The fate of journalism and Julian Assange


Julian Assange’s extradition to the country whose war crimes he exposed sets a dangerous precedent for press freedom – and our democracy. However, where there is courage there is hope.

By Senator Peter Whish-Wilson

Remember Terry Hicks? He is the father of David Hicks, former Guantanamo Bay detainee. Terry is a hero of mine, and features in a spray painting by @jamin.artist on the wall of my Parliament House office.

I want to be reminded of Terry’s long hard struggle for the release of his son. He moved mountains with his endurance and the power of love for his son. As he stood in a cage in Times Square and Martin Place, sometimes spat upon, he never gave up. Although his son was considered a terrorist by our ally and many here in Australia, Terry never gave up. A massive community campaign resulted and that pressured the Howard government to lean on our close friend the USA, which saw David brought home to Australia.

In December I showed this painting to Kristinn Hrafnsson and told him this story. An award-winning journalist and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Kristinn came to Australia to speak at the National Press Club about the situation of Julian Assange. A similar endurance and broad community campaign is going to be necessary before we see Julian home, and until that day, I intend to continue the Greens’ enduring recognition of the dangerous precedent Assange’s case sets.

In October, it ceased to be only the Greens getting this. For the first time in 10 years, we were joined by others and I’m proud to be part of the new Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, co-chaired by fellow Tasmanian Andrew Wilkie, joined in the group also by Richard Di Natale, Adam Bandt and Nick McKim.

When Kristinn met with parliamentarians and their staff, he discussed Assange’s terrible health situation. Isolated in a single cell on the health ward of Belmarsh prison for around 22 hours a day, the hallways are cleared when Assange walks through. It’s important to remember he has been detained for nine years for publishing information, spending ten days in Wandsworth Prison, 18 months under virtual house arrest, seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy, and since 11 April 2019 he has been in Belmarsh maximum security prison.

Moments after entering a UK courtroom on 11 April 2019, what occurred was what Julian and his legal team have predicted for almost a decade. The United States requested Julian’s extradition for the publishing activities of WikiLeaks, first unsealing a single charge under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, followed some weeks later by 17 additional charges under the Espionage Act – its first use against a publisher in US history, in which there is no public interest defence. If you read the indictments, they describe routine journalistic practices of taking measures to protect the identity of a source, and receiving and publishing information.

These charges all relate to WikiLeaks’ 2010-2011 publications on war crimes; crimes against humanity; and corruption and rendition, specifically the releases of 2010-11 on Guantanamo Bay, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Cablegate. These are among the most significant series of public-interest disclosures of our times and were released in partnership with a range of media organisations, including Reuters, The Guardian, Channel 4, The Independent, The Telegraph, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, the New York Times and many others. With several of the releases, WikiLeaks did not even publish first, but after others.

Kristinn Hrafnsson thanked a lot of Australian supporters at the National Press Club, including Kerry O’Brien for what he said at the Walkleys Awards: “Julian Assange is mouldering in a British prison awaiting extradition to the United States where he may pay for their severe embarrassment with a life in prison. Again, this government could demonstrate its commitment to a free press by using its significant influence with its closest ally to gain his return to Australia.”

Kristinn also thanked Scott Ludlam, adding gratitude that many have now joined him but that, “for many years one could have been forgiven for thinking only one Australian parliamentarian understood the danger arising from so many national security laws and the significance of the persecution of a publisher for publishing.”

Finally, Kristinn thanked Eli Jessup, who received a $50 fine in court the day after Kristinn’s Press Club address for scaling Parliament House. The magistrate noted that many would commend Eli’s humanitarian response to Assange’s situation.

As for accusations that WikiLeaks and Assange merely dumped material online, Kristinn reminded the National Press Club that the organisation withheld a full third of the Afghan files to protect individuals, that Assange himself redacted tens of thousands of names from the Iraq files, and that Cablegate was only made available due to reckless publication of the password by the Guardian.

It all comes down to this: journalism is not espionage, and Assange’s extradition to the country whose war crimes he exposed sets a dangerous precedent for press freedom, and our democracy. However, where there is courage there is hope. We are building a campaign to Bring Assange Home. As Julian says, courage is contagious and the courage of Terry Hicks sure infected me to see the world differently, as did the Collateral Murder video and other truthful material revealed by WikiLeaks.  

It’s well past time to bring this Australian home.

Peter Whish-Wilson is a member of the Bring Assange Home Parliamentary Group.

BAck to december issue