By William J. Furney
Julian Assange‘s grand, world-changing plans have finally come crashing down and ended up on the scrapheap of internet publishing. The Australian former computer hacker with giant dreams to “open governments” and reveal all kinds of nasty secrets is in tatters as the WikiLeaks site hasn’t published anything of note since January, and that was only about a “power struggle within the highest offices of the Catholic Church” that didn’t receive much traction, if any at all.
After hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for nearly seven years, to avoid extradition to Sweden to answer sexual-assault allegations, the 48-year-old was dragged out of the Central American mission by police in April after his hosts — tired of their long-time, non-paying guest’s bad behaviour and internet-based meddling in other countries’ affairs — withdrew his asylum status and was flung in jail for breaching the terms of his bail conditions.
Sentenced to 50 weeks’ incarceration at HM Prison Belmarsh in London, Assange expected to be released next weekend — free at last, after years in captivity, although most of it self-imposed. But a judge had other ideas, and this week ordered the onetime fugitive to remain locked up until a US extradition hearing next February is heard.
“You have been produced today because your sentence of imprisonment is about to come to an end,” district judge Vanessa Baraitser told Assange as he appeared by video link. “When that happens your remand status changes from a serving prisoner to a person facing extradition.”
Friends of Assange — including heiress and ex-wife of the current prime minister of Pakistan, Jemima Goldsmith — lost tons of cash when they stumped up large sums in bail money only for their hero to abscond and leg it to the Ecuador’s place in London. Still, judge Baraitser said she had given Assange’s lawyer an opportunity to make a bail application, only for the legal representative to decline.
This was “perhaps not surprisingly in light of your history of absconding in these proceedings,” noted the jurist. “In my view I have substantial ground for believing if I release you, you will abscond again,” she rightly said.
The poor folk running WikiLeaks’ Twitter account could hardly believe what was now happening to their saviour. “The behaviour of the British government towards Assange is a disgrace, a profanity on the very notion of human rights. It’s no exaggeration to say that the treatment and persecution of Julian Assange is the way dictatorships treat political prisoners,” they tweeted.
Sorry, but that’s not true, and no one is basically interested anyway.
Assange’s messianic WikiLeaks mission has only brought him misery and despair. The Swedes have reopened their sex-assault inquiry, after previously shelving it as they couldn’t get proper access to Assange while he was holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy, and the Americans have unveiled no less than 18 charges against Assange, over his release of classified military and diplomatic material leaked by Chelsea Manning, who served his/her own time for the offence and was pardoned by president Obama.
It’s safe to say that Assange is going nowhere for a very long time, and if the Americans do get their hands on him he could end up behind bars for decades — effectively spending the rest of his life behind bars. Does he regret ever coming up with the notion of WikiLeaks and what it did? The biggest scoop, if you can call it that — and only then because of a disgruntled Manning, who was actively serving in the US military at the time he/she swiped the files and passed them onto Assange — was to do with a 2007 video of US military helicopters firing on innocent people in Iraq and killing a dozen people.
There is no question that holding truth to power is fundamentally important to the ways civilised countries work and for the betterment of the people who live in them — and that a free press is one of the foundations of a thriving democracy. In places like China and across the Middle East and elsewhere, where press freedom is either non-existent or quashed and internet access is limited or blocked — don’t let the plebs find out about anything! — tyrants do as they please, to the detriment of their people.
The question is: Is Assange a freedom-of-information champion, a global editor of note or just someone out to aggrandize himself. Sloppy, repurposed “leaks” in recent years in which names and other information that should have been redacted but were not and that could put people’s lives at risk; an apparent attempt to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming present, with the release of information allegedly supplied by the Russians; and other publishing acts not worthy of a real and professional editor suggest that Assange thought he not only knew it all but was above everything, and just did not care. An editor he certainly was and is not.
I say this as someone who was an editor of a newspaper I founded and owned, in Asia, and regularly published material not flattering to governments and businesses, and sometimes suffered the consequences (as in death threats) but was always careful to present both sides to any story.
Unfortunately, Assange’s tale looks like a very sorry one indeed.