When WikiLeaks published Collateral Murder, the graphic video of a US helicopter gunship ripping Iraqi civilians to pieces, it slapped the world out of a long Cinderella spell. The illusion that war is "surgical" and "precise" and causes minimal "collateral damage", carefully constructed by governments since the UK invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, was dispelled.
Remember the black and white images from the bombers during the 1991 Gulf War?
Blurry video footage with a smoke trail from a missile and a very distant tiny smoke plume. Or how about the "embedded" reporters of the second 2003 Iraq War?
Here the war propaganda tactic was perfected: Embed high profile reporters with the front line troops. Feed and protect them to make them loyal to the cause — beaming back, at times, real time vision of how well the war was going. Keep the rest of the reporters in a huge warehouse thousands of kilometres away in Doha and drip feed them sanitised information that is often impossible to verify, critically assess and analyse.
Apart from a handful of independent reports, the world slid further and further into its "war-is-an-acceptable-way-to-resolve conflict-delusion".
Fast forward to the Collateral Murder video.
Here war was for the first time in decades shown exactly as it is — brutal, bloody and barbaric. The first and final truth about war is that it kills lots of people, including civilians. Unless it’s purely defensive, those that wage war are always trying to obfuscate this fact. This is why WikiLeaks is so important.
The public will never get the full truth using Freedom of Information laws (FOI). We can get partial truth, but not the full story. I say this reluctantly as I am strong believer in FOI systems and it is my passion as a researcher. But FOI laws are internal systems into which governments around the world have been dragged kicking and screaming. FOI has always been and will always be a compromise to maintain the balance between openness and being able to govern effectively.
What was missing until WikiLeaks burst onto the scene was a potent external player that could force open barred doors and disclose the best-guarded secrets. The international information system from time to time needs a really good shake and prod from the outside. WikiLeaks provides that external agitation. Every now and then we have seen high profile whistleblowers rock the boat somewhat, but not enough. WikiLeaks facilitates organised whistleblowing on a global scale.
From an information and accountability perspective, this is why the greatest loss in the Assange vs Sweden tragedy is the functionality of WikiLeaks. I’m not saying that there is no threat against WikiLeaks — just look at the ongoing financial blockade of donations to the organisation. But there are a number of issues that have been under-reported or misreported in the Australian press.
The first issue is freedom of speech and the press. This is probably the most straightforward part of this otherwise complex story. Wikileaks obtained controversial information from several anonymous sources and published the information. This is what journalists do — they act as agencies of accountability.
Early on, Assange didn’t seem to quite understand the importance of assessing all information and choosing not publish some items, which complicated matters. For instance, some of the names of individuals in the Afghani and Iraqi war logs and diaries could have been redacted. This seems to have been dealt with via the WikiLeaks "harm minimisation policy".
Rumour has it — and it’s important to point out that it’s not yet confirmed — that the US is preparing a secret criminal case against Assange, based on possible espionage charges. It must be a strong case indeed if it is to trump the First Amendment of the US Constitution that offers explicit protection of free speech and free press. If Assange goes on trial in the US for publishing the truth about war and diplomacy the clock will be turned back hundreds of years on essential freedoms.
The US case has not been helped by a few right wing commentators and politicians calling for Assange’s death. Further, the treatment of the alleged main WikiLeaks source, Bradley Manning, is unworthy of a mature liberal democracy like the US. The death threats and Manning’s treatment vindicate Assange’s concerns about the US being out to "get him". However, it’s still hard to see how the US prosecution would bypass the first amendment.
The second issue is the Assange v Sweden case. Both sides in this sorry saga have ended up in a completely unnecessary deadlock.
Regardless of what you think of the Swedish rape and sexual assault law and the Swedish legal system, Assange could have gone back to Sweden and sorted this out from the start. Based on the first part of the police investigation it could only be a matter of days for the prosecutor to reach a decision whether to lay charges or not. Instead Assange has now effectively been under house arrest for more than 600 days. That’s a long time when you’re the leader of an organisation that is dependent on donations based on you speaking at various events around the globe. Assange needs to move freely to be an effective leader of WikiLeaks.
Sweden can’t unilaterally decide to hand over Assange to the US. The Assange camp has failed to explain or provide evidence why he would be more likely to be extradited from Sweden than from the UK to the US. Given that the UK is closer politically to the US than Sweden, it seems more likely he would be handed over by the British.
The Swedish police and the prosecution authority (Åklagarmyndigheten) did not cover themselves in glory in the early handling of the case. However, this does not mean that there is a wide ranging US-led conspiracy aiming to frame or to "get" Assange and WikiLeaks — there simply is no evidence to support this.
The most curious part of Sweden’s actions is the refusal to interview Assange in London or via video link. Such practice is not uncommon. The issue surfaced again when Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. This prompted the Swedish prosecution authority to post a statement on its website justifying the decision to issue the European arrest warrant rather than interviewing Assange in London:
"Based on the evidence in the police investigation, the prosecutor has decided that it’s necessary for Assange to be in Sweden in person to be interviewed regarding this evidence and to be present for follow up interviews and a possible legal trial."
Regardless if you think this is a weak or a strong justification, it is the decision of a prosecutor that is part of a long-standing rule of law system.
My analysis of this is that both sides in this case, Julian Assange and the Swedish state, intensely dislike being told what to do.
In Assange’s case this is amplified by a few far-fetched and not substantiated conspiracy theories. The one that has done Assange the greatest disservice is that Swedish politics and law making is dominated by a very powerful group of fundamental feminists who have declared war on men and on sex. If this is true, why is there still wage inequality between men and women in Sweden? Why are male members of parliament in majority? Why are the vast majority of corporate board seats still held by men? This "war on men" myth, spread by blogs linked to from the "Justice for Assange" website, has severely damaged Assanges’s credibility.
The Swedish prosecutor’s consistent refusal to comment on the case, even in general terms, is very unfortunate. It has meant that international news media, including Australian media, has been left to speculate regarding justifications for legal decisions and to a large extent on how the Swedish justice system works.
This has shone a light on the culture clash between the common law and the Swedish/Germanic legal systems. There are differences between them but they share the same aim — to guarantee the fairness of the rule of law. The culture clash is probably the reason why the Swedish justice system has, at times, been described as dodgy and weird in Australian media. There is no evidence to suggest that the Swedish legal system is worse than the Australian one. If you really want to get down to facts — make a comparative list of proven miscarriages of justice, instead of picking on singular differences between the systems.
One of WikiLeaks most important disclosures took place in 2008 With the embarrassing exposure of alleged asset hiding, money laundering and tax evasion facilitated by the powerful Swiss bank Julius Baer. The company mustered all the legal clout it could, which was considerable, but couldn’t stop WikiLeaks from publishing.
Governments have many secrets — but so does the corporate sector. Indeed, the actions of the large corporations have as much, if not more, influence on our daily lives as do governments. WikiLeaks is badly needed as a safe and anonymous dropbox for corporate whistleblowers.
As long as Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy and as long as the legal issues in Sweden remain unresolved, he and WikiLeaks will not be able to do what they should do: turning the spotlight into the darkest corners where the mainstream media can’t reach and where FOI laws don’t extend.
Assange is an individual, albeit one with a huge support base. Sweden is a state with an entire legal system at its disposal. In my view, the Swedish prosecutor should interview Assange in London or via video link so that a decision to charge or not can be made, for everyone’s sake: the women accusing Assange so they can finally get closure, for Assange personally and for WikiLeaks as an organisation.
The world needs WikiLeaks to function freely again as an agency for accountability keeping power in all forms somewhat more honest.
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