What You Should Know About Julian Assange

What You Should Know About Julian Assange (A still from the "Collateral Murder" video. (Source: WikiLeaks))

This week WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who spent almost seven years in London’s Ecuadorian embassy under political asylum, will face an extradition hearing that could send him from England to the United States.

(In case you are wondering, that case is separate from the one resulting in Assange’s 50-week jail sentence for skipping bail.)

Just who is Assange? What charges does he face? Why is he hated by many and seen as a hero by others?

Who Is Julian Assange?

Assange got his start as a hacker, a background which almost certainly plays into the charges he’s being brought up on, and had a career that has seen him doing everything from developing open source software to helping police hunt child pornographers. But he’s best known as being a thorn in the side of governments, particularly the U.S. government, thanks to WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks and Why It Matters

Pretty much since its start, Assange has been the face of WikiLeaks, a website that began as clearinghouse for documents leaked by anonymous sources. WikiLeaks has been the distribution point for a number of significant document leaks over the years.

The site first rose to prominence with the video which became known as “Collateral Murder,” depicting unarmed men being killed by U.S. military forces in Iraq, and related material allegedly leaked to the site by Chelsea Manning. The scandal that followed made Assange and WikiLeaks the target of the U.S. government’s ire. The material itself altered the discussions around the war.

Assange: Hero or Villain?

After the “Collateral Murder” video leaked, and in the wake of WikiLeaks’ aiding of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden — who revealed the depths of government surveillance programs — Assange was viewed as a champion of transparency by some and a dangerous radical element by others.

His personal credibility came under fire in 2010 after allegations of sexual assault and rape emerged in Sweden. Assange contended at the time that the allegations were an attempt to make him vulnerable to extradition to the United States. He sought and was granted asylum by Ecuador in 2012 seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden on the rape charges. The charges were later dropped.

In 2016, WikiLeaks became part of firestorm of the U.S. presidential campaign when it released emails from the Democratic National Committee. In a bit of irony, Assange’s own communications with Donald Trump Jr. and others were leaked, wherein it can be seen that Assange was seeking to curry favor with the future President’s son. There are those in the American intelligence community that hold that WikiLeaks was used as a pawn by the Russian government during the election.

While Assange and the American intelligence community have never been friendly, the twists and turns in his story have led him to be alternately vilified and praised by those on the left and right in the United States.

Assange’s April Arrest

Let’s clear something up: Assange was forcefully expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy in London once they revoked his asylum. It’s reported that tensions were high between the embassy staff and Assange. The President of Ecuador referred to the WikiLeaks frontman as “discourteous and aggressive” and cited hostile declarations by WikiLeaks as part of the cause for expelling him in a video address. President Lenín Moreno also noted that Assange violated the terms of his asylum by “interfering in internal affairs of other states.”

Upon expulsion, Assange was arrested in London on April 11th for jumping bail on the assault charges, for which he has now been sentenced to 50 weeks in jail. But the charges Assange faces related to his extradition hearing on May 2 have nothing to do with those charges or the 2016 campaign.

The Charges & What They Mean for Journalism

The United States is looking to extradite Assange on hacking charges related to the Collateral Murder/Chelsea Manning leak. The claim is that Assange encouraged Manning to go further than she would have otherwise, and that Assange essentially assisted in accessing the materials, and didn’t just play a passive role as receiver of the leaks.

In a statement the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that concerns itself with freedom of speech issues involving the internet says:

“While the indictment of Julian Assange centers on an alleged attempt to break a password — an attempt that was not apparently successful — it is still, at root, an attack on the publication of leaked material and the most recent act in an almost decade-long effort to punish a whistleblower and the publisher of her leaked material.”

If Assange is extradited to the United States and the government were to win its case in court, there’s a very good chance that such a judgement would have a chilling effect on whistleblowers in this country. The fear is that a ruling against Assange on these charges would set a precedent that could then be used as a weapon against the press.

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