In early August, former intelligence analyst and whistleblower Andrew Wilkie stood in front of the (socially distanced and COVID-19 restriction compliant) crowd at a Free Assange rally in Hobart, and told them that “what happens to Mr Assange will set a shocking precedent for our response to the ridiculous claims of extraterritoriality by other countries”. Sarah Jacob chatted with him last week to find out more.
How long have you been involved in the Assange case?
I can’t recall exactly when, but it’s been a long time. It’s interesting because I had forgotten – until Julian reminded me when I visited him in Belmarsh [prison] — that we actually met back in 2004 at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival after I wrote a book about my own whistleblower experience. This young blonde fellow came up to me afterwards and started asking questions about how whistleblowers could find a way of getting their information into the public domain safely. That was 16 years ago, before WikiLeaks. Now, I’m not claiming any credit for WikiLeaks, other than to say I was a bit of a player in Julian Assange’s thinking about what eventually did become WikiLeaks.
Why do you believe that Assange’s case has implications for all Australians?
To be clear, I do care very much about Julian Assange personally, the injustice being experienced by him. But I care just as much about the broader implications for all of us. There are so many precedents potentially being set if this extradition goes ahead. What it says about the role of the Australian government — when an Australian citizen is stuck overseas and is being subject to extreme injustice — the precedent it will set regarding the Australian government’s view on claims of extraterritoriality by other countries. In this case, we’re talking about the United States. Here we have the U.S. claiming that it has jurisdiction globally, including upon citizens of other countries.
“There are very chilling precedents in all this, and there’s also potentially precedents over freedom of the media.”
Julian Assange is an Australian citizen who didn’t commit a crime on U.S. soil, so the U.S. has no right to extradite him. What will this mean, down the track, for other countries — say, China, or Saudi Arabia? Will they have the right to seek the extradition of an Australian citizen for doing nothing more than shining a light on wrongdoing? Will the Australian government also roll over and allow that? There are very chilling precedents in all this, and there’s also potentially precedents over freedom of the media.
My view is that Julian Assange is undoubtedly a journalist and a publisher and that he has an inherent right to report on and publish information on war crimes. If this [extradition] goes ahead, does that mean that the Australian government does not accept freedom of the media? So there are a lot of implications here for all Australians.
You refer to Assange as a journalist. There’s been a debate raging for years as to how his work should be categorised, with prosecutors recently presenting further evidence that they say support their allegation that he is a hacker. What is your reasoning for calling him a journalist, and does it matter what he is called, with respect to the case against him?
I think he’s a journalist, and others clearly think he’s a journalist, evidenced by the fact that he is a Walkley [journalism] award winner. The people who do not regard him as a journalist, I think, are either being too precious, or they are stuck with an increasingly out-of-date definition of what a journalist is. Here is a person who has received information, has analysed it, and checked its veracity, been satisfied that it’s in the public interest, and then released it in the public domain. It does highlight to me that we need to change our thinking about what a journalist is — the definition is changing.
“The people who do not regard him as a journalist, I think, are either being too precious, or they are stuck with an increasingly out-of-date definition of what a journalist is.”
I don’t think that a person who runs a little blog and says whatever they want is a journalist. But WikiLeaks is on a whole different level. I note that Peter Greste, the journalist who was jailed in the Middle East, was for a long time of the opinion that Julian Assange was not a journalist and that his situation should not be part of the debate in Australia about freedom of the press. But even Greste has changed his position. In the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year, he wrote an opinion piece on the matter. When such a well-regarded journalist changes his mind publicly, the rest of the profession should sit up and pay attention.
Regarding whether it matters what he is called, that goes to the substantive matter which is, at the end of the day, that he is just a person who did the right thing. He tried to bring to the public’s attention hard evidence of U.S. war crimes. Whether he’s a journalist or not, surely there is something very powerful and right about someone doing that. To think that the country guilty of the war crimes could get their hands on him is an eyewatering injustice. To think that the Australian government would think it’s okay that a country guilty of war crimes could get their hands on the person who revealed them is unconscionable behaviour from the Australian government.
In February you tabled in parliament a petition signed by more than 270,000 people calling for him to be released and returned to Australia. Do you believe public and parliamentary support is growing for Assange?
Yes, and in the media as well. In the last 12 months or so, I think media interest, public interest, political interest have all increased, in part because the matter has come to a head. I think the media has started to see him more as one of them. The community has started to understand the issue a bit better. George Christensen and I have made some progress generating political support as well. The [Bring Assange Home] parliamentary group has only a dozen or so members but it does have members from a number of political parties — the only party not represented is the Liberal Party, interestingly.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer recently said that “it’s much easier to make an example of someone and to violate all their human rights when it’s a person nobody likes”. Do you concur with this assessment of the Assange case?
A lot of people don’t like him, and a lot of the reasons for that are baseless. Governments and commentators have done a good job of making him unlikeable. Now, whether or not he is a likeable person is irrelevant. We’ve got to remember a couple of things here. As far as that Swedish business was concerned – he was never charged or convicted, and the matter was dropped. There is hard evidence that it was part of the conspiracy to get him, eventually, to the U.S.. The U.S. extradition is only to do with the revelations about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, behaviour in Guantanamo Bay and some embassy cables. He has humiliated the U.S. government by exposing hard evidence of war crimes.
“The Australian government was a co-conspirator in the war in Iraq. In fact, WikiLeaks’ revelations about the behaviour of the U.S. military… tarnished the reputation of the Australian government as well.”
Scott Morrison said last year that Assange would not be getting any special treatment, that he would receive “the same treatment that any other Australian would get.” Do you believe that this has occurred?
That is patently wrong. When the Australian government believes that an Australian is being treated unjustly, then it has numerous levers that it tends to pull — quietly or publicly, but more often quietly. There have been numerous cases where Australian diplomatic officials have met with the officials of another country to come up with a solution, but that’s not happening in this case. The Australian government is not giving Assange any of the usual assistance it would give an Australian overseas facing an injustice
Why do you think this is the case?
Because the Australian government is more interested in kowtowing to Washington. And the Australian government was a co-conspirator in the war in Iraq. In fact, WikiLeaks’ revelations about the behaviour of the U.S. military… tarnished the reputation of the Australian government as well. I believe they have their own personal prejudices against Assange, and Australian politicians also want to pander to the prejudices against Assange in the Australian community.