Michaela Cullen | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow
For more than 1,500 days, Wikileaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange has been held behind bars, facing potential espionage charges that could land him a 175-year prison sentence.
He awaits the looming risk of extradition to the US for leaking classified military documents that were in the public interest. These included several classified US military documents related to the Iraq War and Afghan War highlighting reports of detainee abuse and civilian casualties, as well as documents releasing insights into US foreign policy and diplomatic activities.
Though Assange is an Australian national, support from the Federal government has been limited so far.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is saying all the right things. He is frustrated that a diplomatic resolution has not been achieved and is concerned over the 51-year-old journalist’s health while confined in London. However, in January this year, a series of freedom of information inquiries lodged by Michael West Media found no evidence the Australian government was actively lobbying the US for his release.
Inaction seems to plague Assange’s fight for freedom. Another investigation by Independent Australia found little evidence of advocacy from the Australian government. It revealed former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop signed a ministerial submission that recommended the government:
“... not seek to ‘resolve’ Mr Assange’s case following the (Working Group on Arbitrary Detention) opinion, as we are unable to intervene in the due process of another country’s court proceedings or legal matters, and we have full confidence in the UK and Swedish judicial system.”
Comparing foreign policy solutions with journalist Peter Greste’s Egypt arrest in 2013, Bishop waged “a very concerted campaign of advocacy” in her words, marked by extensive diplomatic exchanges between the United States, European Union, and the United Nations, as well as various Middle East nations. Dialogue with Egyptian authorities was ongoing and the chance to let him fairly present his case before the court was sought.
Assange currently stands as Australia’s most prominent victim of media persecution, having faced isolation, house arrest, constant surveillance, and arbitrary detention with absolutely no freedom and movement. A paradox continues, where it is not those who committed torture, human rights abuses, and war crimes being convicted, but instead the journalists who expose their crimes.
Australian barrister Julian Burnside, who has been negotiating with Canberra for Assange’s repatriation, said the government could “easily reach a diplomatic agreement with Britain to allow Assange to be brought safely back to Australia”. Burnside said the US should petition an Australian court for extradition and compared the judicious effort put by the government into Peter Greste’s return with Assange’s.
Over the last month, 63 Australian MPs and Senators have written an open letter to the US Attorney General Merrick Garland warning of the danger to journalistic freedoms that the case is setting. They said it would damage the reputation of the US and that Assange’s revelations of war crimes, corruption, and human rights abuses are part of his role as a journalist.
The Guardian reported that in the letter, the delegates said they are “resolutely of the view that the prosecution and incarceration of the Australian citizen Julian Assange must end”:
“It serves no purpose, it is unjust, and we say clearly – as friends should always be honest with friends – that the prolonged pursuit of Mr Assange wears away at the substantial foundation of regard and respect that Australians have for the justice system of the United States of America,” the letter said, according to The Guardian.
This letter was followed by a cross-party delegation travelling to the US this month to seek the release of Assange, which included former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and lawmakers from the Labor government, opposition, and the Greens. However, little has been reported on the US response, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken remains critical of the Australian government’s complaints.
Assange’s wife Stella said his life rested “in the hands of the Australian government”. However, it has since been reported that all available domestic appeal options have been exhausted, as all eight grounds for his appeal against the extradition order were rejected by the British courts. Assange’s final resort is the European Court of Human Rights, which confirmed an application had been received from Assange last December, however there have been no updates since the court's confirmation.
Australia should use this case to not only evaluate its stance on journalistic freedom, but also assess extradition agreements with different nations and contemplate revisions to extradition protocols. Assange’s case demonstrates the importance of a free press within democracies, but Australia has failed to protect the rights and safety of the press.
Without the government’s ongoing support, how are journalists across the country and abroad supposed to report on matters of serious public interest? That question remains unanswered by the Federal government.
Michaela Cullen is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is currently studying journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, where she often contributes to the student journalism hub Central News.
She is a current Facilitator, Development Officer and Editor for United Nations Youth NSW and brings a passion for international affairs and politics to her work. Her role as Editor-in-Chief of the Global Advocate for UN Youth has allowed her to work with a diverse team of editors and contributors to explore human rights and global relations.