On Wednesday a judge in England decided that Julian Assange should be extradited to Sweden to face questioning on allegations of rape made against him by two women. When the news that he was wanted for questioning in Sweden first broke, I tried to refrain from reaching an opinion on the veracity of the allegations against Assange or on his guilt. Frankly, this was because I did not know what to think. Others though, were a lot less hesitant to comment the situation. The blogs went crazy with people asserting everything from a conspiracy theory involving the USA to his being a rapist. There were angry discussions and lots of name calling. Assange’s accusers were also frequently painted as vengeful women trying to bring him down with the assistance of a prosecutor on a radical feminist agenda.
As this story has progressed, I have noticed that the way it’s been covered has had a major impact on the how people view the credibility of Assange (on this particular issue, not on Wikileaks in general) and his accusers. At the beginning, the allegations were reported in such a way that left the impression that it was all trumped up by these women angry at finding out that Assange had two-timed them. This fit very neatly into the idea of women trying to bring down an innocent man with a devastating, false rape accusation. Coming off the back of the much-hyped Wikileaks document dump, the perception of Assange as an innocent crusader for transparency was at its strongest. There were also many threats made against him and there was even talk of the possibility of him being tried in the USA for acting against their national interests. It was easy then, to view the allegations in that light and conclude that it was part of a targeted plot against the man that had just become public enemy number one. The fact that the matter seemed to have been abandoned and then brought back to life also did not help things. I was finding myself leaning towards the conspiracy narrative at this point.
However, more details about the allegations began to surface and it started to become clear (absent a specific knowledge of Swedish law) that the interactions between Assange and these women was a lot more complicated than initially reported. At the least, Assange was coming across as a jerk in the way he had dealt with them. Then as even more information came out about what passed between Assange and the women (sex while half-asleep, failure to use a condom despite being asked to and carrying on when a condom broke etc), I started to think that Assange’s conduct seemed to fall on the wrong side of the line between consent and sexual assault.
All along, one of Assange’s main arguments against extradition was that the allegations would not stand up to scrutiny in a court of law outside Sweden (the idea being that they have their own peculiar approach to these matters which others would find unreasonable). Now, a judge has considered the points and concluded that it is not in fact, an open and shut case and that the allegations would also amount to an allegation of rape under English law. This made me wonder what influence this outcome would have on media reporting of the story and the public opinion of Assange. My suspicion is that the public perception of him will swing negative with people being more likely to consider the credibility of the allegations because of the stamp of authority from a judge.
All of this, to me, illustrates the need to carefully assess what information one uses in coming to conclusions. Intentionally or not, the media is very powerful in shaping the way we view the world. Hero or criminal? Innocent activist or rapist? Crusader for justice or a man trying to avoid being held acountable? How you see it depends on what information you relied on in forming an opinion and how it was presented to you.
Of course this story is not over yet. Assange has a few more days to decide whether to appeal the decision further. If that option fails, it’s off to Sweden where a whole new chapter will begin. I, for one, will be following the developments in this matter keenly not only to see what happens with the allegations but also to see if his fears of falling into a trap set by the US government materialise. I am inclined to think that if the US were out to get him, this would be too public an opportunity. I would be more worried about covert operations but perhaps I have been watching too many spy movies.