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Alan Rusbridger: Why Julian Assange’s fate matters

Opinion by Alan Rusbridger

(CNN) — Imagine this. A determined American journalist, let’s call her Gillian, is sleuthing away at a story about India’s nuclear weapons program. But there’s a problem: the Indian Official Secrets Act of 1923. Though Gillian is based in London, when she finally gets to publish her story, the Indian government is bent on revenge.

Gillian has to be made an example of, so that no other journalist would dare follow in her footsteps. So, the Indian government applies for her to be extradited to stand trial in Delhi. She faces up to 10 years in jail.

Is London going to hand Gillian over? Is Washington going to stand idly by and meekly accept the possibility of an American journalist languishing in an Indian jail?

Dream on. It would never happen. There would be a global howl of rage from journalists. And the UK and US governments would quietly make sure the whole thing went away.

Now, forget Gillian and think about Julian.

He’s an Australian “journalist” living in London. Only it’s not Indian state secrets he’s intent on spilling: it’s American ones. The Americans are — at least after a while — furious and threaten to extradite and jail him. But, with Julian, there’s no howl of rage, just a mumble of vague disapproval.

The clue is in the inverted commas around “journalist.” To my mind, Julian Assange is in some ways recognizably a journalist. He’s also a publisher, an entrepreneur, an activist, a whistleblower, an information anarchist and a hacker. That’s true of many of this new breed of net warriors.

But in the work we did together when I was editor of The Guardian and he was editor of WikiLeaks we collaborated on a series of groundbreaking stories which were absolutely journalistic.

However, to many journalists Assange is not a proper “journalist,” and they can’t really see what his fate has to do with theirs. I think that’s a mistake.

This week Assange may learn his fate when judges in the UK High Court consider final representations from lawyers on both sides over the bid to extradite him to the US — where he could face a lengthy spell in a maximum security prison.

I first came across Assange in 2007 when he was a relatively unknown figure on the internet living in Kenya and experimenting with the possibilities the digital space allowed dissidents and whistleblowers to release valuable, if embarrassing, information.

It was an age of optimism about how the internet could challenge how power worked. In January 2010 Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, spoke about the potential of what she termed “a new nervous system for the planet.”

She described a vision of semi-underground digital publishing — “the samizdat of our day” — that was beginning to champion transparency and challenge the autocratic, corrupt old order of the world. But she also warned that repressive governments were “targeting independent thinkers who use these tools.” She had regimes like Iran in mind.

It wasn’t long before Clinton realized that this new samizdat publishing system was — literally — uncontrollable. Even by her own government.

Along with The Guardian, a handful of other established news organizations around the world — The New York Times, El País, Le Monde and Der Spiegel — worked with Assange on the vast spill of documents that Chelsea Manning collected while working for the US Army.

It was often a bumpy ride — even Assange’s greatest supporters agree he is not the easiest person to work with — but we did valuable journalism together.

Sarah Ellison, writing in Vanity Fair, concluded: “Whatever the differences, the results have been extraordinary. Given the range, depth, and accuracy of the leaks, the collaboration has produced by any standard one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years.”

Clinton did not agree, and nor did the prosecuting authorities. Manning ended up in jail, and Assange in a form of exile. But the US government at the time maintained a sense of proportion about the harm done. One of then-President Barack Obama’s last acts was to commute Manning’s prison sentence so that she served only seven of the 35 years she was sentenced to.

I continue to believe there was a genuine public interest in publishing details of the killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq — and in the American authorities’ turning a blind eye to systemic torture and murder by their Iraqi allies in 2009.

Any mainstream news organization would have gladly broken the 2010 “collateral murder” video, with its footage from an Apache helicopter that captured the killing of a dozen innocent people, including two Reuters news staffers.

Now it is true that Assange went further than his mainstream news collaborators in the extent of what he published via WikiLeaks. It’s also true that he forfeited a lot of sympathy with his role in the subsequent leaks of emails stolen from the DNC and from Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta in 2016.

But 52-year-old Assange is not being pursued for his leaks of 2016. Instead, the attempt to extradite him for “espionage” — after nearly five years spent in a maximum security prison in the UK — looks like a very belated attempt to punish whistleblowers and discourage journalists, whether conventional or not, from poking their noses where they’re not welcome.

More than 50 years ago history was made when the US Supreme Court rejected attempts by then-President Richard Nixon to prevent The Washington Post and The New York Times from publishing the so-called Pentagon Papers.

Daniel Ellsberg — the Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden of his time — was, by the time of his death last year, considered something of a hero for exposing a hidden truth about the Vietnam War.

Who knows how Assange will be seen in a generation’s time, but his cause is one that should galvanize journalists in support — if only because the significance of the Pentagon Papers case could so easily be reversed.

The Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has told President Joe Biden, “enough is enough.” I hope the UK courts, who are about to hear the latest case, agree.

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