Lost in the Cyberworld? The Enigmatic Mr Assange

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Apr 23 2019 – Trump´s electoral success was preceded by a rise of chauvinistic politics in most of Europe, paired with electoral triumphs of far-right candidates in several other countries. A development accompanied by revelations of corrupt leaders laundering and transferring illegally obtained money, aided by financial institutions finding the means to do so. The world seems to move away from a rule-based order to a state of affairs dominated by might and wealth. World leaders´ private business dealings thrive within a global environment where laws intended to protect human rights are becoming increasingly ineffective. Foreign policies appear to be adapted to private gains and personal vendettas. Global financial systems seem to be crafted to facilitate kleptocracy and money laundering, while repression and violence smite whistle-blowers and daring journalists. Endeavours supported by propaganda and smear campaigns orchestrated by political/financial consultants and private investigation firms. All this is made possible through complicated schemes using the internet.

Within the boundless ambiance of cyberspace, we find WikiLeaks, founded to facilitate the proliferation of classified documents revealing opaque, often illicit activities. Julian Assange was, and remains a member of the organisation’s nine-member advisory board, making final decisions about which documents to be published on the site. Wikileaks´s servers are located in Sweden, nevertheless, this has not hindered Swedish authorities from rejecting Assange´s applications for a working permit.

WikiLeaks publishes information that people in power does not want the multitude to know and thus constitutes a kind of investigative journalism, which is particularly relevant today. An example – in 2016 more than 11 million documents detailing financial information about 214,488 offshore entities were leaked from a Panamanian law firm to the German newspaper Südeutsche Zeitung. These documents revealed hidden theft and corruption endemic to several Governments. No one could seriously repudiate the correctness of publishing them.

By 2015, WikiLeaks had published more than 10 million documents and was by Assange described as” a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents.” 1 In 2009, WikiLeaks posted a classified video showing US helicopter crews killing18 people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists. The same year, WikiLeaks published a quarter of a million diplomatic cables originating from classified US Government files, followed by the publication in 2010 of a trove of secret documents related to the US detention facility in Guantánamo.

The Empire stroke back. Shortly after the Iraqi videos had been released United States authorities began to investigate Assange, intending to prosecute him under an Espionage Act from 1917. Assange was by then a hero of free speech. WikiLeaks had uncovered indiscriminate killing, hypocrisy, and corruption, as well as being instrumental in sparking the Arab Spring. In 2009, Assange received Amnesty International Media Award for WikiLeaks´s reporting of extrajudicial executions in Kenya. He was being called The Rockstar of Free Speech.

However, after 2010 rumours surfaced about Assange as being excessively self-asserting, blinded by success and ruling WikiLeaks as his personal fiefdom. Furthermore, Assange was accused of being biased, curbing anything criticising Russia. Suspicions accentuated during the 2016 US presidential election when WikiLeaks published emails from Hillary Clinton´s private email account, apparently leaked by Russian agents. 2

Since 2011, Assange had under constant surveillance been isolated in London´s Ecuadorean embassy, living in a small windowless room equipped with a mattress, sunlamp, computer, kitchenette, shower, treadmill, and bookshelves. In an adjoining room he received a steady stream of visitors. Assange suffered from the horrors of confinement, though until the last few months of his immurement he was, like he had been for most of his life, through his computer connected with the world. He reminded of the Genii of Disney´s Aladdin, who confined to his golden lamp stated: ”It’s all part of the whole genie gig: Phenomenal cosmic power … itty-bitty living space.”

Whenever Assange was displeased he unloaded his WikiLeaks weapon. When the Ecuadorean president Lenin Moreno during the last year of Assanges´s stay at the London embassy ordered the closing down of his internet connection, Assange threatened to release documents proving that Moreno was guilty of corruption, perjury and money laundering. Assange´s account was reopened, though on 11 April this year he was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy. How had he ended up there?

In August 2010, Assange visited Sweden to inspect WikiLeaks´s servers. During his stay he was by two women accused of rape and sexual misconduct. Assange was arrested in his absence, after initial questioning he had escaped to London, where he was apprehended. A British court decided to extradite Assange, though by then Ecuador had already granted him political asylum and a safe haven within its embassy.

