As he headed off for the Norfolk mansion where he will live for the next few weeks under house arrest, Julian Assange morphed from an unknown, shadowy web entrepreneur into a cause célèbre for the free media. I use the term ‘media' here, rather than Internet, deliberately.
The reason that the world's media is so keen to flash cameras in his face at a level more usually reserved for a Royal Engagement, is that Assange's eventual fate will also determine the rights of publishers and journalists online.
At stake in this case is free speech, the right to access and distribute information. If Assange is eventually indicted on whatever offence the US government can cook up, it will herald more restrictions on the Internet and a curb of free speech as yet unknown in western liberal democracies.
His conviction would put all online media - especially those involved in political reporting - at risk. The risk would extend from mainstream broadcasters to individual bloggers. How can any media call governments to account, when they could be personally and financially threatened, by the State and by its corporate henchmen?
Julian Assange, founder of the Wikileaks website, was released from prison on bail today. But he remains under house arrest in a the Norfolk mansion where he offered to stay whilst awaiting his trial for extradition to Sweden. And a number of matters remain unclear.
The court hearing today was an appeal against his bail, and there is still confusion about which government - British orSwedish - ordered it. The Swedish are trying to suggest that it was the British who did it, whilst the British Director or Public Prosecutions has said he was only acting on behalf of the Swedes.
The argument at today's hearing was about whether he is a flight risk' - how likely it is that he will abscond. The Swedes are saying that he is a high risk, his lawyers argue that he is not a risk. The judge said in his ruling that there were no grounds to refuse bail.
Assange's lawyer, Mark Stephens, said that the costs for the trial were awarded to the British authorities, and not to the Swedish prosecutor.
There are increasing suggestions that the US authorities are going to try to get him extradited to their country. Assange himself hinted that his legal team are already being advised that the US authorities are cooking up a charge against him in order to be able to raise an extradition order.
In these circumstances, legal experts are coming up with different views as to how the extradition process would work, and whether he could be sent direct from Britain to the US. It may depend on whether the Swedish authorities will drop the charges in the face of what may be regarded as more serious charges from the US. All appear to think that the process could take as long as a year.
The trial, expected in January or February - again, the timing is not clear - could become a show trial. Indeed, as Assange's lawyer, Mark Stephens, has suggested, the more that the respective governments try to push to keep him in custody, the more it will turn into a show trial.
Assange had been held in Wandsworth jail which also houses a number of serious criminals, and he was held in solitary confinement in the punishment block. His lawyer, Mark Stephens, described the conditions as Dickensian and reminded us that this was the same cell, where, in the 1890s, the author Oscar Wilde was also incarcerated. His release was assured only after a number of wealthy British people, including Bianca Jagger and Jemima Khan, put up the £240,000 demanded by the court.
The allegations against him in Sweden have been reported in full clinical detail by the Daily Mail . On reading them, I have to say that it seems more appropriate to refer this incident to the Jeremy Kyle Show*, rather than waste court time on it.
The massive media scrum outside the court this afternoon, and the vast number of flash bulbs that went off when he finally emerged on the steps of the court, not to mention the line of satellite trucks waiting for him tonight in the snowy country lane outside the house in Norfolk, indicate just how widely his trial will be reported.
The underlying reason for the massive media interest is that every journalist knows that this could be them. It is the job of a journalist to report political events, and in order to do that job effectively, they must have the freedom to report matters which are uncomfortable to policy-makers and governments. That is the essence of a liberal democracy which we pride ourselves we have in Europe.
What the Wikileaks story has shown us, is just how easily those policy-makers and governments can act on levers to close off news media in the online environment. We have seen how Mastercard, Visa and Paypal acted as the henchmen of the US authorities to cut off the means of payment to Wikileaks. And also how Amazon kicked the site off its server, and a domain registrar took the most reprehensible action of all, by removing Wikileaks domain name from the Internet (DNS) system.
None of the organisations needed much pressure to take this action. Indeed, it emerged that some of them have benefitted from US government support in lobbying internationally.
The fear is that this kind of pressure will be increasingly brought to bear on ISPs, and that they will block content. If Assange is convicted, it could give the starting signal for this kind of blocking and the free media will be no more.
Standing outside the High Court in London on his release on bail, Julian Assange said:
" if justice is not always an outcome, at least it is not dead yet. During my time in solitary confinement in the bottom of a Victorian prison, I had time to reflect on the conditions of the people around the world also in solitary confinement, in conditions must worse than me, those people need your attention. And with that I hope to continue my work, and to continue to defend my innocence in this matter "
Assange's lawyer, Mark Stephens, said after the hearing:
-"We are utterly delighted! ... it is part of a continuing vendetta on the part of the Swedes against Assange. We obtained costs, but the Swedes should pay those costs, not our hard pressed CPS. ..We are working hard to sort out the formalities. The sureties have to go to police stations. We expect Julian to be released today. I haven't spoken to Julian. If he is released, you will be able to ask him yourselves. We haven't addressed the question of American legal action. There have been so many twists and turns in this case. We've had more brickbats thrown at us in the last seven days than I have probably had in a few years in my legal career."
*The Jeremy Kyle Show is a British daytime TV show dealing with ‘relationship problems,' and it has many instances of the bi-products of one-night stands.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial-Share Alike 2.5 UK:England and Wales License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/uk/ It may be used for non-commercial purposes only, and the author's name should be attributed. The correct attribution for this article is: Monica Horten (2010) , Julian Assange - cause célèbre for a free media http://www.iptegrity.com 17 December 2010.