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Supporting Julian Assange, fighting for a free press

A decade after the publication of 250,000 secret US cables, the former editor-in-chief of ‘The Guardian’ criticizes widespread indifference over the fate of the WikiLeaks founder

Manifestación en apoyo de Julian Assange, en Londres, el 21 de octubre de  2019.
Demonstrators showing support for Julian Assange in London on October 21, 2019.DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

It was a day of high drama and almost slapstick comedy. Dozens of journalists across five countries were poised to publish the biggest leak of secret documents in history. It was a meticulous and precise operation….until it started to go badly wrong.

The date was November 28, 2010 – exactly 10 years ago. The idea was that the collaborating newspapers – The Guardian, EL PAÍS, Der Spiegel, The New York Times and Le Mondewould simultaneously publish the Diplomatic Cables obtained from WikiLeaks at 9.30pm.

Nothing like this leak had ever happened before – millions of top-secret documents from inside the heart of the US government. It had taken months of patient work – redacting, sifting, editing, researching – to get to the point where the journalists could share with the world the scores of stories their teams had prepared.

The two figures who were mainly responsible for the Diplomatic Cables leak have already suffered the fate that may lie in store for many editors and reporters in future

And then – irony of ironies – the operation itself sprang a leak. Early copies of Der Spiegel had mistakenly gone on sale in the morning at a sleepy train station near Basel. A local freelancer started gleefully tweeting out the sensational stories he was reading… and the publication had suddenly to be brought forward: five editors created history a little sooner than planned.

Ten years later we have seen several such collaborations and spillages around the world. The former NSA worker, Edward Snowden, famously enabled an even bigger leak of US secrets in 2013. The digital age makes it far harder to keep information under lock and key, and we have since been treated to vast dossiers of embarrassing and revealing data on tax avoidance and/or financial malpractice.

Journalists are supposed to believe in transparency – and I think most colleagues around the world welcomed the example we collectively set 10 years ago, pioneering the ability of multiple news organisations to work collaboratively on huge data sets. Journalists are bred to compete: in the 21st century we are learning to share.

But the past 10 years have also had a darker side. It was perhaps inevitable that a backlash would follow – and it has, with several countries moving to propose tougher laws that would all but make national security reporting, in particular, almost impossible.

Whether or not Assange is “one of us” is surely less important than the slippery slope his case could create for those who consider themselves “real” journalists

Australia has so far gone the furthest, but in the UK there are proposals to increase jail sentences for journalists, not only for writing about state secrets, but for receiving and merely holding material deemed by the state to be secret.

Meanwhile the two figures who were mainly responsible for the Diplomatic Cables leak have already suffered the fate which may lie in store for many editors and reporters in future. The documents’ source, Chelsea Manning, has been jailed and repeatedly harassed. And now Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, lies in jail waiting to hear if he will be extradited to the US and the prospect of serving a very long time inside a maximum security prison.

Assange was a complex figure, even when we were working with him 10 years ago. It is no secret that there were tensions between the five editors and this elusive figure who was part whistleblower, part leaker, part publisher, part hacker, part journalist, part activist, part entrepreneur, part information anarchist.

There were rows, confrontations and long periods of mutual suspicions and silence. I find it hard to defend some of his behaviour since 2016, but I find it easier than some journalists apparently do in believing that it is bad for the cause of freedom of expression if we now stand by and shrug at his fate.

Because he has these multiple identities, it is, of course, easy to disown Assange: “He’s not really one of us,” is how the shrug is justified. Journalists the world over are feeling beleaguered and insecure. They do not much like the digital revolution that has apparently brought their profession to a low point economically. They do not love bloggers and amateurs and social media bigmouths. It seems ever more important to delineate the work of professional journalists – not to make common cause with any laptop warrior.

But we ignore Assange’s fate at our peril. Many of the things he is accused of – encouraging a source to come up with more material or helping a source conceal their identity – are things that most diligent journalists would do.

And then we have the uneasy precedent of the US pursuing an Australian citizen in a British court for spilling matters it considers confidential. Suppose a Spanish journalist resident in London found themselves in trouble for writing about a secret nuclear programme in, say, Pakistan or Israel? Whether or not Assange is “one of us” is surely less important than the slippery slope his case could create for those who consider themselves “real” journalists.

So, while the collaboration that saw the important publication of highly significant material 10 years ago should be remembered and celebrated, the project is also a stinging reminder that freedom of expression is a battle never won.

With the privilege of being a journalist – and, I might add, the reader of such revelations – comes the responsibility to continue the centuries-old fight for a free press. And Julian Assange, whatever we think of him personally, is now a central part in that struggle.

Alan Rusbridger was editor-in-chief of ‘The Guardian’ for 20 years. He now chairs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford and has recently been appointed to the Facebook Oversight Board.

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