Monday, 20 August 2012

Catch 22: London's Assange Stand-off

Julian Assange: America's top troublemaker?
The siege drama going on at the Ecuadorian embassy in London is catching many people's beliefs somewhere between a rock and a hard place. 

Balcony theatrics have lent Julian Assange a melodramatic platform from which to appeal to our sensibilities about liberal free speech, press freedoms and transparent governance.

Mr Assange kept quiet about the rape allegations, which would paint him in a different hue. I'm not sure myself what to think of Mr Assange: tech genius; oddball eccentric; ruthless journalist; amoral and ambitious; a dangerous, destabilising threat? All might apply.

Twitter looks in serious danger of devouring itself over the topic: pitting liberal lefties who hate the US government on principle against (usually indistinguishable) feminist-first commentators, for whom the rape charges (however shaky) must (I'd agree) take precedence. To me, that's not about igniting a rape debate, but the rule of law.

Yesterday's Evita-esque spectacle looked and sounded crass to me. His talk of policemen stalking the fire exit stairwells but conspicuous lack of any mention or showing of respect for the rape allegations seemed wrong.

Ironically enough for a man heading an organisation founded on libertarian principles of free speech, Assange's balcony stance had the look of a tinpot Latin American populist.

It's worth pointing out that Ecuador's leftist government shelters its own leader from prosecution, treats journalists like criminals, and regularly enjoys riling the US, alongside Venezuela's odious Hugo Chavez, and for ideological reasons opposite to Assange's.

Yes, most of us can agree that the US is on embarked on a witch hunt against Wikileaks and its Australian founder, Julian Assange.  It's hard to argue against, given the amount of times Wikileaks itself was targeted by cyber attacks. There is also a serious attempt to classify Wikileaks as a terrorist organisation, alongside bomb-toting nasties like Al-Qaeda.

The sexual allegations against Assange look far from watertight. He has powerful enemies. Like many historical figureheads of astute political or media organisations, Assange's own behaviour (in his case sexually liberal, at least) appears to have become a vulnerability.

On a personal level, I take offence to Wikileaks' simplistic moral imperative that transparency must always be a good thing. We all have our own moral codes, but there are times when they must be contradicted. The world is a murkier place than we like to admit.

Transparent governance is for the most part an admirable mantra. Taken to an extreme by Wikileaks, it can poison the norms of international diplomacy. Such disclosures can, and quite possibly have already, cost lives. Assange probably thinks deep down that he should expect to have a degree of personal privacy, but clearly he thinks governments have no such rights.

"Public interest" is usually shouted in return by those exhorting maximum disclosure, yet Wikileaks is not an accountable body in the same way that mainstream journalism can be brought to book, as it has in recent years in the UK with charges levied for phone-hacking.

Assange operates outside of the rules of journalistic standards, in an era when bloggers, twitter and the web have stretched and blurred the lines of journalism at new extremities. 

Operating outside of the rules of the game has already seen Australia go quite far to turning its back on Assange. Most countries will now consider him an outlaw of one sort or other. Not Ecuador, apparently. Certainly Assange is showing a lack of respect for Swedish law, right now.

As for the UK government, it, like Assange, seems caught between a rock and a hard place. Certainly the UK enjoys strong ties with the US, while many Britons seem to enjoy thumbing Uncle Sam with a thin smattering of Anti-American sentiment (or at least against those shady types in Washington, or war-hungry frat-boy "Dubya" caricatures).

This misrepresents the UK's position. In order to show proper respect for Sweden and international law (oh please stop muttering about Iraq already), the UK is obliged to hand Assange over. 

Bookmakers are taking odds on Assange escaping by helicopter or tunnelling under Knightsbridge. It seems unlikely he can skip the police cordon as easily as he skipped bail already, so a plane to Ecuador seems equally far-fetched.


You only have to think back to April and it was the Americans sheltering a blind Chinese legal activist from Beijing's authoritarian clutches. Who's the bad guy now?

Ironically enough, commentators are now comparing Assange's plight with that of a cardinal seeking political asylum at the height of the Cold War; he was trapped in the US Embassy in Hungary for 15 years.

If the Swedes can guarantee not to hand over Assange to the Americans, that might tempt him out from his Ecuadorian bolt-hole, but that is not the UK's part in this sticky Catch 22 situation.

Thoughts?

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