Monday

18th Feb 2019

EUobserved

Former Greek minister defends Assange at Brussels event

  • Assange at Ecuador's embassy in London

Sunday (19 June) marked four years since anti-secrecy crusader Julian Assange moved into Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden where he faces rape accusations.

On this day, 2,000 people gathered in Bozar, the Brussels palace of fine arts, for an evening’s discussion on the importance of whistleblowers, transparency and democracy. Dubbed 'First they came for Assange’, a play on the title of a poem by Martin Niemoeller, the title suggested a parallel between Assange’s situation and that of communists and Jews in Nazi-era Germany in the 1930s.

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The panel starred Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former minister and founder of DiEM25, a political movement that wants to make the EU more democratic.

The audience was told they formed a community that had contributed to Assange's defence costs through their €16 tickets.

When Assange launched the WikiLeaks website in 2006, it was seen as an online drop box providing security for whistleblowers.

Submissions shed light on kleptocrat Africans, the strange rituals of the Scientology church and - above all - US foreign policy, its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, its diplomatic relations and spying on foreign powers.

Many welcomed the website as the future of whistleblowing and a boon for civic liberties.

"The world is ruled by insiders and Julian is prosecuted because he created the technology that showed outsiders a glimpse of what is going on”, said Varoufakis on Monday.

”Julian lives through us. He risked everything and showed that it's possible to be a hero”, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek said in a pre-recorded video.

Brussels was one of seven European cities to organise such an event.

At Centre Pompidou, in Paris, French intellectuals Edgar Morin and Bernard Stiegler listened to a performance by American singer-songwriter Patti Smith. In Milan, Vivienne Westwood dedicated her latest collection to the former hacker at the city’s fashion week.

A pale Assange addressed the crowds simultaneously through a video link. He was the only person that night to mention his rape charges. The all-male panel tip-toed around the topic, claiming their friend was victim of the largest prosecution of an independent publisher in US history.

Varoufakis deplored ”from a feminist perspective” the establishment’s attempt to turn progressives against feminists.

The age of whistleblowers

Better protection of whistleblowers is a pressing issue, not least in the EU.

A Luxembourgish court will within days rule on the fate of Antoine Deltour and Raphael Halet. The former employees of the PriceWaterhouseCoopers auditing firm risk jail for exposing sweetheart tax deals granted by the Grand Duchy to multinational corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens.

LuxLeaks was the first of several revelations - the last being the Panama Papers - which breathed new life into the EU’s fight for tax justice. They also revived the discussion on joint EU rules for protecting whistleblowers.

But Assange isn't any kind of informant.

To start with, he is accused of rape rather than being on trial for his leaking activities. To ask that Sweden (which Assange stopped calling the 'feminist Saudi Arabia' on the advice of his female lawyer) drops these charges because 'Assange is Assange' is at least disrespectful of rule of law and the victims.

It is however true that the US is working on a criminal investigation against him on grounds of espionage, conspiracy and computer fraud, even if it has not pressed charges.

A typical whistleblower would reveal acts of wrongdoing and be granted protection because it is in the public interest to know and hold the culprits accountable.

The problem is that WikiLeaks published a variety of documents - from secret security files to international negotiating positions and harmless emails - some of which disclose lies or misconduct, but others do not.

Hillary Clinton’s 18,000 emails, for instance, which WikiLeaks obtained through thousands of freedom of information requests, have so far failed to incriminate her. A non-deterred Assange promised to publish more, with the goal of indicting the US Democratic presidential candidate.

Why would he do it?

As Jochen Bittner, political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, has pointed out , Assange doesn’t seem to accept that a Western democracy has the right to hold secrets at all.

In that regard, leaking a massive number of cables is not a way to alert the public of corruption, but rather an attempt to shed doubt on the integrity of democratic governments more broadly.

Russia

Questions over Assange's agenda are complicated further by the fact that his transparency demands do not seem to extend to Putin's Russia.

The WikiLeaks founder has willingly lent himself to Russian propaganda by hosting a show on RT, the government-funded broadcaster, or by joining discussions on the freedom of journalism hosted by Putin's spin doctor Dmitry Kiselev.

WikiLeaks has never spilled the secrets of one of the world’s most secretive regimes.

Assange has also dismissed the Panama Papers - the world’s largest leak, which showed how the rich, including Russian elites, use offshore accounts to dodge taxes - as an attack on Russia financed by USAID, the American aid organisation, and by George Soros, the billionaire supporter of liberal causes.

He has accused the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, who managed the Panama leak, of ”censorship” by only releasing what they believe are relevant parts of the 11.5 million files they obtained. 

None of this was discussed at Bozar that evening, which felt more like a sect gathering (complete with the screening of a idolising video shot in the socialist realist genre) than a discussion on democracy and the public interest.

Assange could go free when Swedish rape accusations against him expire in 2020.

But the US is likely to present charges in the meantime, putting Assange back to square one.

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