So, it’s settled then. There must be a scapegoat. And that scapegoat is now being prepared for the ritual sacrifice: Julian Assange is behind bars. He was taken into custody after the Ecuadorean government “invited” the British police to remove him from its embassy in London. Subsequently, his many years of evading the wrath of the United States appear to be coming to an end. The likelihood that Great Britain will refuse the United States’ extradition request is virtually nonexistent, especially now that the U.S. has finally come up with a legal cudgel with which it can not only bludgeon Assange’s arrogant mug to their heart’s content, but which it can use against anyone else who even thinks about exposing the sordid goings-on in the back rooms of American politics.
The arrest itself should come as no surprise. It has already been clear for some time that the change in government leadership in Ecuador also heralded the end of Assange’s freedom — to the extent that being forced to live for years in an embassy can be considered as such. The fact that Assange once again felt the need to air his host’s dirty laundry hardly helped his situation.
Unfortunately, the ease with which the American government has been able to sell the peculiar legal foundation on which the arrest is based should also come as no surprise. We are once again witnessing an extraordinarily effective propaganda machine designed to ensure that these issues are framed in the desired manner, as institutional interests must be protected and, so it seems, constitutional protections dismantled.
It began with the title of the press release that was circulated by the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, immediately following the arrest: “WikiLeaks Founder Charged in Computer Hacking Conspiracy.” Not only does this cleverly use the image that Assange himself embraced — that of a genius hacker — against him, it is also portrays him as a conspirator.
In light of such artful framing, anyone expecting the indictment to be a long list of extremely treacherous crimes is bound to be disappointed. So what will be the case then? The alleged conspiracy focuses primarily on a handful of messages that Assange exchanged with whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Manning had initially submitted information independently to Wikileaks — you probably recall the shocking “Collateral Murder” video, the release of which instantly made Wikileaks a household name — and was later encouraged by Assange to gather more information.
Despite the fact that his activities, according to official documents, remained limited to providing advice, as well as a failed attempt to decrypt a password, the American government is charging Assange with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Consequently, he loses the legal protections he would otherwise benefit from if the alleged activities were properly classified, as a part of investigative journalism.
There was once a great deal of affection between Assange and the so-called “quality press” in America and Britain, as long as that relationship was good for sales. However, as soon as our interest in the massacres in Baghdad faded and we failed to bat an eyelash at the more or less vicious gossip contained in emails exchanged by diplomatic personnel, then the score could finally be settled with the eccentric — albeit somewhat mediagenic — founder of WikiLeaks. This was especially true after he was accused of playing a role in a political victory that should have never even been possible: the election of Donald Trump.
Perhaps this also helps explain why it has taken so long for the news industry to focus on the essence of the case and to provide space for the strongly justified outrage over this mockery of the legal system. Fortunately, more and more people are speaking up against this.
In the ongoing battle that the (American) government is waging to silence whistleblowers, no means are too extreme. Not even the shredding of the First Amendment, which protects the freedom of press, among other things. The arrest of Assange represents a serious threat to those press freedoms. It doesn’t matter what we think of Assange. This isn’t about Assange. This is about the future of every journalist who still values the search for the truth. Because if the acts that Assange is being accused of committing are deemed to be crimes, then all activities integral to investigative journalism also immediately become criminalized. That is what this is about.
Of course, we could also just look the other way and wait until there is something else for us to get worked up about. Fake news, for example. Speaking of which, has anyone heard anything more about the NSA?
Ben Caudron is a sociologist of technology at the Erasmus University College Brussels