The Assange dilemma. What is journalism in the online age?

By LAURIE PATTON | 13 June 2019 (Updated 22 July 2019)

Julian Assange dumped huge amounts of material secured from US Government computers straight onto the Internet, unfiltered and uncorroborated. If, instead, he had leaked it directly to the media outlets that subsequently, but very selectively, published reports based on some of his WikiLeaks files he probably would not be in gaol facing extradition to the United States. His identity as a ‘source’ would have been protected. Ironically, any American journalists who used his material could quite possibly now be in prison for failing to reveal their source.

While there seems little doubt the material was genuine, that’s quite a separate matter from whether or not each document contained accurate and truthful accounts.

And while I sympathise with Assange’s perilous personal position and accept that he is not in good health, let’s not applaud what was a dangerous practice and a dubious precedent – publicly exposing sensitive and unverified data that could potentially risk people’s lives and create unforeseen collateral damage.

At the very least WikiLeaks arguably violated the privacy rights of people named in otherwise confidential documents.

There are calls for the Australian Government to help Assange, but it’s hard to see what can be done for the guy at this point.

Australia’s most well-known contemporary international journalist Peter Greste – who spent more than 400 days in an Egyptian gaol after being arrested on terrorism charges he denied – has challenged the view that Assange is a journalist and maintains WikiLeaks is not a news organisation. “There is an argument to be had about the libertarian ideal of radical transparency that underpins its ethos, but that is a separate issue altogether from press freedom”, Greste has written.

On the other hand, back in 2011 the MEAA – the journalists’ union – gave WikiLeaks a Walkley Award, which is its highest acclamation.

After much thought, I tend to agree with Greste. Assange is worthy of recognition as a whistleblower, but in my mind journalism involves taking important steps that he and WikiLeaks ignored. At its heart it requires efforts to ensure the veracity of anything published. It also involves protecting innocent people who could be indirectly hurt.

As Greste states, rather than “sorting through the hundreds of thousands of files to seek out the most important or relevant and protect the innocent, he dumped them all onto his website, free for anybody to go through, regardless of their contents or the impact they might have had”.

As with any whistleblower, we must also consider Assange’s motives. In this regard it pays to reflect on American socialist writer John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World, where in covering the Russian Revolution he exposes the dilemma facing journalists reporting on events about which they have strong personal or political views.

The judge who sentenced Assange to 50 weeks gaol for skipping bail  described him as “a narcissist who cannot see beyond his own selfish interest”.

Assange’s supporters argue that he is being ill-treated in prison. They also point to the effects from seven years stuck inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, ignoring that fact that seeking asylum was initially a bold tactic designed to avoid possible extradition to Sweden where he had been accused of sexual assault offences – even if Assange had the additional fear that Sweden would agree to any US request to hand him over.

There are cogent arguments about the need for proper treatment of prisoners – especially political prisoners, if that’s how you perceive Assange – but that’s surely something completely unrelated to guilt or innocence?

To me a take-out from the WikiLeaks saga is that we need effective 21st Century whistleblower protections. Laws that govern the circumstances in which it is reasonable for someone to reveal information that exposes official wrongdoing, and provisions within those laws governing the means by which investigations into suspected leaking of sensitive material can be made.

The other side of the whistleblower equation is the right of media organisations to report what they learn, irrespective of the source. This is a fundamental right and responsibility underpinning a modern democracy.

It’s not just ‘bleeding heart lefties’ who are worried about incursions into press freedom. For example, Innes Willox from the Australian Industry Group believes the raids by the Federal Police on journalists last week have “set back” our reputation in the global business community, risking companies avoiding future investments in Australia or at least becoming cautious in their dealings with our governments and their agencies.

In recent years we’ve seen a raft of new laws enacted in the name of national security. Right now the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) is undertaking a review of the controversial Data Retention Act, introduced with the support of both major political parties in the belief it was essential for our protection against terrorism.

As the then CEO of Internet Australia – the NFP peak body representing the interests of Internet users – I appeared before the PJCIS back in 2015, telling its members the drafting of the Bill was “fundamentally flawed”. Subsequent deliberations saw numerous amendments made to the legislation, but it is still considered by civil society groups open to abuse and misuse. The MEAA, for example, continues to question the ability of security agencies to use metadata to track down journalists’ sources.

The problematic history of the Data Retention Act, and in particular what was seen as Labor’s overly acquiescent involvement in its passing, provides a clue as to how we should proceed with what looks likely to be a very public consideration of the creation of press freedom provisions.

Above all, we need to agree on what and who we want to protect. We need to determine the degree to which official actions should be subject to external scrutiny and the extent of the public’s right to know.

As for Mr Assange, he will no doubt continue to split public opinion as to whether he’s a journalist or a whistleblower.

POSTSCRIPT:

This post prompted a lengthy and heated debate on social media. So, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t dispute the value of the WikiLeaks material that exposed activities about which people are entitled to have serious concerns. I have no argument with Julian Assange, other than that he dumped masses of unfiltered material onto the Internet, which in my opinion is not journalism. To me, Assange is a hacker and a whistleblower.

One particularly contentious issue seems to be whether or not people died (or were harmed) as a result of the release of the material by WikiLeaks. Given there were more than 75,000 individual documents involved in just one of a series of dumps it is impossible to know for sure one way or the other. My point is that journalists routinely make judgement calls not to use material or to redact parts, including people’s identities, in order to reduce the risks to third parties and protect people’s privacy rights.

Amnesty International has argued against Assange’s extradition to the US “as he faces a real risk of serious human rights violations if sent there”. That said, Amnesty International also believes it is “vital that the (sexual assault) allegations against Julian Assange are properly investigated, in a way that respects the rights of both the complainant and the person under investigation”.

The International Federation of Journalists has supported MEAA resolutions urging the UK and Australian governments to resist the extradition of Assange (and also condemming the recent AFP raids).

At the very least it is concerning that news reports state Assange is being denied access to computers and suchlike while under detention in a UK prison.

One of Assange’s lawyers, Geoffrey Robertson, has told ABC radio that the Australian Government should at least lodge a protest about his current treatment, given that he is so unwell.

I suspect the high profile campaign being run on Assange’s behalf is counterproductive and some smart ‘soft diplomacy’ would probably be more successful – either in reducing the risk of imprisonment or at least reducing the length of any sentence imposed (and perhaps influencing where it might be served).

As this article points out, federal Attorney-General Christian Porter is “reportedly open to reforming federal whistleblower-protection legislation to sharpen up the blurry line between legitimate and unauthorised disclosures of information from the Commonwealth government”.

Under the reforms being discussed at present journalists would “have the benefit of a defence if they can persuade a judge that they had ‘reasonable grounds’ for believing publication of leaked material was in the public interest”. This would presumably apply with respect to the most serious WikiLeaks revelations. It’s highly doubtful, however, that it would go as far as massive unfiltered dumps via the Internet.

This 2012 Four Corners report provides important facts and useful context. As do these more recent ABC reports – Hero or Villain: Part 1 and Hero or Villain: Part 2 .

(Laurie Patton is a former journalist and media executive, and from 2014-2017 was CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia. He is a member of the MEAA.)