Also to be published by the Institute for the Public Interest

Like millions of people, I woke up on the 25th June, 2024 to a tremendous piece of good news. Everywhere I looked online, everyone was cheering. Julian Assange was out of Belmarsh High Security Prison. He had been subjected to 1901 days or 5 years and 2 months of 23 hours a day mostly solitary confinement in a tiny cell. It feels like a paradigm shifting moment. Whilst it is obviously a moving and celebratory time for both Julian and his family as well as his wider supportive network, in actual fact, the paradigm shifting moment was when Mr Assange was targeted by the United States government for exposing their corruption and war crimes and other news-worthy information which the public is entitled to know in a “democracy”.

Until the week of 24th June 2024, Mr Assange was facing up to 17 espionage charges in the US. If he had been extradited and convicted, this would have entailed 175 years in a super max prison, the inhumane conditions of which surpass even Belmarsh. The unprecedented charges against a journalist and publisher were unheard of in the ‘liberal democracies’ of the western world until his persecution; clearly political in nature. No journalist had ever been accused of violations under the US Espionage Act of 1917 until Mr Assange published video and documentary evidence of US government war crimes and torture in 2010, notably the harrowing footage referred to as the Collateral Murder video, showing US military slaughtering over a dozen people including two Reuters journalists from an Apache helicopter gunship. The US military allegedly investigated the incident and ruled that it was within their “Rules of Engagement”. This shocking video ricocheted around the world and revealed the deadly nature of the US’s military involvement in Iraq, a country it illegally invaded and occupied from 2003 to 2011, which, 21 years later, has over 2500 troops and many more contractors stationed there.

The US government apparently only considered releasing Julian Assange from the threat of charges and extradition if he agreed to a plea bargain and accept that he had received and published US government information, the bread and butter of any journalist’s job. Under the Orwellian Espionage Act, this routine and necessary work is weaponised, creating a threatening precedent for all journalists and publishers today.

No one could begrudge Mr Assange for accepting this plea in order to be reunited with his wife Stella and their two young sons in Australia, the emotional footage of their longed for reunion brought smiles and tears in equal measure. I daresay that it will not be easy to adjust to this new reality. Mr Assange has been through a 12 year ordeal of politically driven persecution. The motive of which (in my view) was to destroy WikiLeaks as a viable and functioning organisation, to destroy Mr Assange because of his persistence in pursuing the truth with integrity and accuracy and his example to others. This immoral effort has, thankfully, failed so far, but it’s my opinion, also that of Craig Murray, former British Ambassador, author and supporter of Mr Assange, that the US intelligence service and its various associations will not let up on Julian or WikiLeaks. Nevertheless, in an interview with reporters on the morning of Mr Assange’s arrival in Australia, Stella Assange stated that Julian would need time to recover but that he remained “principled and unafraid”, she also said that they would fight for a pardon at some point in the future. A brave and unapologetic statement.

There should be a concerted push back against authoritarian laws passed in the name of ‘national security’ but which dampen and deter investigative journalism instead. In recent years, the UK has passed a slew of legislation, the National Security Act, which I will discuss further down, the CHIS (covert and human intelligence sources) Act 2021 which ostensibly legalises on a far greater scale that which was exposed as the “spy cops scandal”, giving 14 separate agencies authority to conduct criminal activities in the interests of ‘national security’, ‘detecting or preventing crime, or of preventing disorder’ and last but not least ‘the economic well-being of the United Kingdom’. These 14 authorities range from the police to intelligence to the military, the tax office, the Home Office, the Environment Agency and the Gambling Commission for example.

Further legislation such as the massive Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 which among many other new laws obstruct the Right to Freedom of Assembly and Protest, giving the police expedited powers to ban protests or designate areas as ‘protected’ or ‘controlled’. In addition, it includes the unspecific and subjective Section 60 which relates to ‘non criminal hate incidents’. The Online Safety Act 2023 is an attempt to regulate the online sphere with, once again, non specific phraseology such as to ‘mitigate and manage the risks of harm’. How does one define any of those terms to begin with?

The most recent creeping totalitarian law to be enacted is the National Security Act 2023. Another complex yet vague bundle which had full consultative involvement with the UK’s intelligence services and the Law Commission. Whilst it repeals the three pre-1950 Official Secrets Acts (OSA), it leaves the 1989 OSA intact yet makes no provision for a public interest disclosure nor whistle blower protection. It’s said to be necessary in a rapidly changing world with various threats from ‘foreign powers’ though no wars have been declared openly, it is evident who the UK and the US view as hostile ‘foreign powers’ – Russia, China and Iran to name the top three. According to this new law, anyone, whether British or not, living in the UK or not, can be charged with espionage for obtaining or disclosing ‘protected information’. The wording of this act is so woolly that all manner of innocent activity could be declared as ‘espionage’ with the convicted sentenced to life imprisonment. A person who obtains and discloses ‘trade secrets belonging to a UK person could be sentenced to 14 years and anyone ‘assisting a foreign intelligence service’ can also receive up to 14 years in prison. I have absolutely no doubt that these laws would not apply to people who assisted the US or other European nations or Israel, but those relationships are always in the ‘national interest’ of course.

Imagine this scenario, MI5 or MI6 decide to infiltrate an anti-war group who campaign for nuclear disarmament and oppose the introduction of military service as well as the build up of war preparations for a kinetic war with Russia. They befriend a passionate young soul working at a UK defence contactors and encourage them to spread information online, they also introduce a Russian speaking individual to this pacifist youth and he/she is encouraged to pass ‘protected information’ on to the Russian speaking person for informative purposes only. This is, in my view, not only plausible but highly possible in the new cold war/hot war atmosphere we are in. Not only would MI5/6 not be prosecuted for this unethical activity, they would be championed for their services to national security. But the real question should be “what is national security and what is in the national interest”. Any sane person would say ‘NO’ to war.

It is precisely for these reasons, because we have had over two decades of experience of governments lying us into wars and military offences in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and beyond that we need brave and principled journalists like Julian Assange and whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Craig Murray, John Kiriakou, David McBride and the OPCW scientists Brendan Whelan and Ian Henderson. Mr McBride (a former major in the British Army and lawyer in the Australian Armed forces) was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison with no parole for two years in May this year. Major McBride’s crime? He disclosed Commonwealth documents relating to horrific crimes committed by the Australian Army in Afghanistan.

So, let Julian Assange recover from his torturous ordeal, let him enjoy his birthday this July for the first time in many years, free to play on the beach with his wife and sons. Meanwhile, the networks which were built over the past 12 years in a universal effort to defend Julian Assange and release him from political captivity must celebrate then regroup and march on, because as Mr Assange famously stated “If wars can be started by lies, they can be stopped by truth”!

(Featured Image: “Julian Assange mural, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia” by gruntzooki is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Cropped by Propaganda In Focus.)