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Let’s not confuse the activities of WikiLeaks with those of Assange

Watching from outside Ecuador’s embassy in London on 19 August, I found it hard not to admire Julian Assange. Or at least his determination. After two months hiding inside, the Wiki­Leaks founder emerged on to the first-floor balcony of the embassy, looking somewhat etiolated, to address a scrum of journalists and supporters. Officers from the Metropolitan Police were a tantalising few feet away. They were apparently under orders not to try to ­arrest him. And yet much of what Assange said was self-serving and ridiculous. Ever since two Swedish women accused him of sexually assaulting them two years ago, his supporters have peddled myths about the case. They have elided his struggle to bring governments to account through WikiLeaks (a good thing) with allegations of sexual misconduct (an entirely separate matter for the courts). Assange’s personal struggle to escape extradition to Sweden is not the same thing as freedom of speech.

From the pavement in Knightsbridge, I listened as he paid tribute to Ecuador’s “courageous” president, Rafael Correa. (It was Correa’s decision to grant him asylum that triggered the diplomatic stand-off with the UK and William Hague.) Assange also thanked other Latin American nations. But he said nothing about the Swedish allegations. And it is these – rather than the activities of WikiLeaks or a murky, so far inchoate plot by the White House – that have got him into this current mess.

Inconvenient truths

I first met Julian Assange in November 2010. At the time I was the Guardian’s correspondent in Moscow. I had flown back to London to examine the extraordinary cache of US diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks; this followed publication by the Guardian and other media partners of secret US war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq.

I found Julian to be warm, amusing and entertaining; at one point over dinner he mused about “going to Russia”. I advised him this might not be wise: after all, the US state department cables damningly, and accurately, describe Vladimir Putin’s Moscow as a “virtual mafia state”.

Soon after that, I wrote a book with my Guardian colleague David Leigh – WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy. (The book does not abuse Assange; much of it is sympathetic to him.) By this point Assange had severed his links with the Guardian – he was furious that the newspaper had published details of the Swedish police investigation against him.

I had problems of my own: in February 2011 the Kremlin threw me out of Russia. My reporting of US cables alleging top-level Kremlin corruption and details of Putin’s “secret assets” was apparently the final straw.

During his speech, I listened to Assange portray his struggle as a universal one for freedom of expression in a “dangerous and oppressive world”. He urged the US to call off its “witch-hunt” against WikiLeaks and go back to its “revolutionary values”. Assange also called for the release of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

This would have come across as less ludicrous had Assange not agreed a TV deal with Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda channel, whose mission is to accuse the west of hypocrisy while staying mute about Russia’s own failings.

Assange is of course entitled to earn money how best he can. WikiLeaks’s release of classified US diplomatic files is commendable, an epochal development, and was arguably a catalyst for the Arab spring. And the fate of Bradley Manning, the alleged source for WikiLeaks, is a matter of deep concern. Both the Guardian and the New York Times have made it clear that they will oppose any attempt by the US to indict Assange for his journalistic activities.

Currently, however, Assange faces no pro­secution anywhere in the world for anything WikiLeaks has done. Assange is being extradited to Sweden. Not America. And – inconvenient truth – it would be harder to extradite him from Sweden than directly from the UK, as David Allen Green points out on the New Statesman website.

Who speaks for Barankov?

Assange would be a more convincing champion of human rights if he were to speak up about abuses everywhere, rather than ignoring the record of countries such as Russia and Ecuador that are friendly to him. During his Russia Today show, Assange failed to talk to any opponents of the Russian regime. They have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers since last December’s rigged parliamentary elections. Assange can’t be unaware of the grim fate of whistleblowers inside Russia. Take Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in 2006, and Natalia Estemirova, abducted from Chechnya and murdered in 2009.

Paradoxically, the asylum furore over Assange has focused attention on Ecuador’s poor record on press freedom. In June, according to Repor­ters Without Borders, six radio and two TV stations in Ecuador were shut down. Ecuador also arrested a young whistleblower from Belarus, Aliaksandr Barankov, in June and is extraditing him. Barankov moved to the country in 2009 and set up a blog denouncing corruption and other abuses under Aleksandr Lukashenko, the repressive Belarusian dictator.

Lukashenko visited Ecuador in June. Immediately afterwards, Barankov was arrested, put in prison in Quito, and now faces a fresh extradition trial, and torture or worse if he is sent home. It would be nice to think that Assange will speak up for Barankov during his next balcony speech.

Luke Harding is a senior international correspondent for the Guardian and is the author of “Mafia State” (Guardian Books, £8.99) Books, £8.99)

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This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.