Julian Assange Not Freed: 5 Issues to Consider

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Common Dreams

Julian Assange Not Freed: 5 Issues to Consider

Julian Assange leaving the Royal Court of Justice on July 13th, 2011. (Photo: flickr/cc/acidpolly)

A Stockholm district court has ruled that the case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will not be dropped, and that the outstanding arrest warrant against him still stands.

I’ve made it a point in my writing about WikiLeaks over the past four years to avoid superficial, uninformed pop-legal anaylses of the Swedish case, as well as superficial, uninformed pop-psychological analyses of Assange and others involved in the matter. There have been far too many of those already—by Assange/WikiLeaks opponents and supporters alike—emerging via what I have described as a “social media whirlpool of bullshit, innuendo and de-contextualized half-truths.” My primary interest is in WikiLeaks as an organization and political actor, not in the Assange personality per se.

So, with the new decision, here are a few observations about what they mean NOT in relation to the ongoing case in Sweden, but for a number of other issues.

  1. The Future of WikiLeaks. I was just interviewed on the national TV news here in Sweden, and was asked what today’s decision means for WikiLeaks, and if it gives ammunition to those to wish to see Assange and the organization destroyed. This question is predicated upon the idea that Assange and WikiLeaks are one and the same…a position I have spent a great deal of time attempting to downplay in an effort to hightlight what the organization has contributed—an element that is lost in personality wars. However, WikiLeaks has certainly used its global fame (not to mention its Twitter account) to link itself (intrinsically) to the Assange case. Thus, any negative decision against Assange can be used as ammunition against WikiLeaks. That’s a negative for any citizen interested in exposing power to daylight. And, one wonders how WikiLeaks will fare with this level of exposure. Can a whistle-blowing organization survive in this kind of limelight?
  2. International Journalism/Media. A second question I was asked tonight was the impact of Assange and WikiLeaks upon journalism. I think the impact has been significant, but perhaps one which will become clearer with the passage of time. WikiLeaks were paradigm-shifters in the sense that with their emergence we are forced to re-think what journalism might or could be. This was beyond the Blogger/User Generated Content/Citizen Journalist construct, however, because of the sheer volume and sensitivity of the material leaked and released via WikiLeaks, not to mention their collaboration with large-scale media outlets back in 2010. But the decision today will have an impact in that the personality issue raised so often in relation to Assange will once again dominate in the international press, rather than the asking of some fundamental questions about what WikiLeaks has meant for journalism and transparency. There’s no better example of how this issue has been bypassed than the rather sad volume of coverage given to the Manning trial by US editors, many of whom milked Manning dry for material, only to toss him aside when the chips were down.
  3. The United States. One of the major issues that came out today was Assange’s fear of extradition to the US and/or indictment. This fear has been treated with disdain by a number of commentators. Whatever your feelings about the case against Assange in Sweden, I find myself surprised by the level of trust placed in the US government by people who deride Assange for this fear. I consider myself to be far from a tin-foil hatted conspiracy nut, but, honestly, how much does the US have to do before people will realize that the rule of law and ethics are not barriers for the US? Gitmo, rendition, drones…you name it. Assange might be wrong. But he might also be right, regardless of the case in Sweden. Blowing off that possibility seems, at least to me, short-sighted.
  4. Snowden. I guess the Assange-US question brought up by Assange’s defense team today kind of brought me to Snowden (and also Chelsea Manning) and the issue of whistle-blowing in general. The two might be somewhat disconnected, but I see WikiLeaks as the pre-cursor to Snowden: WikiLeaks set the stage, at least, for what Snowden did. Now, Manning is facing 35 years in jail, Snowden is in Russia and Assange fears extradition. What all three have in common is the issue of exposing various abuses of power, and how those exposures have been now addressed by those who wish to silence them via the use (or threatened use) of the law.
  5. Sweden. I’ll start where I always start on this issue (much to the irritation of a small clique of critics): feminism. From the beginning I have always expressed my support for WikiLeaks the organization, but my opposition to the suggestion by WikiLeaks and many supporters that Sweden is some kind of hellish dystopia for men. The argument is weak, unfounded and, frankly, not worthy of consideration. I considered that line of attack to be counter-productive two years ago, and I still do. But, I have also been disappointed in how the Swedish media have given short shrift to what WikiLeaks has achieved over the years. (As, I should also point out, they have given short shrift to Snowden’s revelations regarding Swedish-US collaboration on surveillance.) Has the Assange case diminished Sweden’s reputation internationally? Perhaps a bit, but not as much as some would suggest. That’s my impression as a non-Swede. But, to me, what HAS diminished their reputation more is their documented willingness to work with the US and quasi-dictatorships with state and corporate deals: information about which often came from…um, whistle-blowers.

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen

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