WikiLeaks founder defends organisation in his first formal public appearance since being arrested over sexual assault allegations
WikiLeaks is more accountable than democratically elected governments because it accepts donations from members of the public, Julian Assange has claimed, in his first formal public appearance since being arrested in December following accusations of rape and sexual assault.
Questioned at a public debate about the whistleblowing organisation’s own transparency, Assange told an audience of 700 people, many of them supporters: “We are directly supported on a week-to-week basis by you. You vote with your wallets every week if you believe that our work is worthwhile or not. If you believe we have erred, you do not support us. If you believe we need to be protected in our work, you keep us strong.
“That dynamic feedback, I say, is more responsive than a government that is elected after sourcing money from big business every four years.”
The WikiLeaks founder, who is currently appealing against his extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault, told the audience at a packed debate organised by the New Statesman and the Frontline Club that whistleblowing was essential in a democracy because “the only way we can know whether information is legitimately kept secret is when it is revealed”.
He cited the examples of Vietnam and “the disaster that was the Iraq war”, saying that if whistleblowers had had the courage to speak up earlier about both conflicts, “bloodbaths” could have been avoided.
He said he “could speak for hours” about the impact of the publication of leaked US embassy cables, much of it through the Guardian, and that leak’s positive impact.
The Hindu newspaper had in recent weeks published 21 front pages based on so-called “cablegate” revelations, he said, leading to the Indian government walking out four times and a growing anti-corruption movement in the country.
But the political commentator Douglas Murray, director of the centre for social cohesion, challenged Assange over the website’s sources of funding, its staffing and connections with the Holocaust denier Israel Shamir, who has worked with the site.
“What gives you the right to decide what should be known or not? Governments are elected. You, Mr Assange are not.”
Murray also challenged the WikiLeaks founder over an account in a book by Guardian writers David Leigh and Luke Harding, in which the authors quote him suggesting that if informants were to be killed following publication of the leaks, they “had it coming to them”.
Assange repeated an earlier assertion that the website “is in the process of suing the Guardian” over the assertion, and asked if Murray would like to “join the queue” of organisations he was suing.
The Guardian has not received any notification of such action from WikiLeaks or its lawyers.
Jason Cowley, the editor of the New Statesman and chair of the debate, interjected to ask: “How can the great champion of open society be using our libel laws to challenge the press?”
The WikiLeaks founder was obliged to leave before responding to all the questions in order to comply with the curfew conditions of his bail.
WikiLeaks’ lawyer Mark Stephens could not be reached for comment. Asked after the debate whether he could shed any light on the supposed legal action, WikiLeaks spokesman Kristin Hrafnsson said “not really”.