parts is used to justify abuses many times worse elsewhere.  Our real power comes from our principles.  Shame on those who sell them so cheap.

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Emperor Assange’s New Clothes

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on July 27, 2011 by Jonathan Kent

Julian Assange, you are so busted.

Writer Becky Hogge today published an interview with the campaigner from 2009.  The publication coincides with the appearance of her book, Barefoot into Cyberspace, a personal account of her adventures in the realms of cyberactivism.  It’s a good read.

Assange, for all the serious credebility he’s gained for his freedom of information campaigning, is rather less of an authority when it comes to journalism.  Here’s an extract from Becky’s interview (my square brackets):

[JA] I know a guy in Malaysia, Raja Petra, who has four arrest warrants out for him for publishing Malaysia Today from in hiding. Do you see any journalists doing that in the UK? No, of course not. Why aren’t there more journalists in the West being killed?

Interviewer [BH]: Because there aren’t so many journalists in the West breaking rules.

Respondent [JA]: Well, I mean, journalism is a serious job. It has a serious policing function. Why aren’t there journalists being killed? There’s policemen being killed. It’s a serious job, it has a serious policing function, and police are expected to engage in dangerous situations as part of doing their job. Why aren’t journalists doing their job?

I’ve known Petra on and off for eight or nine years.  Malaysia Today is, essentially, his personal blog.  He’s a political activist, a campaigner and a polemicist.  He started out editing the opposition Keadilan party’s newsletter.  It was, like all such things in Malaysia, highly partisan.  His heart is largely in the right place.  I like him and consider him a friend albeit not a close one.  But a journalist, in any meaningful sense of the word, he most certainly is not.

He is the citizen of a country where corruption is rife, where the political process is stunted by gerrymandering, the absence of political rights, through the absolute government control of broadcast media and ownership of print media.  It’s a country where there’s only limited freedom of expression, where human rights abuses are common.  I should know.  I spent damned nearly five and a half years reporting from there.

But I also know that Petra was quite happy to report as fact things of which he had no proof .  On at least one occasion I remember finding articles in Malaysia Today that were demonstrably false and when I brought it up with Petra he conceeded as much.

Assange’s assumption is that Petra had to flee Malaysia because he was a valiant reporter doing what journalists should.  I suspect that had Petra proof of many of the allegations he made, publishable proof that would stand up to scrutiny, he’d have had an easier ride.  Petra has made enemies in the government because he is a vociferous opponent, has a large following and repeats such rumour as comes his way, willy nilly, not because he is a fearless champion of the Fourth Estate.

The tragedy for Malaysians is that in the absence of a free and independent press they have almost nowhere to turn for reliable news (with the honourable exception of websites Malaysiakini and more lately, apparently,  The Malaysian Insider).  The government press can tear Petra to shreds over an inaccurate article and swathes of readers will still believe Petra.  He is able to flourish precisely because good journalism in Malaysia is in such short supply.  His contribution is to make the government pay for its contempt for the free media by giving as good as Malaysians get.

However that does not make Petra a journalist.  It also signals that Julian Assange doesn’t understand what journalism is either.  If he thinks Petra is a benchmark against whom I should judge myself as a journalist then I’d politely suggest he takes his benchmark and uploads it to his back server.

Journalism is about gathering information, sifting it, checking it and releasing it.  Good journalism keeps opinion and reporting separate.  It reports without an agenda and without fear or favour.  It also does its damndest to ensure that its reporting does no harm.

Many, including myself, see journalism as a check and balance on power and believe that it has a duty to ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’ (to misquote Finlay Peter Dunne) but we also have a duty to the truth as best we can discern it.

So when Assange dumps a heap of documents in the public domain without checking that they will do no harm, when he dismisses the possible danger it might put some of those mentioned in as collateral damage, he’s made clear where he stands.

He is a hacktivist.  He believes, in the great hacker tradition, that ‘information wants to be free’.  There’s no shame in his position and he’s achieved much good.  I hope he hasn’t done much harm.

But he’s no journalist and his choice of Petra as a journalistic icon to hold up for real journalists to measure themselves against is a joke and the very fact that he can gob off without checking his facts only underscores the fact that he really has no useful understanding of what good journalism should be.

Addendum

There are a few more points I think it’s worth making.

