We still need to talk about Julian Assange. Although not so much about his personality, to whom this documentary argues that his powerful opponents have focused the public attention – thus leading it away from both the war crimes Assange has exposed through WikiLeaks and the larger issues concerning his potential extradition to the USA.
In light of this, it might seem paradoxical that Ithaka – A Fight to Free Julian Assange also has a somewhat personal approach to its subject matter, portraying Assange’s father John Shipton and then-fiancée (now wife) Stella Morris in their ongoing fight for Assange’s freedom. But, like most documentaries, it can, of course, use a good protagonist or two, and Shipton and Morris’ struggles are worth capturing on film. And more importantly, the film nonetheless makes perfectly clear what’s really at stake: Freedom of journalism.
As most readers will know, Assange spent seven years inside the embassy of Ecuador in London. Since the Ecuadorian authorities withdrew his asylum in 2019, Assange has been confined as an unconvicted prisoner in the high-security prison Belmarsh just outside the British capital. The legal battle concerning his extradition to the USA is still ongoing. If he is extradited, Assange faces a potential sentence of up to 175 years imprisonment under the Espionage Act – for publishing documents that exposed war crimes.
This is obviously a serious and shocking blow to the very principle of free journalism. If Assange is convicted, it would set a deeply worrying precedence – and his situation has surely caused a significant amount of self-censorship among journalists and editors already. Ithaka starts with a quote by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, who also participates in the film: «Torture is a tool used to send a warning to others. It is most effective when it is inflicted in public. In Julian’s case, it’s about intimidating everyone else.»
If he is extradited, Assange faces a potential sentence of up to 175 years imprisonment under the Espionage Act – for publishing documents that exposed war crimes.
A political case
As Stella Morris says in the documentary and also pointed out when she met the audience for a Q&A session after the film’s screening at the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival earlier this month, the question of extradition is first and foremost political. This means that public opinion matters much more than the juridical aspects for the final outcome. Not to imply that the legal aspects shouldn’t be in Assange’s favour, at least in an ideal world. However, when a UK judge in January 2021 ruled against extradition, which is depicted in the film, it was because of concerns about Assange’s mental health and the risk of him committing suicide. So even if this was a victory, it was a minor one since the judges did not decide against USA’s claim to have him extradited in itself. Later, the decision has even been overruled.
This is no less worrying considering the alleged plot by the CIA to kidnap and assassinate Assange, which the documentary also mentions – and which should be reason enough not to overturn him to the US government. The impression the film leaves of Assange’s fragile condition while being imprisoned makes it difficult not to agree that he is, in effect, being tortured. Ithaka also includes surveillance footage of Assange and his visitors inside the Ecuadorian embassy, while they were not aware of being filmed. Supposedly, they were spied on by the US secret service, including Assange’s meetings with his lawyers to discuss legal strategies.
John Shipton, in his seventies, is in many ways similar to Assange, not least in his way of speaking and reasoning – even though they did not have much contact during Assange’s childhood. When director Ben Lawrence asks him about this and other questions regarding his son’s personality, Shipton refuses to answer, arguing that it is not «part of the story.» One can suspect that this is included in the film (and even in the trailer) to give the impression that the director has a bit more of an objective distance to the film’s protagonists and subject matter than might actually be the case. Both Assange’s brother and Morris’ brother are producers of the film, and the film is undeniably on Assange and his family’s side. And really, why shouldn’t it be?
Assange has received a lot of negative attention, for instance through allegations of sexual misconduct and WikiLeaks’ supposed role in Trump being elected president – as well as through other films. While not all of this necessarily results from smearing campaigns, some might well be. And the argument that far too much attention has been put on Assange’s personality instead of the bigger issues at stake seems indeed valid. Admittedly, the scenes where Shipton refuses to discuss the more personal matters concerning his son somehow underline this, although it may not fully justify the director’s eagerness to ask.
The point is nonetheless that we still need to talk about Julian Assange’s case, which ultimately is about democracy. In reality, he is a political prisoner – and since it is a political case, the public opinion is of huge importance. As Moris said after the screening in Thessaloniki: «The moment the movement to free Julian is loud and strong enough is the day that Julian will be free.»