How Trump is Using Julian Assange to Curb Free Speech

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You know who I hate? Julian Assange. I can’t stand him. He’s obviously a gigantic prick, with his stupid hair and the fact that he hid out in the Ecuadorian embassy for 8 years to avoid going on trial for rape in Sweden, where one woman said Assange had committed sexual acts on her without her consent and another woman said that he had raped her while she was asleep.

And of course his website, Wikileaks, is the one that, according to a Republican-led Senate report, Russia manipulated to release thousands of documents that were damaging to Hilary Clinton in the runup to the 2016 election, while remaining curiously tight-lipped about any documents related to Trump.

Seriously, Julian Assange has the most punchable of faces and I honestly wish he would just go away.

However, what is currently happening to him in a UK court is seriously disturbing and the entire world needs to open their eyes and pay attention, because the United States is trying to use him to set a precedent that will have far-reaching negative consequences for free speech and a free press as we know it.

Let me catch you up, just in case you’ve been too busy trying to survive a worldwide pandemic: six years after Assange first started hiding from rape charges in the Ecuadorian embassy, relations with between Assange and Ecuador began to sour, to the point that Assange sued Ecuador because he felt that they were imposing unreasonable rules that violated his “fundamental rights and freedoms” to try to push him out of his asylum. According to the BBC, the judge in the case ruled against him, saying that “a requirement to pay for internet use and clean up after his cat did not violate his right to asylum.”

Great. Another reason to not like him. He never cleans the litter box.

The final straw seemed to occur the following year, in April of 2019, when Wikileaks Tweeted about a corruption investigation looking into the Ecuadorian president. Weirdly, the Ecuadorian president was no longer very interested in protecting Assange, so he invited the Metro police to come and arrest him for failing to surrender himself back in 2012 for the rape charges. He was found guilty of that and sentenced to a year in prison, of which he had to serve 6 months before being let out on good behavior.

That, then, opened the door for the United States to attempt to extradite him for what they saw as crimes he committed way back in 2011. If you’ll recall, Assange published the some 750,000 documents that Chelsea Manning managed to get while working in intelligence for the US Army in Iraq. That included video of a 2007 Baghdad airstrike in which US soldiers are seen laughing as they slaughter innocent civilians and journalists. The US military responded by not opening an investigation into the matter and instead arresting Chelsea Manning, who spent time in prison before her sentence was commuted by Obama. She was imprisoned again in May of this year for contempt, because she refused to testify before a Grand Jury investigating a potential case against Julian Assange.

And that brings us to this month. On September 7th, a trial began in London to determine whether or not the United States could extradite Assange to try him for his “crimes.” What are his crimes, you may wonder? Apparently he enacted a “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” because of an allegation that he tried (and failed) to help Manning use a different username and password to log in to get the documents, because she was afraid of being caught if she used her own.

This is, to use a legal term, fucked up bullshit. As Cory Doctorow noted in a thread on Twitter, investigative journalists who work with whistleblowers very commonly give those whistleblowers advice on how they can protect themselves. As was made abundantly clear with the way the US government responded to Chelsea Manning, whistleblowers put themselves in harm’s way, risking their jobs, their freedom, and sometimes even their lives to reveal information that they hope will make the world a better place. In general, even when the US punishes the whistleblower, the journalists are left alone, because presumably we value a free press. 

The Trump administration is now challenging that by trying to prosecute Assange for the “crime” of trying to protect a source and publishing the extremely important documents that she stole. The US is arguing that some of the documents contained the names of informants in Iraq and Afghanistan, though the Pentagon has yet to announce a single instance of harm coming to any of those informants. Regardless, it still isn’t a crime to publish the truth. Or at least, it wasn’t a crime under past presidents. Apparently it is now.

It’s a very dangerous precedent to set, and the Trump administration may be hoping that Assange has no allies left to pay attention to what’s happening. To make matters worse, Amnesty International has announced that they have been blocked from observing the trial, something that generally doesn’t even happen to them in developing countries run by warlords. Amnesty’s Stefan Simanowitz writes, “The U.S. government’s unrelenting pursuit of Julian Assange for having published disclosed documents is nothing short of a full-scale assault on the right to freedom of expression. The potential chilling effect on journalists and others who expose official wrongdoing by publishing information disclosed to them by credible sources could have a profound impact on the public’s right to know what their government is up to.

“If Julian Assange is silenced, others will also be gagged either directly or by the fear of persecution and prosecution which will hang over a global media community already under assault in the U.S. and in many other countries worldwide.

“The U.S. Justice Department is not only charging a publisher who has a non-disclosure obligation but a publisher who is not a U.S. citizen and not in America. The U.S. government is behaving as if they have jurisdiction all over the world to pursue any person who receives and publishes information of government wrongdoing.”

I can’t add much more to that. Trump is obviously bad for America, but he’s doing his best to be bad for the rest of the world as well. And I’m not so sure this is a tactic that a Democratic president would immediately denounce, so this isn’t something that will just be magically solved by voting in November. Even if Biden takes office, it’s important that he knows we are watching what’s happening and we don’t like it.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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