In August 2007, very few people in Kenya had heard of Julian Assange or WikiLeaks, his “uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking and public analysis”. The organisation was barely a year old and had posted a handful of documents.
Then they leaked the Kroll report – an investigation commissioned in 2003 by the newly elected Mwai Kibaki administration in an attempt to uncover where the former dictator, Daniel arap Moi, and his family and cronies had stashed away the hundreds of millions of dollars they had stolen from Kenyans in the previous quarter of a century.
Kroll Associates, the consultancy firm hired to lead the investigation, eventually traced over $1.3bn in cash and assets spread out in nearly 30 countries. The report, which provided a rare comprehensive look at the scale of the looting, was submitted to the Kenyan government in 2004, by which time the Kibaki government had not only lost the appetite to fight corruption, but was itself deeply engaged in “gluttonous eating“. So, the report was buried.
And buried it might have stayed were it not for WikiLeaks, which somehow got a hold of it and, in conjunction with the Guardian, published its details. For once, Kenyans were afforded an unvarnished and detailed glimpse of the amount of national wealth that was being stolen by the very people tasked with protecting it.
Three years later, the Kenyan public would again benefit from a cache of documents published by WikiLeaks. The leaked US diplomatic cables it released revealed what Kenyan politicians were saying to American envoys behind closed doors and how different it was from the public statements they were making.
If information is the lifeblood of democracy, then people like Julian Assange and sites like WikiLeaks are vital blood banks. As press revenues shrink and expensive investigative departments are done away with, it becomes ever harder for citizens to get the information they need to hold their governments to account. Outfits like WikiLeaks can go some way into filling that void and providing some basic information. In that sense, what they are doing is journalism.
But of course, this is not how governments see it, which is why as I write this, Assange is spending his nights in a British jail. Having overstayed his welcome at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had been granted asylum to avoid rape charges in Sweden and possible extradition to the US, he was arrested on April 11.
The US government is currently dreaming up additional charges to pay him back for his role in exposing its global secrets and iniquities.
Though it would be right and proper that he be tried for the accusations against him in Sweden, should prosecutors resurrect the charges against him, extradition to the US would be a different matter altogether.
As many have pointed out, Assange is guilty of little more than an act of journalism – he did no more than other news outlets such as the Guardian or the New York times which also published the material leaked by then Private First Class Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning, who, after becoming aware of US misconduct in Iraq, concluded, “I was actively involved in something that I was completely against.”
The revelations brought to light the many abuses US forces were committing in Iraq. They included a secret video showing US air crew in 2007 falsely claiming to have encountered a firefight in Baghdad and then laughing at the dead after launching an air raid that killed a dozen people, including two Iraqis working for Reuters News Agency.
The leaks of diplomatic cables embarrassed US envoys across the world by showing exactly what they thought of their hosts and interlocutors. They earned Assange the enmity of government officials across the Western world. In the US, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell and then-Vice President Joe Biden branded him “a hi-tech terrorist” and former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin demanded that he be hunted down “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.”
WikiLeaks was pushed off a series of servers in the US and denied online money transfer services by PayPal, Visa and Mastercard. In Europe, the Swiss Post shut down Assange’s bank account, stripping him of yet another key fundraising tool.
And yet, the US and its allies seemingly struggled to come up with laws that Assange had broken in relation to the leaked documents. The US indictment accuses Assange of offering to help crack a password. As media watch group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, notes, it “goes even further, criminalizing the use of an electronic ‘drop box’ and other tactics that investigate journalists routinely use in the computer age to work with a confidential source.”
It is clear that the near decade-long effort to get at Assange is aimed at sending a message to the wider journalistic community: Don’t mess with the US! It is for this reason that the US government demands its pound of flesh and is determined to jail Assange.
Yet, if allowed, this will endanger every other journalistic enterprise that publishes accurate but embarrassing information that governments would wish to keep secret. An extradition to the US would signal to regimes around the world that journalists are fair game, endangering media professionals, particularly in the developing world where independent reporting is already facing severe pressures.
Clearly, Assange has not endeared themselves even to many who support their cause. The role of the site in leaking hacked emails during the 2016 US elections still grates upon some today, as do his political statements and bias.
However, his political views and survival game should not distract from the real issue posed by the extradition request. The day after his 2009 inauguration, and a year before his administration set after Assange and WikiLeaks, US President Barack Obama noted that “the government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”
Yet that is exactly what his administration sought to do and what his successor, Donald Trump, is now doing. For Kenyans and many others around the world who rely on the leaks of such information to know what their governments are up to, it would be a tragedy if they succeed.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.