Legislative Council: Wednesday, February 08, 2023


Assange, Mr J.

The Hon. F. PANGALLO (16:40): I move:

That this council—

1. Recognises Julian Assange is an Australian citizen and a journalist with WikiLeaks who aided in exposing possible war crimes and civilian casualties in the release of documents which included Afghanistan War logs in 2010 and Guantanamo Bay files in 2011, supplied to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning, a former US Army intelligence analyst.

2. Acknowledges Mr Assange genuinely believed his actions were for the purpose of:

(a) government accountability, transparency and integrity; and

(b) the broader public interest and for the interest of justice.

3. Notes that since the publication of those documents, Mr Assange has been forced into isolation or imprisoned over the course of 10 years, resulting in the serious deterioration of his health and mental wellbeing.

4. Recognises Mr Assange’s impending prosecution by the United States of America constitutes a serious attack on the fundamental democratic freedoms of the press.

5. Questions the legitimacy of prosecuting Mr Assange in the United States through that country’s Espionage Act of 1917, carrying a penalty of up to 175 years' imprisonment; and whether the act should be applied to non-US citizens either living and/or working in other countries, at the time of any alleged offending.

6. Acknowledges that in May 2022, on World Press Freedom Day, President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, announced a series of initiatives committing the US to greater protections for at-risk reporters to provide greater expansion for fact-based reporting to hold to account those that seek to silence voices essential to transparent, trustworthy, and responsive governance.

7. Recognises that on 29 November 2022 The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País dispatched an open letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland denouncing the prosecution of Julian Assange.

8. Recognises that on 30 November 2022 Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed in a public address that the Australian government is conducting diplomatic negotiations with the US government on Assange’s behalf.

9. Recognises that on 30 November 2022 during the House of Representative’s question time the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, acknowledged that Mr Assange’s case was of great interest to many Australians and as a result had recently lobbied for Mr Assange’s release stating that he raised this personally with representatives of the United States government stating, ‘enough is enough’ and it is time the matter be brought to a conclusion.

10. Calls on the President of the Legislative Council to write to—

(a) the President of the United States, Joe Biden, expressing the Legislative Council’s desire that he show clemency by intervening in the extradition and prosecution of Mr Assange, and instruct the US Attorney General and US Department of Justice to withdraw all charges on medical and humanitarian grounds; and

(b) the Prime Minister of Australia, the Rt Hon. Anthony Albanese, and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hon. Senator Penny Wong, requesting they write to the President of the United States and the US Ambassador to Australia, Ms Caroline Kennedy, to express the concerns of the Legislative Council regarding Mr Assange.

11. Notes that on 15 December 2022 the European Parliament authored and co-signed with Mr Assange’s wife Stella Assange, the International Federation of Journalists, European Federation of Journalists, and other independent NGOs a letter to the President of the United States of America calling on him to pardon Julian Assange.

I rise to speak on my motion regarding the persecution and prosecution of Australian investigative journalist and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. This motion follows the one I introduced last year and which, disappointingly, failed to receive the support of both Labor and the opposition.

I will explain shortly why I have brought it back, and I hope this time it will garner the support of Labor in particular. I thank my crossbench colleagues, the Greens, for supporting it and for their ongoing support to have Mr Assange freed from his prison hell in Britain's HM Prison Belmarsh, awaiting the outcome of an appeal to prevent his extradition to the United States under its own Espionage Act, a repugnant law that can have anyone outside the West who is not even a citizen charged and extradited. There is no other law like it in any other district, and it goes against the fundamental rights of the rule of law.

If convicted, Mr Assange faces up to 175 years in prison. I spoke about Mr Assange's predicament at length on the last occasion, so members here should be fully conversant with his case. His WikiLeaks site exposed war crimes committed by the United States and Afghanistan and atrocities in Guantanamo Bay in leaked military documents supplied by Chelsea Manning, a former US Army intelligence analyst.

Washington was embarrassed by the disclosures, which also included negative and derisive comments by US diplomats about governments and officials where they were posted. Manning was later prosecuted, convicted but ended up being pardoned after serving seven years. But Mr Assange has been relentlessly pursued since 2012 for publishing the truth. The messenger became the target of a vengeful United States.

As a journalist myself, I stand by Mr Assange and his courageous actions because we as journalists in a free and democratic world must uphold the fundamental principles of freedom of the press and freedom of speech in order to expose the wrongs of corrupt governments and ensure integrity, transparency and accountability. War crimes are abhorrent.

Mr Assange has suffered for doing what he believed was in the public interest. His years in the Ecuadorian embassy to escape trumped up sexual assault charges on the pretext to seize him for releasing those damning documents—charges which were later dropped—and the protracted extradition matters in Britain following his surrender on bail breaches, have taken their toll on his mental and physical wellbeing.

