Laurie Penny: The problem of Assange

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The Independent Online

Which would you rather have – women's rights or freedom of speech? For the crowd standing outside the Ecuadorian Embassy, listening to various venerable activists give rousing speeches, that's the choice that seems to have been placed before the international left in the person of Julian Paul Assange.

When the WikiLeaks founder finally appeared on the balcony, he praised those present for their courage, and nobody mentioned his being wanted for questioning in Sweden on alleged counts of rape and sexual assault.

For Assange and his supporters, his persecution by Interpol has nothing to do with that, and everything to do with his release of confidential diplomatic cables and videos showing the US Army gunning down unarmed civilians and independent journalists in Iraq.

The idea that Assange cannot be prosecuted for charges related to a sexual assault without being prosecuted for charges related to exposing diplomatic secrets is one that the government of the United States is trying very hard to make reality. It is in their interests to ensure that Assange's army of supporters cannot defend WikiLeaks without also being seen to defend his sexual conduct, whatever the truth of the case.

"The allegations are beyond pathetic and ridiculous," said Andreas Kohl, a 17-year-old German-American WikiLeaks supporter. "It's about freedom of speech, and there is absolutely no evidence of him committing anything that would be remotely considered rape." This is the message that idealistic young men all over the world are learning from this case: governments need to be held to account, independent journalism is powerful, and women lie about rape.

"It's something that can just happen, you know," said Bradford MP George Galloway, commenting on the case and defending the right of men everywhere not to have to ask "prior to each insertion".

Interestingly enough, "something that can just happen" is almost exactly how the United States describes collateral slaughter in Iraq. It's unfortunate, but it happens, and the victims were probably dressed unwisely. Paradoxically, in a case that is supposed to be all about radical transparency, the precise legal issues and possible charges at play in Assange's extradition are murky and misunderstood by practically everyone without access to every email chain. What charges is he facing, or are they just allegations, and does that matter before he crosses the Swedish border? Was it rape or just, in Galloway's delicate phraseology, "bad sexual etiquette"? Can he really be legally extradited to the United States if he goes to Sweden? Nobody in the crowd outside the embassy seemed sure of the facts.

Let's be clear here: nobody should have to stifle one set of principles in order to allow another to live. If you choose to do so, that's a matter for your conscience. For myself, I believe in freedom of speech, and in the power of journalism– it's what I do for a living. I believe that governments need to be made to answer for pursuing profit in the name of peace and massacring thousands in the name of security. I believe in ending the age of secrecy, and I believe that the United States currently seeks to prevent that by pursuing and prosecuting hackers, whistle-blowers and journalists across the world. And I also believe women.

I believe women when they say that their sexual consent is infringed, violently and by coercion, by men they trust and admire, as well as by strangers. I believe that rape and sexual violence are wilfully ignored and misunderstood by governments, except when they happen to be accusing radical transparency campaigners of assault. I believe that it is possible to believe women and to support WikiLeaks at the same time without moral hypocrisy, and I believe that those across the left who seem to have a problem with holding those two simple ideas in their heads at the same time need to ask themselves what accountability actually means.

Nobody should be forced to choose between defending investigative journalism and freedom of speech, and fighting for justice in the global war on women's bodies. So please don't ask if one alleged sex attacker out of hundreds of millions currently walking free and unpursued across three continents should be made to answer for his actions in a court of law when all that distinguishes him from the rest of the army of decent men doing despicable things to women without facing the consequences is the fact that he happens to have personally embarrassed several governments. Please don't ask, because the answer hurts.

The answer is, of course, that Julian Assange should be held to account, of course he should, and he should be held to account in a system where due process means something and women are respected, and currently that system does not exist. Come back to me when the 19,000 annual sex attacks committed by members of the US Army and private contractors against their own fellow soldiers are prosecuted. Come back to me when Bradley Manning is free.

That's not a torturous way of saying, don't come back to me at all. I want that world right now, and I want to see everyone else who believes in basic principles of truth and transparency put down their prejudices and fight for that world with some semblance of consistency.

It comes down to justice and accountability. Those are not things that governments can currently be trusted to deliver at an international level, not for women, and not for the victims of war. Julian Assange should be held to account, and the system to do so fairly while protecting the work of WikiLeaks does not exist, and anyone who believes in freedom needs to fight for both.

It is not only possible to defend both women's rights and freedom of speech. It is morally inconsistent to defend one without the other other. Cultures of secrecy, covert violence and unaccountability need to be exposed. That's what Wiki-Leaks is supposed to be about, and it's also what feminism is about, and right now, governments are terrified of both. That, if nothing else, should tell us where the lines of power are really drawn.