Editorial: Flight costs Assange all credibility

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Photo / AP
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Photo / AP

Two years ago, Julian Assange had a well-deserved reputation as a champion of transparency.

The WikiLeaks founder had overseen the responsible release of hundreds of thousands of classified cables from American embassies. People worldwide were provided with a better grasp of international relations and, more particularly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, however, Mr Assange's credibility has been shredded. As much has been reinforced by his hugely ironic presence in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for the past two months. And, even more so, by his recent attempt to re-establish his credentials as a guardian of free speech.

Speaking from a balcony of the embassy, Mr Assange portrayed himself as a fearless victim of United States oppression who had fled there to avoid imprisonment in America for his WikiLeaks work. The US had a stark choice, he said. "Will it return and reaffirm the values, the revolutionary values it was founded on, or will it lurch off the precipice dragging us all into a dangerous and oppressive world, in which journalists fall silent under the fear of prosecution and citizens must whisper in the dark?"

This played well with hard-core supporters gathered below. But Mr Assange's calculated avoidance of the actual reason he had broken the terms of his bail and sought refuge in the embassy can only have further damaged his reputation. He decided to seek asylum in Ecuador not because of any threat to his freedom posed by the United States but because he is wanted for questioning in Sweden over wholly unrelated rape claims by two women. A 10-minute speech that contained no mention of this was hardly the hallmark of a man committed to openness, honesty and accountability.

It spoke volumes that only a few hundred people gathered for Mr Assange's speech. He has burned many bridges.

WikiLeaks' initial release of classified documents was done in a reasoned manner through co-operation with three major newspapers - the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. It was no anarchic exercise based on the view that it was right and proper for all information to be released to the public.

Subsequently, however, many of Mr Assange's contacts have become disillusioned with his increasing disregard for sensible caveats that preclude the release of some documents.

His stocks have fallen further with his association with Ecuador. The South American nation has a record of human rights abuses, notably in denying its citizens freedom of expression. It suits President Rafael Correa to grant Mr Assange asylum because of the anti-American sentiment that simmers in that part of the continent. But it was ridiculous for Mr Assange to sing the praises of Ecuador and other governments in South America, given their dismal records in the very area he purports to champion.

In the wake of 9/11, the United States has its own dubious record on rights. Guantanamo Bay is but one example of the bending and breaching of international conventions.

Equally, it is apparent the United States has over-reacted to the threat posed by the middle-range secrets released by Private Bradley Manning to WikiLeaks, and would like to see Mr Assange prosecuted for espionage. But its best chance of extraditing him is from Britain, not circuitously from Sweden, where public opinion would not stand for it. The United States has not started that process.

Britain, in contrast, wants to fulfil its obligations to Sweden by extraditing him to Stockholm to answer the rape allegations. That is the reality being avoided by Mr Assange, at a huge and enduring cost to his reputation, as he seeks safe passage from his London bolthole. The ideals represented by WikiLeaks will survive him being held to account.

- NZ Herald

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