Who’s afraid of Julian Assange?

Images: Miren Hurtado

2012_09_15_Who's afrid of Julian Assagne_The Guardian headquarters

On 19 June 2012, in a final attempt to resist extradition to Sweden, Julian Assange requested asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Since then, the media hostility towards the WikiLeaks founder and the subsequent diplomatic row has showed mainstream media’s lack of sympathy for a man who helped release a trove of classified military and diplomatic information that became front page news items worldwide. 

Luke Harding from The Guardian seems to have adopted a hostile language in the coverage of Assange’s asylum request and his last speech at the Ecuadorean embassy balcony. The newspaper’s front page (20 August 2012) includes sarcastic and mocking remarks about Assange’s appearance.

In a carefully crafted 10-minute speech, the WikiLeaks founder thanked those who had made his escape from a Swedish extradition warrant possible: Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa (who is having a good Assange crisis), the country’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño and the freedom-loving nations of South America. He mentioned many of them by name, Argentina twice.”

Certainly, there were plenty of men in blue to be seen around the embassy on Sunday. Scotland Yard was taking no chances. Before Assange appeared at the balcony – in scenes that might have sprung from Monthy Python’s Life of Brian – officers had comprehensively sealed off the area.”

The online version (19 August 2012) can be found here.

Assange has been reviled by the bulk of the press as a ‘narcissistic‘ ‘hi-tech terrorist‘ and Democratic Fox News analyst Bob Beckel even called for his assassination. At The Guardian online (20 August 2012 by Associated Press in Quito) the newspaper refers to Assange as ‘Australian ex-hacker’ – in a clearly derogatory way – instead of being credited as ‘WikiLeaks founder’, or ‘Assange’. Besides this, there is one misleading paragraph in the same article.

The Ecuadorean president, Rafael Correa, says there is sufficient reason to fear the Australian ex-hacker who published the largest trove of US secrets ever in 2010 would be denied due process in the US and could face life in prison or even the death penalty.

2012_09_15_Who's afrid of Julian Assange_Ecuadorean Embassy in Central London
Ecuadorean embassy in central London.

However, it was not Assange who published the US secrets. The whistleblowing organisation WikiLeaks, founded by him, released and leaked about 250,000 classified U.S. Department of State cables to five major newspapers from the United Kingdom (The Guardian), France (Le Monde), Germany (Der Spiegel), Spain (El País) and the United States (The New York Times). And it was those news organisations which started to simultaneously publishing parts of the confidential diplomatic cables from the US embassies around the world.

2012_09_15_Who's afrid of Julian Assange_WikiLeaks' Supporters
Several messages of support to WikiLeaks outside the embassy.

The media have offered a wide-ranging discussion around the possible fate of Assange and the response to his asylum request has clearly undermined his achievements – in terms of exposing alleging government and corporate misconduct -. In an opinion piece from The Wall Street Journal Europe (22 August 2012), Professor at the University of Chicago Law School Eric Posner said:

“The British government seeks to extradite him to Sweden so that he can face charges that he sexually assaulted two women, but under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, British police can’t enter Ecuador’s embassy.”

The online version (20 August 2012) is available here.

It is important to make a distinction between ‘sexual allegations’ and ‘sexual charges’. So far, a warrant has been issued for the purpose of questioning Julian Assange over allegations of sexual assault – no charges -. Sweden has not officially charged Assange with any crime. He is wanted for questioning over sexual assault allegations. There is a huge difference. Implying that Assange is facing charges of sexual assault in Sweden is misleading about the legal aspects of the case, giving the wrong impression about Assange’s legal status and reinforcing a negative perception of him.

According to this, it could be said that the inaccurate language used by the media is having a negative impact on a legal case and also on the public opinion.

2012_09_15_Who's afrid of Julian Assange_WikiLeaks' Supporters II

Despite the general lack of dissent, a comment piece from Seumas Milne (The Guardian 21 August 2012) depicts the virulence of British media hostility towards Assange as ‘unrelenting’. While Milne states that Assange should clearly answer the rape allegations made against him, and if charges are brought, stand trial, the columnist also highlights that Assange is a man who, after all, has yet to be charged of anything. Despite this, he has been portrayed by the press as a ‘montrous narcissist’, a ‘sex pest’ and a ‘exhibitionist maniac’. Furthermore, after the Ecuadorean President, Rafael Correa, granted him political asylum, he has been branded a ‘corrupt dictator’.

This is a video from Al Jazeera (25 August 2012) exposing the little debate on the potential impact of the whistleblowing website on journalism and the broad discussion around the WikiLeaks founder. The debate also analyses whether there has been fair comment on Assange or he has been simply diminished.

What remains clear is that the allegations of sex crimes, the extradition case and the asylum request are becoming more and more the ‘Assange case’. The focus on the man by major news outlets seems to indicate a tendency to overshadow the crucial importance of what WikiLeaks represents. After all, all those news organisations – with all their resources and contacts – failed to release the kind of news WikiLeaks did with just one website.

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