How do you solve a problem like Assange?
I was about to write about something else, the subject of which I have now totally forgotten, when the news of Julian Assange’s arrest from the Ecuador’s Embassy in London broke. He’s always been a curious fellow for me, and I have followed him over the years with sometimes bemused, sometimes shocked, sometimes scared reactions depending on what the news were saying about him.
For those not too familiar with him, Julian Paul Assange is an Australian journalist and computer programmer, best known as the founder and director of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks (not in any way affiliated with Wikipedia and the Wikimedia project) is an international non-profit organization whose purpose is to publish leaked news, secret information and other classified information provided by anonymous sources. It claims having a 10M document database in 10 years since it started in 2006. It therefore makes him either a digital advocate of transparency or a publicity-seeker who has endangered lives by releasing sensitive information to the public. The view of course depends on whether you support or criticize his WikiLeaks platform’s practice
Assange is in the limelight again after being arrested in the Ecuador Embassy in London, where he has been in asylum for the last seven years. Remove the back stories of why he sought asylum from Ecuador and has been staying in the Ecuadorian Embassy (2010 sexual allegations committed in Sweden), and why his asylum was revoked by Ecuador (increasingly outrageous behaviors and violations on international protocols while staying at the Ecuadorian Embassy), the story now becomes one of press freedom and whether or not Julian Assange committed crimes. He is now under arrest in UK and the U.S. government has requested his extradition. Sweden is likely to send a similar request.
I have frequently asked myself whether or not he is a journalist and if WikiLeaks is an international news agency akin to CNN, Bloomberg, BBC and the like. Depending on the year and what they’ve done, I sometimes see him and WikiLeaks as a publisher, a hacker or the head of a hostile intelligence service. This thought process is crucial and needs an exhaustive debate. It’s of public interest as I think it has wide repercussions on press freedom and how we view news sourcing in the future should he be successfully extradited, charged and found guilty in the U.S.
If WikiLeaks is a news site and their newsgathering practices are no different from other publications, albeit more controversial at times, then Assange is a journalist and should likely be protected under the First Amendment. If he has sources and has rightfully protected his sources through encryptions and the like, then what happens to Assange, if he eventually gets jail time for his “journalistic crimes” may then likely happen to other journalists and may threaten press freedom to some extent.
However, if he is a hacker and a collaborator with hostile powers (such as Russia) with the intent to damage certain people, government agencies or countries for that matter, then he is an aggressive participant of information warfare. The fact that in 2016 WikiLeaks published the fruits of Russian hacking to influence the 2016 elections, and then disarmed (and subsequently published technical details) key tools of the CIA, makes WikiLeaks’ actions suspect. Whether or not Assange had a major role in that remains to be seen. Whether or not the US government charges him of that or just charges him of some other crime (password cracking in 2010) remains to be seen. Whether or not there’s enough evidence against him for anything remains to be seen.
What worries me though is an interview in 2010 wherein he was asked by NY Times on whether he sees himself as a “journalist.” He then said, “It is a word (journalist) I would attach to myself. It is also certainly fair to say that I am also an activist. But if I had to choose between the two, I would choose the values of activism.” While activism by itself is not wrong and can be used to bring about good social changes, his work since then has slowly moved to become less about issues of public interest against oppressive regimes to potentially damaging intrusions to government and public institutions. The fact that he uses a digital platform makes his work more widespread and potentially damaging in our now digital world. I can easily imagine dark web conspiracies and transactions happening.
How do you then solve a problem like Assange? Do you go for a smaller crime that can guarantee his incarceration? Or do you go for a bigger one that may fundamentally change and set precedence for future newsgathering practices? Is he a valiant hero of truth or a scumbag spy?
Joy Santamarina is a consulting principal in the APAC region specializing in the telecommunications, media, and technology industry. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org