Firstly, in case the above could be misconstrued, blogging can absolutely have value and some writing that touts itself as journalism is barely worth the name, if at all.  Journalistic pronciples, such as separating opinion from reporting, checking facts, offering a right of reply etc etc can all be adopted by bloggers at where they are guided by those their writing could most certainly be considered journalism.

Secondly I’d really dispute the notion that journalists in the West aren’t getting killed because they’re not doing their jobs.  Journalists get killed in countries where there is a reasonable return on the risk of killing a journalist; ie the benefit of silencing them outweighs the risk of killing them, so in  countries where law enforcement is poor and the killers have political connections (or are political players who can exercise control over law enforcement) the downside is far lower than in countries where the police would prosecute those who killed journalists.

So let’s look at the countries where most journalists are killed (figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists)

  1. Iraq: 150
  2. Philippines: 71
  3. Algeria: 60
  4. Russia: 52
  5. Colombia: 43
  6. Pakistan: 39
  7. Somalia: 34

I’d have to take issue with anyone who argues that journalists in those countries are simply doing their jobs better.  Those countries are either violent, there is a culture of political killing, the rule of law has broken down or a combination of the three.

Frankly if Julian Assange’s assertion were true Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would have long ago been walking along the bed of the Potomac in concrete boots.  No, there are far better ways of silencing journalists in the West; for instance rubbishing their reputations or getting them sacked.

Let me take an example, at random, of a freedom of information activist who has strayed into territory hitherto dominated by journalists; Mr Julian Assange.  Mr Assange has been working overtime to piss off governments the world over.  He is still alive.  He has however been accused of rape and the casehas been pursued ‘doggedly’ by a Swedish prosecutor cum politician.  Pressure has been brought to bear on companies like PayPal not to handle donations to his outfit Wikileaks.

So would having Assange shot advance the cause of the US government?  I doubt it.  Rather it would act to recruit thousands upon thousands more to the Wkileaks cause.  This way the money supply is slowly strangled and Assange discredited as a sexual predator – and mud sticks, so regardless of whether he is innocent or not he’ll remain smeared.

Governments can also bring financial pressure to bear on publications and broadcasters.  A senior editor on a major international news magazine and I were talking about Singapore, a country I have reported on.  He made it clear that the Singaporean government chooses to exercise control through advertising spending.  That can be Singapore Tourism, Singapore Airlines r any of the other entities controlled by the government.

In a world where newspaper and magazine sales are dropping, threatening to pull advertising has a sobering effect and the editor to whom I was speaking made it clear that his (respected) magazine pulls its punches where Singapore is concerned because it would pay for any bravery with advertising.

The same appplies to international broadcasters.  Don’t forget that even the BBC operates as a commercial entity when it comes to international TV (though not radio) and takes in a lot of advertising revenue from countries like Malaysia and Singapore either directly or from state owned or influenced entities.  The BBC will certainly say its editorial process is not influenced by commercial considerations.  You’ll have to judge each and every outlet for yourself, but don’t be surprised if less bad news comes out of countries who spend generously on advertising than from those that don’t.

I suspect Julian Assange wishes journalists were more like him.  I don’t.  I wish there were more people like Julian Assange.  What he and his fellow FOI activists do is provide source material for media outlets who can’t get hold of it for themselves.

I wish Mr Assange et al were able to put more resources into filtering the matrial they recieve to reduce the chances it might do harm (though I interviewed John Young of Cryptome last year and he was quite adamant that he believes very little information has the potential to cause harm of itself and his default is that everything should be published.  It’s a coherent position.  I don’t share his confidence that there’s never any comeback which is why, like most journalists, I strive to protect sources, for instance) but broadly speaking they’re a good thing.

What I wish he’d not do is confuse what he does with journalism.  There are places where Wikileaks activities intersect (such as the excelllent Iraq helicopter vid released in April 2010 – a proper journalistic coup) but there are many that don’t.

Rather I’d like him to focus on what it is that Wikileaks and other FOI sites do that journalists can’t or simply don’t.  Wikileaks is less burdened by the multitude of connections that the media have to maintain.  If the NYT gets a scoop that pisses off the White House it may get frozen out.  If Wikileaks publishes the information the NYT can run it ‘because it’s in the public domain’.  Everyone (except those who are exposed) wins because the information is put out there and the newspaper or broadcaster can defend itself with the ‘if we hadn’t run it someone else would have’ line and preserves its relationships far better.

Sometimes people don’t appreciate what they’re really good at and want to be something else (I’d still like to be a rock star).  I wonder if that applies to Mr Assange?