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OpEd: Julian Assange – a tainted victory for reporting truth to power, a bitter indictment of Western hypocrisy

As Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, steps foot on Australian soil, his release from a UK prison marks both a triumph and a grim reminder of the dire state of press freedoms in the UK and the US. After years of legal battles and imprisonment, Assange’s deal with US prosecutors, which saw him plead guilty to one charge instead of the initial eighteen, has brought a complex and terrible chapter to a close. Yet, this outcome is far from a simple victory.

Having worked closely alongside Assange on the Iraq war logs when I was the editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, I reflect on this ordeal with deeply mixed emotions. It’s a victory but it’s a terrible victory.

While his freedom is cause for celebration, the years stolen from his life and the relentless character assassination he endured paint a stark picture of the lengths to which governments will go to silence dissent.

Assange’s persecution by US prosecutors, spurred by our exposure of vast amounts of military information, underscores a troubling reality: the suppression of truth-tellers in an era when transparency is desperately needed. Those soldiers who were the cause of Assange’s revelations about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other abuses, have gone largely unpunished. Meanwhile, Assange himself became the target of a relentless campaign to discredit and incarcerate him.

This case exemplifies a broader failure of Western democracies to hold their own accountable. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued warrants for Russian generals, yet American and British generals responsible for similar atrocities remain untouched. This selective justice not only undermines the credibility of international law but also emboldens other leaders, from Putin to Netanyahu, to act with impunity.

Assange’s nonpartisan pursuit of truth made him a convenient scapegoat for those seeking to deflect attention from the uncomfortable truths he exposed. Accusations of collusion with Putin and Trump further muddied the waters, distracting from the core issue: the public’s right to know the truth about their government’s actions.

However, not all is victorious. Assange’s understandable plea deal, while sparing him a potentially life-long sentence, sets a dangerous precedent. He was forced to take a choice that none of us would want to take. But in that moment, his pleading guilty criminalises something that goes to the heart of the sort of investigations AOAV carries out — gathering and publishing information that those in power would prefer to remain hidden.

This case sends a chilling message to any researcher or reporter covering issues on defence and security: reporting on matters of public interest now comes with the risk of prosecution.

Iain Overton speaks to BBC News about Julian Assange and conflict journalism under threats

Admittedly, Assange’s deal avoids a definitive US Supreme Court ruling that could have further eroded First Amendment protections. By not challenging the Espionage Act’s application to his actions, Assange’s agreement sidesteps a potentially devastating blow to press freedom. Nonetheless, the damage is done; the shadow cast over investigative journalism will linger, discouraging others from pursuing stories that challenge powerful interests.

Overall, the implications of Assange’s case extend beyond his personal ordeal. It signals a disturbing trend in which the free flow of information is stifled, undermining the very foundations of democracy. If journalists and conflict researchers fear prosecution for doing their jobs, the public loses a vital check on governmental power. The responsibility for this erosion of press freedom lies not just with the UK and US current governments but spans successive governments, each complicit in this systemic suppression.

In the end, Julian Assange’s return to Australia is a bittersweet moment. It is a reminder of the high cost of truth-telling in an age of pervasive secrecy and unchecked power. It should give us pause to recommit to defending the principles of transparency and accountability that are essential to a functioning democracy. Only then can we follow what Wikileaks sought to achieve: a world where the truth prevails, no matter how inconvenient it may be.

Dr Iain Overton is the Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence