Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich, and writer and activist Eva Cox took part in the ABC’s Q&A on February 25. More than 15 minutes of the program was spent discussing WikiLeaks journalist Julian Assange.
An audience member asked Carr: “Julian Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. I have heard the Australian government’s kowtowing 'head-in-the-sand' response ad nauseam ... ironically exactly what Julian Assange and WikiLeaks attempt to counteract. When are you going to show some intelligence and guts on this issue and ask our good friends, the USA government exactly what their real intentions are regarding one of Australia's more renowned journalists?”
Carr would not answer the question directly, and diverted focus from the well-documented US criminal investigation into Assange and WikiLeaks onto the Swedish case against Assange.
This is the standard method by which the Australian government avoids confronting the clear threat posed by the US towards Assange, an Australian citizen. The same tactic was used by then attorney-general, Nicola Roxon, on her appearance on Q&A in April last year.
Carr said: “Julian Assange being in the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge has got nothing to do with the United States and nothing to do with WikiLeaks and nothing to do with state secrets …
“He’s there because the Swedes took a case in the courts of the United Kingdom about allegations of criminal behaviour.”
Bleich said the US was not involved. “We have nothing to do with it.”
In fact, Assange is still in the Ecuadorian embassy in London because he has been granted asylum by the government of Ecuador on the basis that he has a well-founded fear of political persecution.
But British authorities have refused to grant him safe passage out of the country. The government of Ecuador granted Assange asylum after two months of investigations, precisely because it is “certain of the possibility that Mr. Assange could be extradited to a third country outside the European Union without proper guarantees for [his] safety and personal integrity”.
Cox, on the other hand, said there was more at play in the Swedish case than the sexual misconduct allegations: “An inquiry, which could have been solved by sending Swedish prosecutors to Britain could have sorted it out, has become a major issue … The Americans don’t give a clear assurance about the whole thing there. The Swedes are pursuing it in a way which I think is completely over the top.”
The day after Q&A aired, the Sydney Morning Herald said newly released diplomatic cables show that, despite Carr and Bleich’s denials, Australian diplomats in Washington have continued to report on an “ongoing criminal investigation” into Assange and WikiLeaks by the US.
A member of the Support Assange and WikiLeaks Coalition, Matt Watt, asked Carr and Bleich why they were “suffering from grand jury denial”.
“Is it because they are both mentioned in the WikiLeaks releases?”
Bleich again denied that the US had any interest in Assange, saying their focus is on Bradley Manning, who allegedly stole “classified information” and leaked it to WikiLeaks.
Bleich said Manning’s case followed the “normal process”, even though Manning has been subject to more than 1000 days of detention without a trial.
Watt responded by producing two subpoenas sent to witnesses to compel them to testify at the WikiLeaks grand jury, one for Bradley Manning’s friend, David House, and another for an unnamed US citizen.
“Will you now admit that the grand jury exists?” he asked.
Bleich dismissed the evidence: “It’s one of those games that people play in order to create some sense of drama … The United States has nothing to do with it … It’s, you know, movies and fantasies and spy novels.”
This response reveals the ambassador’s contempt for the values of free speech and democracy his government purports to uphold. People around the world have come out in the thousands to defend Assange and WikiLeaks because they understand what is at stake: a US prosecution of Assange would set a truly terrifying precedent.
It would potentially criminalise all journalists who routinely publish leaked accurate, government documents, as well as others who speak out against corrupt governments and corporations.
It’s not a “game” or a “drama” — people are standing up for Assange because they understand that an attack on his freedom is an attack on their freedom too.
When Q&A host Tony Jones tried to steer the conversation back to Watt’s assertion that, in Jones’ words, “although the Ambassador can’t admit it … there is a grand jury going on,” Bleich repeatedly interjected and talked over Jones, saying that the grand jury investigation is not the “real issue”.
When Jones asked Bleich whether he considers Assange to be a journalist, Bleich tried to demonise and distort the work of Assange and WikiLeaks by likening it to the reckless publication of individuals’ personal medical and tax records.
“It’s wrong,” he said. “It’s absolutely wrong. It is fundamentally unsafe and it hurts the security of every single person who is dependent upon the government to serve their needs to protect their interests.”
WikiLeaks has revealed evidence of corruption, human rights abuses and war crimes around the world: information the public has a right to know. As Manning allegedly said in chat logs, “I want people to see the truth … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
Bleich’s hostility to WikiLeaks has nothing to do with protecting individual privacy. It stems from the fact that much of the wrongdoing exposed by WikiLeaks was perpetrated by the US government. Perhaps Bleich is unable to understand that Assange is a journalist because he is so used to the type of journalist who merely echoes and amplifies his government’s lies.
Former Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull highlighted the Australian government’s shameful conduct towards Assange, which began with Prime Minister Julia Gillard labelling him a criminal in 2010, “when it was perfectly obvious that he had broken no Australian law … At the same time there were American politicians calling for him to be hunted down like a terrorist.”
In June 2012, a motion was passed in the Australian Senate calling on the PM to “[r]etract prejudicial statements regarding the illegality of Wikileaks publishing endeavours, found to be groundless by the Australian Federal Police, which have the potential to seriously jeopardise the potential for any fair trial or hearing for Mr. Assange”.
Prime Minister Gillard has so far failed to act on this motion.
Watt told SBS news after the program: “I believe the Australian government has effectively abandoned Julian Assange … He has requested assistance from the Australian government to make a representation on his behalf to the Swedish government in particular, to ensure things like no further extraction.”