Suelette Dreyfys – 24 july 2012
Julian Assange’s story is complex, as illustrated by the insightful Four Corners piece on Monday night.
But there is one element of the story that is quite simple. You’ll recognise it because it’s repeated throughout history. When there’s bad news, shoot the messenger. Whistleblowers know this better than most.
I first got to know Julian Assange when we worked together on the book Underground in 1997. He has a journalist’s nose for news, and he is fearless in his willingness to publish. A trait bound to earn one powerful enemies and he’s been accumulating them for years.
You don’t have to like Assange to recognise that what he is doing is important for democracies. He’s got a sharp tongue and a well-developed ego. But the journalistic landscape would be poorer without him.
There are many journalists out there who go soft when faced with the hard and the ugly. They self-censor. They don’t want to offend the powerful. No fear of that from Assange. He really believes it’s a journalist’s job to keep the bastards honest.
A recent Newspoll found that 81 per cent of Australians support whistleblowers for revealing serious wrongdoing, despite the fact they may have to reveal inside information to do it. A whopping 87 per cent of Australians believe that whistleblowers should be able to go to the media. There is overwhelming public support for strong whistleblower protection that defends those who go reveal the truth. Despite promises to introduce whistleblower protection laws after the last election, the Government has failed to deliver.
You can judge a society by how it treats its truth tellers. The Four Corners report illustrated all too painfully what happens when you tell truth to power.
The Gillard Government has abandoned Assange instead of using its ‘special relationship’ with the US administration to demand protection of its own citizen. The Obama administration has allowed the Marines to torture alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning. He has been held in prison for two years without trial, much of it with sleep deprivation, isolation and the humiliation of forcing him to stand naked before superior officers. Even the US State Department’s spokesman thought the torture was a questionable approach; he was effectively sacked for saying so. The Four Corners story carefully pieced together the details of the Swedish matter.
First, Assange has not been charged with any offence in Sweden. All this hoo-hah in the international media about extradition has involved the Swedish prosecutor wanting to ask Assange a set of questions. Seriously.
Assange offered to answer those questions via a video or phone link to Sweden. It would have saved everyone a lot of time, money and hassle to conduct the interview that way. Second, why did Sweden need to issue an Interpol Red Notice for someone Sweden hasn’t even charged with an offence? An Interpol Red Notice is a serious thing, used for terrorists not publishers. As lawyer Jennifer Robinson told Four Corners not even the President of Syria has a Red Notice lodged against him. Assange can’t travel, can’t come home to Australia – can’t in fact do much with one of those things outstanding.
Third, a senior Prosecutor decided to drop the rape investigation of Assange, but magically that investigation was reopened. Why? Lots of silence in answer to that question.
Finally, Assange offered to go to Sweden to do the interview in person – if the Swedish Government would promise not to extradite him to the US. The Swedish Government won’t make any promises. That’s because the US prosecutors very likely have a sealed indictment against Assange. Why won’t the Obama administration just say, ‘We have no intention of seeking Assange’s extradition’? More silence.
In point of fact, the way the Swedish prosecutor has behaved to the two women involved in the matter seems deeply wrong. The women originally went to the police station in the first instance not to press charges against Assange, but to ask if they could somehow get him to do tests for STDs. The police took matters into their own hands, escalating a simple inquiry into a full criminal investigation. One of the women was so horrified at the time that she refused to sign her statement. If a crime had actually been committed, then the victims deserved a speedy investigation, not a drawn out media circus to advance some prosecutor’s career. However, all this is a diversion from the main game, exactly as it’s meant to be. The main game is the Collateral Murder video published by Assange. It shows diabolical behaviour by a group of American soldiers who shot innocent children. A good Samaritan stops in a Baghdad street to help dying Reuters news agency employees, also shot by the soldiers. The soldiers then gun down the good Samaritan and his two children. The recording records the soldiers bantering like they are playing a video game.
An experienced Australian military officer told me he had studied the video and there was no doubt in his mind that what he was watching was a crime. Were these soldiers charged? Put on trial? No. There was an internal ‘investigation’ that disappeared with no repercussions. If it walks, talks and smells like a whitewash, then it probably is one.
It gets uglier. Reuters news agency originally made a Freedom of Information request about the incident. The US military said that no such document existed. This was clearly a boldfaced lie – designed to cover up a heinous crime. Has anyone been charged with conspiracy for that? Not one.
The Gillard Government should take note. There’s a growing restlessness in the population about wrongdoing and the price paid by our truth tellers. Their promised whistleblower reform law has become another election commitment that awaits its moment before Parliament.
A newspaper journalist by training, Dr Suelette Dreyfus wrote the book Underground, with Julian Assange. She is the principle researcher in the World Online Whistleblowing Survey which is currently open to everyone. Foreign editions of the survey will be launching on July 30. View her full profile here.