‘Free at last': Aussies respond to Julian Assange homecoming

Julian Assange home in Australia

Julian Assange home in Australia. Screenshot from video “How Julian Assange’s plea deal and release was negotiated | 7.30″ on the ABC News In-depth YouTube channel. Fair use.

Home free at last! This was the overwhelming sentiment of Australian and global supporters of Julian Assange, following news of his release from prison and return down under.

Assange's plea deal with the United States came after 1,601 days in the United Kingdom’s Belmarsh Prison and nearly seven years of political asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy. He had been fighting extradition to the US.

The deal involved pleading guilty to one felony charge of espionage, namely conspiring to obtain and disclose classified US national defense documents. In 2019 Greg Myer, a national security correspondent for NPR, weighed the allegations and their possible damage to national security:

…many in the national security community say the leaks were harmful to a broad range of people. However, they generally say the damage was limited and has faded since the first big WikiLeaks dump in 2010, which included hundreds of thousands of classified documents from the U.S. military and the State Department.

Guatemalan lawyer, advocate and campaigner for Assange, Renata Avila, tweeted with delight, showing characteristic optimism:

Assange's conflict with the United States government has a long history, as Global Voices reported in 2022:

Assange drew the ire of the US government in 2010 when he published thousands of sensitive documents that he received from whistleblower and former US Army Intelligence Analyst Chelsea Manning. The documents contained information about The Baghdad Airstrikes, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and confidential cables between US officials and embassies around the world.

Most recently, WikiLeaks published emails showing the US Democratic National Committee favored then-candidate Hilary Clinton over her competitor Bernie Sanders, just weeks ahead of the 2016 election. And then, in 2017, WikiLeaks published more documents detailing the CIA's electronic surveillance and cyber warfare tactics.

Assange has been a controversial person, even in his home country, with many people regarding him as either a hero or a villain. Some have argued that his Wikileaks disclosures endangered lives and national security. Rape allegations in Sweden continue to damage his reputation. Swedish prosecutors closed the investigation in 2019. Alleged complicity with Trump and Putin before the 2016 American presidential elections still cast a shadow over his reputation as a fighter for truth. This exchange of views on X-Twitter captured some of the concerns:

Assange is a member of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the Australian union representing journalists. MEAA President Karen Percy greeted his release but warned:

The stories published by WikiLeaks and other outlets more than a decade ago were clearly in the public interest. The charges by the US sought to curtail free speech, criminalise journalism and send a clear message to future whistleblowers and publishers that they too will be punished.

This was clearly in the public interest and it has always been an outrage that the US government sought to prosecute him for espionage for reporting that was published in collaboration with some of the world’s leading media organisations.

Max Blumenthal, editor at Grayzone News, dismissed these accusations, coming out strongly for Assange and those who worked for his freedom:

Prominent among those people were current Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, former Prime Minster and current Ambassador to the US Kevin Rudd, and former Foreign Minister and current High Commissioner to the UK Stephen Smith. Albanese had joined calls for an end to Assange’s incarceration and worked behind the scenes to bring about the deal. Stella Assange expressed her thanks to Albanese, retweeting this message from Assange’s lawyer Jen Robinson:

The conservative opposition's shadow foreign minister, Simon Birmingham, attacked Albanese for welcoming Assange home:

He was echoed by former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Denis Richardson who criticized a homecoming phone call as political grandstanding.

Though Assange has been hailed as a fighter for free speech and the freedom of journalism, many media commentators have disputed his credentials as a journalist. SkyNews Australia hosted this debate between the Australian newspaper's Washington correspondent Adam Creighton and their Histories Editor Alan Howe, who have very different views. Howe strongly asserts that Assange “is neither an editor nor a journalist”:

Economist and former Greek politician Yanis Varoufakis is also a citizen of Australia. He clearly sees Assange as a journalist:

John J. Mearsheimer, an American political scientist and academic, put the case for Assange in this video in February 2024:

Respected Australian journalist Margaret Simons canvassed the nature of modern journalism and Assange’s place in it:

It’s an arid debate, which overlooks the obvious truth: he and the technological revolutions of which he is part have changed journalism, forever.

Much of the media coverage has focused on high-profile personalities, political insiders and behind-closed-doors lobbying. However, the campaign to free Julian Assange has been a global movement involving tens of thousands of people. His brother Gabriel Shipton thanked all those who participated in the grassroots movement over many years:

Peter Greste had his own experience of being imprisoned in Egypt for his journalism for Al Jazeera. He reflected on Assange’s ordeal:

I also understand the weird blend of elation, confusion and disorientation that sudden release brings.

Assange’s journey home will be much longer than his flight back to Australia.

…This case has undeniably had a serious chilling effect on public-interest journalism, and sends a terrifying message to any sources sitting on evidence of abuses by the government and its agencies.

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