There really seems little point in continuing to pursue him except that the US needs its scapegoat, its pound of flesh, to make an example of him even though he committed no crime in their country nor elsewhere. There is now widespread international support for Mr Assange and it continues to grow. His father and brother travel regularly overseas lobbying governments and media organisations.

A Sydney Morning Herald article published on 5 January 2022 showed that 71 per cent of respondents support the call for Julian Assange to be brought back to Australia. Sixteen per cent voted no and 13 per cent were unsure.

Five leading media outlets—The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais—all bastions of freedom of the press and expression, accountability, integrity and transparency, sent an open letter under the title, 'Publishing is Not a Crime', denouncing the US prosecution against Mr Assange.

They said the indictment sets a dangerous precedent and threatens to undermine America's first amendment and the freedom of the press. The editors said that holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of a free press in a democracy. Those publications all published excerpts of those elite documents, yet the Americans have not attempted to prosecute them under their outrageous universal law.

However, I remain frustrated and mystified by my colleagues in Australia, who have remained muted and are not as proactive as their international counterparts in ongoing protests against Mr Assange's detention and to uphold free speech laws. I am not hearing as much noise from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) or our major news outlets, including our national masthead, The Australian. I will urge them to be heard loudly because investigative journalism is not a crime.

The International Federation of Journalists and European Federation of Journalists have co-signed an open letter to US President Joe Biden asking him to pardon Julian. The IFJ has backed the global mobilisation and called on all journalist unions, press freedom organisations and journalists to mobilise and express their solidarity in securing Julian's release. The IFJ said:

Irrespective of personal views, his extradition will have a chilling effect, with all journalists and media workers at risk. The case sets a dangerous precedent that members of the media, in any country, can now be targeted by governments anywhere in the world to answer for publishing information in the public interest.

Last month, the Belmarsh Tribunal, an ad hoc gathering of legal experts and supporters, named after the British prison where Julian is being held, met in Washington, where it applied pressure to President Biden to drop charges. The tribunal's co-chairperson, Srécko Horvat, founder of the Democracy in Europe Movement, quoted Biden's 2020 presidential address, calling for the release of imprisoned journalists across the world. Horvat quoted the late president Thomas Jefferson's dictum that 'our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost'.

Jeffrey Sterling, a lawyer and former CIA employee who went to jail for revealing defence secrets, told the tribunal that Assange has next to no chance of getting a fair trial in the US. Sterling said that truth was no defence under the Espionage Act—it is prohibited.

Furthermore, Assange would not have access to any evidence used against him. He said that the Espionage Act is being used as weapon against whistleblowers to keep the public ignorant of government wrongdoings and illegalities to maintain its hold on authority in the name of national security.

Britain's former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbin, told the tribunal that the prosecution of Assange would deter journalists from breaking stories using leaked documents that embarrass the conduct of governments or expose injustices and human rights. Hypocrisy in politics is rife. Only last month, the federal Labor government Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus KC, announced he was calling together media organisations to discuss improving press freedoms. Let me quote him:

The Albanese Government believes a strong and independent media is vital to democracy and holding governments to account.

Journalists should never face the prospect of being charged or even jailed just for doing their jobs.

Let me repeat that:

The Albanese Government believes a strong and independent media is vital to democracy and holding governments to account.

Journalists should never face the prospect of being charged or even jailed just for doing their jobs.

Saying the right things might sound okay, but actioning them is another thing. Was Julian Assange not doing his job? Last December, in response to a question from the Independent member for Kooyong, Monique Ryan, the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, repeated his words when in opposition and said it was time the matter was concluded. While he did not express personal sympathy for Mr Assange, the Prime Minister said the issue had gone on too long, and he pointed out that the leaker of the information, Chelsea Manning, was now a free person. This is a telling quote from the Prime Minister:

The government will continue to act in a diplomatic way, but can I assure the member for Kooyong that I have raised this personally with representatives of the United States government. My position is clear and has been made clear to the US administration that it is time that this matter be brought to a close.

It seemed for a minute there was a ray of hope for Julian, his family and his growing band of supporters here and overseas, but these were weasel words. Mr Albanese has been left red-faced after a freedom of information request to see if any documents existed that corroborated what the Prime Minister claimed. The FOI turned up a blank, nothing to even remotely show that he had contacted the Biden administration as he had claimed, nor for that matter had the foreign minister, Penny Wong, and Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, that champion of press freedom for journalists.

Ms Ryan said if the Albanese government was serious about securing an end to the prosecution and seeking Julian's release then Mr Albanese and his ministers would have raised it formally in writing with their counterparts at the top levels of the US government. Ms Ryan said, 'It is now confirmed that they have not done so via any formal means.'

This motion calls on Mr Albanese and Ms Wong to be true to their own statements and act. I would hope that this time Labor do not recoil from internal party pressure, as they did just before the previous motion went to a vote, and support what their federal leader and their Attorney-General have said they have done and want to do. It would be hypocritical to oppose it. I intend bringing this motion to a vote on 8 March. I commend the motion to the chamber.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.