Assange has been in Belmarsh since he was dramatically dragged from the Ecuador embassy and arrested in April 2019, initially on breach of bail conditions.
If the US successfully extradites him and he is found guilty on all charges, Assange would almost certainly die in a US jail.
The charges relate exclusively to a series of publications by WikiLeaks throughout 2010 beginning with ‘Collateral Murder’, then the Afghanistan and Iraq War Logs, and finally Cablegate, hundreds of sensitive State Department cables sent from US diplomatic missions around the world.
Published in collaboration with media organisations including The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Australia, the leaks made the former hacker Assange an internationally recognised figure, but also put a target on his back.
During a short visit to Australia at the start of December to lobby for support for the WikiLeaks founder from politicians and journalists here, Hrafnsson depicted the indictment and extradition of Assange as a form of rendition that should send a chill down the spine of journalists and free speech advocates all around the world.
“If Julian Assange is extradited to face death in a US prison, he is not going to be the last journalist to face that fate.”
The usually taciturn Hrafnsson minces no words in describing Assange as a “political prisoner”.
“Of the 18 indictments he is facing, 17 are based on the [US] Espionage Act,” Hrafnsson explains.
“They are equating journalistic practices with espionage. It is the first time that this Espionage Act is directed against a journalist. It’s not happened in the 101 years since this law was passed in the United States and it’s now being used with extraterritorial reach.”
At the start of this decade, Assange was a journalistic hero, but his arrest in April was met by most journalists with jaded hostility. It has been Hrafnsson’s job to turn that around, and now, more than six months later, he senses a change in mood towards more overt support among journalists for Assange.
“[The indictments] give out the signal that no journalist anywhere in the world is safe if he or she is publishing information that is of displeasure to the ‘empire’,” he says.
“People can understand that this is a grave attack on their work, the foundation and the basis of their work. Everybody can put himself in those shoes and foresee that at some point if this escalates and if this goes forth, he or she as a journalist could face the same circumstances.
“I can feel that in this country people are seeing that this is something that has to be fought vigorously because if Julian Assange is extradited to face death in a US prison, he is not going to be the last journalist to face that fate.”
Hrafnsson visited Assange in jail just days before he flew to Australia, and was shocked by the deterioration in the WikiLeaks founder’s health since April. He claims that Assange has had only limited access to his lawyers and is denied proper opportunity to prepare for his trial.
“The treatment that he is under is inhumane and is causing pain and damage,” Hrafnsson says.
“He is rapidly losing weight. He is in isolation for the most part of the day, and he has limited interaction with all the other inmates in that prison. We are talking about a maximum security prison which is no place for a journalist and an editor, especially now when he is on remand.”
Hrafnsson is acutely aware that while Assange’s supporters are intensely passionate and convinced that their man is the innocent victim of a global conspiracy, the mainstream view is mixed and sympathy for his incarceration will not be enough to force the Australian government to act.
As a journalist himself, Hrafnsson has encouraged other journalists to educate themselves and to take up Assange’s case, and much of his short Australian visit was spent meeting with journalists one-on-one or in groups in newsrooms, along with a televised address to the National Press Club in Canberra.
“The philosophy of WikiLeaks is basically the basic philosophy of journalism.”
Hrafnsson says Assange is grateful for the support for his case from the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, Britain’s National Union of Journalists, and the International Federation of Journalists, which, at MEAA’s instigation, passed a strongly worded resolution at its congress in Tunisia in June.
But while high-profile journalists such as Walkley Foundation chair Kerry O’Brien have spoken out in his favour, much of the Australian journalistic community continues to be silent.
Part of the reason for this the ongoing debate about whether Assange is a journalist, even though Assange is a longstanding member of MEAA and WikiLeaks received the 2011 Walkley Award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism.
It’s an argument that Hrafnsson has little time for and believes is being floated purely to muddy the waters.
“Even the United States’ intelligence services, according to leaked documents to WikiLeaks, acknowledged Julian as a journalist and WikiLeaks as a journalistic organisation,” he says. “Of course, the MEAA has acknowledged him as a journalist, you know, for 10 years. The Walkley Award was granted to WikiLeaks and on and on. Two dozen journalism awards.
“So where did this come from and how did this seep in, this doubt that this was not journalism and Julian not a journalist? Well, there’s no question about it. It is the counterattack from the United States against WikiLeaks and against Julian that put this question mark around whether he’s a journalist or not.”
Hrafnsson concedes the tactic has been successful, which is why he came to Australia to directly meet with journalists in Assange’s home country.
In his meetings, Hrafnsson also insisted that WikiLeaks functions along the same lines as any traditional media organisation.
“The philosophy of WikiLeaks is basically the basic philosophy of journalism,” he says.
“It’s about the people’s right to know. It’s about holding truth to power. It’s about uncovering corruption in corporate power and government power. It is about being the voice of the people and being of service to the people and democratic society. So the underlying philosophy is the same.
“Operationally, it is pretty much the same procedure inside WikiLeaks as in all other mainstream media organisations. You get information, you read it for authenticity and it is evaluated editorially, whether it should be published, whether it’s in the public interest to do so.
“So it is no different from other media organisations in essence, although the platform is different.”
“He is at the moment standing on the edge of the cliff, but all journalists are being slowly pushed in the same direction.”
Hrafnsson insists that WikiLeaks as a journalistic operation is still alive and well, regardless of Assange’s plight.
Last year, WikiLeaks was involved in two scoops which prove the organisation is “back in business”, he says. In November, WikiLeaks published a leaked document from within the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which accused the OPCW of exaggerating evidence of an alleged chlorine attack by the Syrian government on a suburb of Damascus in 2018.
The same month, WikiLeaks collaborated with Al Jazeera to expose alleged bribery at senior levels of Namibia’s government to corrupt the country’s lucrative fishing industry.
“There was a time in the middle of the year after Julian’s arrest that we put all our emphasis on putting our resources on getting him out of the prison and getting him to freedom and securing that the extradition would not go ahead to the United States,” Hrafnsson says. “But we have now continued to release [documents] . . . so we are back in business.”
The Australian Federal Police raids in the middle of 2019 on the Canberra home of a News Corp journalist and the Sydney offices of the ABC contributed to a sense that journalism and press freedom is under siege, with striking parallels to the pursuit of Julian Assange.
Hrafnsson believes this has been a factor in the changing mood among Australian journalist towards supporting Assange.
“It can’t be a coincidence that after Julian was dragged in this indecent manner out of the embassy you have seen more and more raids on journalists in America. You’ve seen threats against journalists in Latin America. There is basically universally an attack on truth going on.
“And you’ve seen the evidence of this country. It is part of the same picture.
“And it should unify journalists all around the world, not just behind Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, but behind the right to publish. He is at the moment standing on the edge of the cliff, but all journalists are being slowly pushed in the same direction.
“He himself told me in Belmarsh when I visited that the message that he wanted out — and what to say to journalists — basically is this is not about me. This is about you. And that is the core of the matter. And of course, that is seeping in. People understand the gravity and certainly the understanding is increasing. And I hope that will, as I say, unify journalists all around the world in that campaign.”