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.
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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