news The Government and the Opposition took squirming to new heights recently while handling — or rather not handling — the threat of prosecution faced by Australian citizen and WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange in the USA, a media release put out by the Australian Greens yesterday.
The party’s critical reactions came after its communications spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam questioned the Government about the latest WikiLeaks revelations and what the Government knew of the sealed grand jury indictment against Assange, and both questions drew a blank.
The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that according to a confidential e-mail obtained from private US security organisation Stratfor, US prosecutors drew up secret charges against Assange more than a year ago. In an internal e-mail to Stratfor analysts on January 26, 2011, the vice president of intelligence, Fred Burton, revealed that “We have a sealed indictment on Assange.” The information, apparently from a US government source, comes with warnings ‘not for publication’ and ‘please protect’.
“Either the Government has been kept ignorant by their American allies for thirteen months, or they have been keeping the sealed indictment a secret from the Australian public. The Government says they are not aware of any charges by the US Government against Mr Assange. Let’s assume, then, that they’ve been kept in the dark for more than a year by Washington, which is hardly reassuring,” the media release said.
“Asked if the Prime Minister will ascertain whether this sealed indictment against an Australian citizen exists—the Government had no answer. Asked what the Government would do if the US attempted to extradite Mr Assange, the Government had no answer.”
In a senate speech yesterday, Senator Ludlam said: “There is a fierce campaign afoot to destroy WikiLeaks: to discredit Mr Assange and his associates and colleagues and to set the organisation back—in fact, to simply destroy it.” He said: “We need to know what the role of the Australian government in this has been” and added that a series of freedom of information requests he initiated last year about why it was so difficult to disclose this kind of information were stonewalled, blocked, and met with excuses. He called on the Australian government to come clean on what it knows.
Senator Ludlam later moved a motion for the Senate to acknowledge that Mr Assange had been recognised as a journalist by organisations including the Walkley Foundation and the British High Court. “This was too frightening for the Labor Party and the Coalition. They sat there and voted against a list of seven undisputed facts. What could have got them so spooked?” asked the Greens media release.
The news of the secret indictment comes as Assange awaits a British Supreme Court decision on his appeal against extradition to Sweden in relation to sexual assault allegations. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Assange, who has not been charged with any offence in Sweden, fears extradition to Stockholm will open the way for his extradition to the US on possible espionage or conspiracy charges in retaliation for WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked US classified military and diplomatic reports.
I am personally highly ambivalent about Julian Assange. I do not personally believe that he is a journalist — what ethical journalist would report on information that had been obtained from a company by means of hacking its internal database, as rogue Internet group Anonymous appears to have done with Stratfor? None. It is unethical for journalists to report on material which has been illegally obtained. Furthermore, with some of the material which Wikileaks has released, it is far from clear that there is a public interest in it being released.
However, Ludlam is right. Assange is an Australian citizen and must be afforded all of the protections such status offers. The fact that the Australian Government is not actively seeking to protect the Wikileaks founder is frightening for those of us who also seek to release confidential information in the public interest, and a damning indictment of our lack of strength when dealing with our American allies.