December 7 marks four years since Julian Assange, founder and public face of the website WikiLeaks, turned himself in to London authorities following allegations of sexual misconduct and rape. This began a chain of events in the UK which led to him taking refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in London in June 2012
The British government continues to face criticism for its costly police presence around the embassy where they stand guard, ready to arrest him if he attempts to leave the building. The cost to the taxpayer of the policing operation for the first two years of Assange’s stay was £6.5 million.
Assange has denied the allegations, saying he believes they are politically motivated and campaigners have questioned their legitimacy, some believe they are likely to have stemmed from his reputation for publishing sensitive material from governments and other high-profile organisations.
Despite controversy over Assange’s personal life and the surreal situation in the embassy, it is important that Assange’s work on the online publication WikiLeaks is remembered. In just a few short years the site raised questions about the meaning of freedom of speech, highlighted global injustices and attempted to make organisations and governments more transparent. They have also won a number of awards, including The Economist’s New Media Award in 2008 and Amnesty International’s UK Media Award in 2009.
WikiLeaks is a not for profit organisation which publishes the type of information which would normally not be available to the public. Their stated mission is to make available information that the it feels the public has the right to have access to but otherwise would not because of the secrecy of governmental or corporate organisations. They cite the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in particular article 19, which says everyone, has the right to freedom of opinion and expression and people should be able to pursue information regardless of frontiers.
In an interview in Time magazine Assange said, “this organisation practices civil obedience, it tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organisations that are pushing it in the opposite direction.”
WikiLeaks officially launched in early 2007 and their first major story, which was published in partnership with The Guardian newspaper in August 2007, was a leaked report about corruption by the family of the former Kenyan leader Daniel arap Moi.
They went on to publish other notable stories including allegations of illegal activities at the Swiss Bank Julius Baer, membership manuals for the controversial scientology religion and the membership list of the far-right British National Party.
In September 2009 they published one of their most impactful releases, internal documents from Kaupthing Bank from shortly before the collapse of Iceland’s banking sector, which caused the 2008–2012 Icelandic financial crisis. The documents provided a list of all those involved in the banking scandal and showed how large sums of money were loaned to various owners of the bank, and large debts written off.
Investigative journalist Kristinn Hrafnsson who later became a spokesman for the Wikileaks said the leaks, “jolted journalists in Iceland awake, and showed them the importance of what Wikileaks was doing.”
The most defining point for both the website and Julian Assange came in 2010. In April, Assange went to the National Press Club in Washington DC and presented a video of a 2007 incident in which two US apache helicopter pilots are seen to execute at least 15 innocent people on the ground in Iraq, including two Reuters news agency employees, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh. In something of a sensationalist move from Assange, he titled the video ‘Collateral murder’.
The video came as part of a group of classified documents allegedly provided to them by US Army Private Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley). Manning was arrested in June 2010 after she confided in former hacker Adrian Lamo. Manning reportedly told Lamo she had leaked the ‘Collateral Murder’ video, in addition to 260,000 diplomatic cables, to WikiLeaks.
Despite the setback of Manning’s arrest the organization continued to publish, this time in cooperation with western media. In July they passed 92,000 documents related to the war in Afghanistan to The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel. The documents detail individual incidents including “friendly fire” and civilian casualties.
WikiLeaks went on to publish around 400,000 documents relating to the Iraq War, a leak that the US State Department referred to as “the largest leak of classified documents in its history.”
At the end of the year the organisation released a series of US diplomatic cables which contained comments and revelations regarding host countries of various US embassies, political manoeuvring regarding climate change, actions in the War on Terror, US intelligence and counterintelligence efforts and other diplomatic actions.
Since the WikiLeaks released the cables the site has remained active but struggled to keep its funding following a boycott from major financial firms. They have released files related to the Guantanamo prison, revelations about politics in Syria and more than 100 restricted files from the United States Department of Defence covering the rules and procedures for detainees in U.S. military custody. In 2013, they assisted Edward Snowden (who is responsible for the 2013 mass surveillance disclosures) in leaving Hong Kong.
Julian Assange can be a polarising figure and some former WikiLeaks employees have questioned his motives and the way he chooses to publish, however the work of WikiLeaks has uncovered corruption, helped authorities to pursue and correct problems and arguably influenced people to vote corrupt administrations out of power, their influence has been seen on a global scale.
The leaks hold particular significance to the current political situation in the Middle East. The sudden rise of the Islamic state appeared to catch the world off guard however looking back at leaks from Iraq – which have been available to the public since 2010 – there are over 3,000 documents which mention the group and it raises questions about whether the US could have better dealt with the problem had they better reviewed their own classified documents. Some diplomatic cables also contributed to the Arab Spring, a revolution which forced out rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
An appeal to drop the arrest order for Julian Assange, was rejected by a Swedish court on November 20 2014, “There is no reason to set aside the detention solely because Julian Assange is in an embassy and the detention order cannot be enforced at present for that reason,” the Svea Court of Appeal said in a statement.
There have been rumours that Assange’s health may be deteriorating due to his two-year confinement and his lawyers have criticised Swedish prosecutors for their refusal to travel to London to interrogate him, they argue that the warrant cannot be enforced while he remains in the embassy.