2012-04-02 Australian Government's escalating hostility toward WikiLeaks and Julian Assange

After a public forum on WikiLeaks, Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam made the following comment:

The Australian Government has done the absolute bare minimum above stuff-all to help this Australian citizen in trouble. […] They've attempted to block and delay Freedom of Information requests, they haven't answered straight questions, they've voted against motions, and to me it's starting to look not like indifference but like hostility.

This hostility from the Australian Government is becoming more and more apparent, especially as Julian Assange awaits the UK Supreme Court's decision on whether he'll be extradited to Sweden. Not only is the Government offering little support to its citizen, but it is making derogatory and false remarks against the WikiLeaks organization, refusing to offer timely release of relevant information, and passing new laws which make it difficult for WikiLeaks to continue operating legally and raise safety concerns for its founder.

Back in December 2010, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard condemned WikiLeaks' release of information, calling the action "irresponsible" and, the far more serious allegation, "illegal." A week later, and just days after Julian Assange's arrest, Attorney-General Robert McClelland further expanded on Gillard's comments saying that the information WikiLeaks released was "accessed in an unauthorized manner" and was therefore an offense under Australian law. But, after a 17-day investigation by the Australian Federal Police, it was established that none of WikiLeaks' actions were in fact illegal. In a quasi-apology Gillard was forced to announce the AFP's finding that WikiLeaks had not broken Australian law, but again denounced their actions as "grossly irresponsible" and declared, "It’s clear that the theft of those documents is an illegal act." Of course, these vilifying comments were being stacked on top of those by U.S. politicians, such as Vice President Joe Biden's labeling of Julian Assange as a "high-tech terrorist" and political candidate Sarah Palin's belief that he is an "anti-American operative with blood on his hands" who should be "pursued with the same urgency [the U.S. pursues] al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders." Senator Scott Ludlam has since asked if Gillard apologized to WikiLeaks or formally retracted her false claims, to which her representative replied she hadn't.

Recently, on the eve of Julian Assange's Supreme Court verdict being handed down, the attacks have resurfaced. In response to a citizen letter concerning Julian Assange's extradition, Australian official Anna Harmer wrote on behalf of Attorney-General Nicola Roxon that WikiLeaks' release of U.S. diplomatic cables was "reckless, irresponsible, and potentially dangerous." The U.S. Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich echoed the claims of irresponsibility and added that WikiLeaks had also acted "destructively" and "was not a force for good." In earlier statements, Bleich also called WikiLeaks "unhealthy [...] dangerous, and immature." To this day, there is still no evidence of physical harm coming to any persons based on WikiLeaks' releases.

The attacks go far beyond verbal and written statements. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has delayed the release of Australian diplomatic cables relating to Julian Assange requested under the Freedom of Information Act (at least six times, according to Senator Ludlam) until at least late May, after it is decided whether or not he'll be extradited to Sweden. When asked about the delays, Senator Chris Evans acting as representative for Prime Minister Gillard only stated that the FOI request had been received and "the response is being worked on by DFAT." The Australian Government also refuses to give straight answers regarding both the alleged sealed indictment the U.S. has against Julian Assange and the secret Grand Jury which has been in existence for over a year.

Beyond this, two new laws have emerged in Australia which make it more difficult for organizations such as WikiLeaks to operate within legal boundaries. The first is a bill, informally known as "the WikiLeaks amendment," which significantly expandes ASIO's (Australian Security Intelligence Organization) powers to spy on Australian citizens. Patrick Emerton, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Monash University, commented that, while the bill couldn't be used to spy on Julian Assange in London, it could conceivably be used to spy on communications he had sent to Australia, e.g. a letter or e-mail. The second is an extradition law created to "streamlin[e] the extradition process and [cut] delays." It broadens the possibility of extradition on both minor and political offenses. It also allows nationals to be prosecuted on Australian soil if the government declines to have them extradited. A third law, the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill, which would allow access to more information by Australian and overseas agencies, has passed through the Lower House but is yet to become full law.

With all this in mind, Australia's hostility towards WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange is evident. The majority of Australians support WikiLeaks and Assange, a statistic that has remained constant since 2010. Therefore it is only right for the Australian Government to stand up for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, not only because he is their citizen, but because it is in the interest of the public to do so.