Whistleblower protection laws need broad scope

By Laurie Patton

July 20, 2022

Julian Assange
The Julian Assange saga highlights the need for whistleblower laws to also protect people who assist them, even computer hackers. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

Questioned about his thoughts on the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, our new prime minister echoed the feelings of many of us. “I do not see what purpose is served by the ongoing pursuit of Mr Assange”, Anthony Albanese proffered.

Yet while Assange languishes in a British gaol pending extradition to the US, his public defence has been hijacked by political activists running a problematic campaign about press freedom.

In a recent interview, journalist John Pilger — well known for his controversial views — made an extraordinary claim.

“If Julian is extradited to the United States, I think it will effectively end real independent investigative journalism… Who will take that risk again?”

Utter nonsense. Firstly, Assange is not really a journalist. He’s an internationally renowned computer hacker, known to have been active since he was 16 years old.

In 1996 he pleaded guilty to 24 hacking charges and was released on a good behaviour bond.

Secondly, Assange is charged under the controversial US Espionage Act with aiding and abetting soldier Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of stealing American government military files. That’s certainly not journalism.

Ironically, during the time that Assange has fought to avoid a court appearance, Manning has been gaoled and then had their sentence commuted.

Commutation comes with the implied acceptance of guilt. It is not the overturning of a conviction. This has implications for Assange should his extradition to the US take place.

Thirdly, no journalist or media organisation who published the stolen files has been pursued much less charged, including WikiLeaks itself.

The most serious material released by Assange — the ‘Collateral Murder’ vision — has been widely exposed via mainstream media and online. It’s probably been seen nearly as many times as the moon landing or a royal wedding.

If you read the indictment, which contains very detailed technical evidence relating to the hacking allegations, it’s hard to see Assange escaping conviction. One prominent American human rights lawyer has described fighting an Espionage Act case as suicidal.

Right now, there’s a campaign to have the Espionage Act repealed, or at least amended. Nobody seems optimistic. However, hacking actions similar to those with which Assange has been charged would constitute a criminal offence here in Australia and in pretty much every other country.

The best means by which Assange could secure his release would be through a plea bargain. The lesser of the myriad charges in the indictment carries a maximum gaol term of five years. He’s spent nearly that much time in a UK prison.

Contrary to the assertions of Pilger and others, the Assange legal action is not fundamentally about press freedom, which is, nonetheless, an important issue demanding attention for other reasons.

Along with the Bernard Colleary case the WikiLeaks saga highlights the need for whistleblower laws that also protect people who assist them, including lawyers, journalists and even computer hackers.

Even without whistleblower laws, investigative journalism will continue. Media organisations and their reporters will do as they’ve always done and avoid breaking the law in their endeavours to uncover wrongdoing. But lawyers and computer hackers will need to think carefully before they help a whistleblower.


Government waits until after election to change whistleblower laws, support for protection high

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