Swiss media split over ‘controversial hero’ Julian Assange

Julian Assange speaks during a conference of Western Persecution, at the United Nations in Geneva in 2015 Keystone

As the extradition hearing of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange continues in London, Swiss newspapers can’t decide whether the Australian activist is a threat to democracy or its saviour. 

This content was published on February 28, 2020 - 08:30

“For some, Julian Assange is a computer hacker and spy who incited his accomplices to commit treason; for others, he is a champion of press freedom in the 21st century,” wrote the Neue Zürcher ZeitungExternal link (NZZ) ahead of Assange’s trial this week in London (see box). 

“Few people divide opinions so diametrically as the 48-year-old WikiLeaks founder.” 

For journalist and musician Vincent Zanetti, writing in Le NouvellisteExternal link, whistleblowers are “an indispensable part in the proper functioning of any self-respecting democracy”. 

“When governments cover up police violence, segregation, tax evasion, spying on citizens, the flourishing of violent extremists, the hyper-development of economic interest groups to the detriment of traditional knowledge, crimes against nature and the use of war for economic purposes, the whistleblower is not a threat to our security but a defender of our democratic values,” he wrote. 

“They deserve not only our respect but also our protection. That is why, together with nearly 1,200 fellow journalists from 97 countries, I call for the release of Julian Assange, not only in the name of press freedom, but because our world can’t do without people like him.”  

‘Media ambivalence’ 

Perhaps with people like Zanetti in mind, the NZZ notedExternal link how many journalists, politicians and artists were calling for Assange’s release. 

“It’s striking how strongly the media are relying on the criticism of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. Where is their own research?” it wondered.

Swiss humanitarian visa?

On Thursday the Geneva parliament adopted an emergency resolution urging the government to put pressure on the Swiss federal authorities to give Julian Assange a humanitarian visa.  

“It’s about giving a specific immediate solution for someone who is being pursued for political motives and whose physical and psychological health has been seriously affected,” said Green parliamentarian Jean Rossiaud. 

A humanitarian visa would allow Assange to be treated at Geneva University Hospital, where appropriate security measures can be put in place. The decision was adopted by 57 in favour, 16 against, with six out of seven parties supporting the idea. 

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The special rapporteur, Swiss lawyer Nils Melzer, had recently given an interview to Swiss news outlet RepublikExternal link, in which he slammed the legal and political systems in the United States, Britain, Sweden and Ecuador, talking of “political persecution” and “the failure of Western rule of law”. 

This interview, the NZZ argued, had piqued the interest of journalists, who had previously shown little interest in the case. “The part-time media interest in Assange’s fate reflects the ambivalence of journalists towards the activist,” it said. 

“Some editorial offices cooperated with him ten years ago when it came to evaluating secret files that WikiLeaks had received. But the headstrong Australian soon rubbed people up the wrong way – his vanity and anarchistic attitude making him a loner. Political activism was more important to him than journalism. This weakened his support in the media.” 

Unexplained details 

Not that the NZZ didn’t have an opinion. In an editorialExternal link from April 2019, it said Assange must be treated “like any other suspected criminal”. 

“The arrest of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange in London is legally correct. Almost seven years ago, the man jumped bail and made himself liable to prosecution. He must be brought to justice for this,” it said. 

“Of course, Assange’s many fans around the world will tell a different story that goes something like this: In 2010 during a trip to Sweden Assange was tricked by two women who, after spending the night with him, made totally unjustified accusations of rape and sexual assault against him. Behind this was the Swedish state, which wanted to get hold of Assange in order to extradite him to the US because of what WikiLeaks had published.” 

But the NZZ said three things were never explained in this theory. “First, it’s a complete mystery why a European state like Sweden would carry out such a plot. Second, no one has explained why this is even necessary, since Britain also has an extradition agreement with the US. And third, there’s never been any indication as to why the accusations made by the two women against Assange were fabricated and unbelievable – although the presumption of innocence naturally applies to Assange.” 

The paper reckoned it was more plausible “that Assange wanted to abscond from a criminal investigation in Sweden out of personal self-interest”. 

Fair trial? 

While the Tribune of GenèveExternal link called Assange a “very controversial hero”, for the SonntagsZeitung the key question was whether he would get a fair trial in the US. “That’s not to be expected,” it said, concluding that therefore he must not be extradited. 

“Julian Assange is undoubtedly a controversial figure, an ideologist for transparency, without regard for those whom he names and without appreciation for the journalistic craft,” it said in an editorialExternal link on Sunday. 

“Despite all this, however, in 2010 and 2011 he acted as a publicist, not as an agent of a foreign power. The material he published about the haphazard war in Afghanistan and the Bush administration’s Iraq war, which violated international law, was of the greatest public interest because it revealed excesses of a major power, including alleged war crimes.” 

If he ever was an agent, it was at most his own PR agent, the NZZ said. “Therefore, the charges – which include the possibility of life imprisonment – are without merit.” 

Assange trial

The extradition hearing of Julian Assange began in London on February 24. The 48-year-old Australian is wanted in the US on spying charges over the leaking of classified government documents a decade ago. American prosecutors accuse him of conspiring with US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password, hack into a Pentagon computer and release hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

He faces 18 charges of espionage and computer misuse and faces a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison if convicted. 

Assange says he was acting as a journalist entitled to First Amendment protection. His lawyers argue that the US charges are a politically motivated abuse of power and that he should not be sent to the US because the 2003 UK-US Extradition Treaty bans extradition for political offences. 

US authorities deny Assange is being prosecuted for political offences. James Lewis, a lawyer for the US government, said in court that Assange was an “ordinary” criminal who had put lives at risk by publishing uncensored secret documents. 

Assange has been in Belmarsh Prison since April 2019, when he was evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He jumped bail and took refuge in the embassy seven years earlier to avoid being sent to Sweden over allegations of rape and sexual assault. 

The hearing is expected to continue for the rest of the week, then take a break before resuming in May.

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