There may be good reasons for Assange´s fear of being extradited to the US, though that does not exempt him from suspicions of sexual misconduct. The women´s detailed stories about their encounters with Assange and his statements about Sweden as the” Saudi Arabia of Feminism” suggest that tales about his sordid behaviour might be true, indicating that the Swedish incident was not the ”honey trap” his defenders claimed it to be.

Julian Assange had a difficult childhood, growing up in over thirty Australian small towns before he in his mid-teens settled with his mother in Melbourne. His father left even before Julian was born and since then his mother was involved with several men, among them Leif Meynell, a controversial cult leader. Assange´s schooling was capricious, though since childhood he was a computer wizard and later studied programming, mathematics and physics at the University of Melbourne, though not completing any degree, busying himself with computer related business. In his teens, Assange married and had a son, but divorced after a few years. Assange´s family life is enigmatic. A former spokesperson of WikiLeaks claimed that Assange admitted having ”multiple children” with various women. According to police documents he has ”at least” four children, though the locations of the children and their mothers are unknown. It appears as if Assange, like many other computer nerds, spends more time in cyberspace than in the real world.

Apparently was Assange´s mistrust of the West fuelled during his years of confinement, making him increasingly numb to abuses committed by the Kremlin, which he viewed as a ”bulwark against Western Imperialism”. The US, Great Britain and Sweden caused him trouble, something Russia never did, it even supported him. Assange has declared that the US Democratic Party is “whipping up a neo-McCarthyist hysteria about Russia” and defends WikiLeaks´s lenient treatment of Russian offences by stating: “Every man and his dog is criticizing Russia. It’s a bit boring, isn’t it?” In April 2012, when WikiLeaks’s funding was drying up under American pressure, with Visa and MasterCard refusing to accept donations, the state/controlled network Russia Today began broadcasting a show hosted by Assange through a link from the Ecuadorian embassy. In 2016, Assange criticized the regime-critical Novaya Gazeta’s coverage of the Panama Papers, suggesting it “cherry-picked” documents to achieve ”optimal Putin bashing, North Korea bashing, sanctions bashing, etc.” 3

Should Assange be deported to and convicted in the US? It could be a dangerous stimulus for others to persecute whistle-blowers and truth-tellers. Nevertheless, did he not serve Russian interests? Probably, but that does not affect the truth of and benefits from other WikiLeaks disclosures. Is not Assange a flawed individual? Maybe, and if he committed crimes he ought be judged for them, but not for being a journalist and whistle-blower.

What in the eyes of some jurists makes Assange a dubious hero is that his methods might have violated press ethics by supporting criminal activities . When Chelsea Manning in 2009 revealed military secrets to WikiLeaks he was a US soldier, serving as intelligence analyst at an army unit in Iraq. He was working under oath to maintain secrecy and was accordingly in 2013 convicted for ”aiding the enemy”. Legal scholars argued that the relationship between Assange and Manning was that of a journalist and his source, while others maintained that Assange went beyond press ethics by actively helping Manning to crack passwords to gain access to secret military databases.

If guilty or not of crimes committed in Sweden and the US, Assange´s case nevertheless reveals the precariousness of journalism. He was by Trump hailed as a hero when WikiLeaks revealed information supporting his candidacy. However, he might just as well be condemned as a villain by anyone who considers Wikileaks´s information to be damaging. Under all circumstances, as long as corrupt criminals and politicians use cyberspace for transgressions and enrichment, we are in dire need of other visitors to that space; journalists and computer nerds willing to enter it to reveal misdeeds and crimes.

1 . Sontheimer, Michael (2015) ”Spiegel-Gespräch: ´Wir haben es noch drauf´,” Der Spiegel 18.7, Nr. 30.
2 . Mazetti, Mark and Katie Benner (2018) ”12 Russian Agents Indicted in Mueller Investigation”, The New York Times, July 13.
3 . Erlanger, Steven and Nicholas Casey (2019) ”Julian Assange’s Seven Strange Years in Self-Imposed Isolation”, The New York Times, April 11.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

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