Glasgow, United Kingdom – When journalists descended on the Ecuadorean Embassy in London last month to meet with Julian Assange, expectations of a newsmaking announcement were high.
The arch whistle-blower has been holed up on “Ecuadorean soil” for more than two years since he successfully sought sanctuary at the embassy in the face of attempts to extradite him to Sweden to face questioning by prosecutors in Stockholm over sex-assault claims made by two women in 2010. And, summoned to face the WikiLeaks man, reporters sensed a media storm.
But, they were left disappointed when a tight-lipped Assange, who fears his extradition could eventually lead him to being handed over to the United States to face charges over WikiLeaks – which published classified US military documents relating to the Afghan and Iraq wars – made the less-than-explosive announcement that he would be leaving the embassy “soon”.
Yet, Assange’s brief appearance in the media spotlight only served to highlight the predicament of a man and the fortunes of an organisation that have, in the eyes of many, been very much intertwined.
“It certainly hasn’t helped,” says WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson of the impact of Assange’s self-incarceration on the whistle-blowing outfit. “But, we have found ways to work around the situation. We are in a position where we are able to communicate – that’s the way the organisation was set up prior to all this – with secure lines of communication between people. So, in terms of the inner workings of the organisation, Assange’s situation has not affected it that much. We have been able to work as can be seen by the publications we have been working on.”
Decline in prominence
But what of the potency of WikiLeaks today? At the height of the organisation’s collaboration with some of the world’s most respected newspapers, including The Guardian in London, countless millions from across the globe were given access to a cache of confidential documents that was unprecedented in its scope and magnitude. That it has not reached similar heights since, has little to do with the legal quagmire currently facing its high-profile editor-in-chief, insists Hrafnsson.
WikiLeaks might have fallen away a little bit, but I don't think it has a direct reference to Julian's predicament.
“WikiLeaks might have fallen away a little bit, but I don’t think it has a direct reference to Julian’s predicament,” the Iceland-based spokesperson tells Al Jazeera.
“The fact, of course, is that we were working on really explosive leaks in 2010 and 2011, which were historic in scope and nature. This is something that doesn’t happen every year for obvious reasons. And, in people’s minds the concept of WikiLeaks naturally fades away a little bit in between such explosive leaks. For a small organisation it is hard to meet the demand for us to cause the same excitement every few months or even every year.”
Assange’s self-imposed exile at the embassy has thrown up all manner of legal implications – especially should he decide to leave the sanctuary of the building’s confines outside of which remains a constant police presence – that even estranged associates of the Australian are hoping to see resolved.
“I feel all sorts of emotions, because of my own background, personal relationships, political commitments and treatment by others,” says Daniel Mathews, who resigned from Australia’s WikiLeaks Party National Council in 2013 due to political differences of Assange’s diplomatic exile.
“The current predicament at the embassy is highly unfortunate. Given the treatment of Chelsea Manning [formerly Bradley], Assange has a clearly well-founded fear of persecution in the US, and I am glad that Ecuador has had the courage to grant him asylum. But living in such cramped confines is terrible for one’s health, physical and mental, and I am afraid those conditions have taken their toll.”
Mathews, who helped to found WikiLeaks itself, has his own ideas of how this complex crisis should ultimately be resolved, even if he concedes the “entrenched” position of all parties concerned.
“The US should drop its grand jury investigation of WikiLeaks and instead award WikiLeaks the Presidential Medal of Freedom for its work for transparency and freedom of the press,” he tells Al Jazeera. “Then Assange can go to Sweden and the allegations against him can be resolved through a legal process which upholds the human rights of all parties involved. Then everyone can get on with their lives. However, such rationality from the US government is unthinkable at the present time.”
Israel Shamir, a Russian-based journalist and associate of Assange who was involved with “spreading items” connected with WikiLeaks, describes the arch whistle-blower’s current predicament as “very sad” – and the potency of the organisation itself as gravely reduced.
“I think practically, if WikiLeaks is not dead, it’s not all that much alive, I would say,” Shamir tells Al Jazeera. “Because since he has been locked up [at the embassy] he has decided, as far as I understand, not to pursue any new documents or anything else. Not that I know it, but my feeling is that that was one of the conditions of him being offered asylum at the embassy – that is, he couldn’t seek asylum and have active political engagement at the same time. There’s not much that WikiLeaks is producing [now] … so it’s not a story of great success. [Julian’s] made some wrong decisions himself, his friends made maybe not very wise decisions sometimes, so it’s become a very, very sad story.”
Shamir, who claims not to have spoken to Assange for two years, laments this perceived decline in the organisation, recalling how much it flourished during its heyday just a couple of years ago.
|Listening Post – Sex, lies and Wikileaks|
“When WikiLeaks really acted it had very good stuff to distribute … like the diplomatic cables of the United States, which were a very, very big thing. Now, thanks to that, we understand much more about international politics than we would have understood otherwise.”
For many, the impact of WikiLeaks should stand apart from the man who went on to become synonymous with its actions. Indeed, whatever becomes of Assange and of the organisation itself, Mathews, who says that it would “be remiss not to note Assange’s ability to alienate his strongest supporters”, contends that the world has changed for the better because of the existence of WikiLeaks.
“Fantastic results were achieved for press freedom and transparency in the world – not just a couple of instances of corruption, but whole political systems of domination and oppression laid bare. Whatever regressive tendencies might coexist with it, in its courage to take on vast systems of unaccountable power, at great personal risk, and hold them to account, WikiLeaks became an inspiration to millions around the world. That is something that will not be forgotten, despite the behaviour of any given individual.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi