Julian Assange and the privacy of the accused

Everyone seems to be getting a tiny bit obsessed by the guilt or innocence of Julian Assange (https://lefteyerighteye.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/free-speech-vs-right-to-privacy/) not to mention with the character, integrity, and motivation of his two ‘accusers.’ All eyes are on the Swedish justice system as the world tries to assemble a coherent charge from the jumbled up mish-mash of offending behaviours like consensual acts of sex without protection, and treason against countries he’s not a citizen of. (In there amongst the jumble must surely be some slightly more sensible, medium severity charge, somewhere between espionage and breaches of privacy? Or must everyone be either a hero, exempt from the law, or else a terrorist and rapist?

But just like with the leaked cables drama itself, there is a wider point: the right to privacy. (Yes, again.)

Earlier this year, the coalition government dangled their legs in the water over new laws to keep the identities of accused rapists private until a conviction is secured. The plans were widely opposed, and dropped. It was seen by many, understandably, as being at best a misguided approach to dealing with the issues surrounding rape and the law, insofar as it dealt exclusively with the protection of the accused, while offering no policies to help the victims of rape.

But this was never a logical conclusion to arrive at. Proper treatment of victims and the principle of innocence until proven guilty are two separate issues. In fact, in order to preserve both, they need to be separate. And although it would be even better to protect the privacy of anyone accused of any crime, the reason it makes sense to start by protecting the identities of accused rapists is because in rape cases, the accusers can keep their own identities private. This is not just a matter of treating the accused ‘fairly’ either: disclosing the name of the accused can identify, or help to identify, the victim. To say nothing of the fact that rape is a crime so emotive that it makes some of the most sensible members of the public turn into hang-em-and-flog-em types. If the identity of a suspected joy-rider or a suspected bank fraudster is made public when no guilt is ever proven, people will be likely to shrug their shoulders. If someone’s name gets mentioned in conjunction with rape or paedophilia, they don’t.

And this is where we come to the material point. As long as society has crimes which we all find so abhorrent that they command that gut-based animal anger from us all, those crimes will be used as a way of turning one citizen against another by simple accusation. It’s not melodramatic to say that witches, Catholics, and communists are all historical cases in point. Terrorists, paedophiles, and rapists are modern ones. Accuse someone of being a paedophile or a rapist, and suddenly, huge numbers of otherwise totally rational, liberal people don’t care about the principle of innocent until proven guilty anymore, because the crime the accused is being accused of is so disgusting that the benefit of the doubt is not worth the risk.

This is, without question, what is happening to Julian Assange. The morality – and legality – of his own actions regarding the leaked cables is a total irrelevance. Civil liberties need to remain unconditional; indeed, if anything, the less esteem we hold the accused in, the more imperative it should be to see the law applied correctly. Whatever little regard Assange holds for other people’s right to privacy, the way this case is being brought against him an excellent example of why accusations of this sort shouldn’t be made public: the state (or anyone else) can use accusation, and accusation alone, to smear anyone they don’t like. And perhaps the retaliatory smears against the two women who have made the accusations is an example of something similar, too.

So now, instead of having to put together a serious case against Assange, working out exactly how we – by which I mean the international community – want to enforce privacy laws, and deal with international breaches of it, the world’s leaders get to accuse, smear, and obfuscate. This lazy and confused approach to justice can’t be good for civil liberties all round – and it doesn’t exactly help the moral arguments against Assange’s own anti-establishment actions, and his lack of trust in the whole system, either.

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One thought on “Julian Assange and the privacy of the accused

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  1. It is difficult to get rape convictions today and nobody wants to see a return to the bad old days of the 70s when it was very hard and courtrooms were arenas for further assaults, but I wince whenever I see footballers accused of sexual assault / rape etc from an anonymity protected until a newspaper buys up the story. Whilst the absence of a conviction is no proof of innocence, that there are very few convictions and not many more trials shows that the law is not honouring its fundamental root – innocent until proved guilty. Are more footballers guilty of such crimes than (say) shopworkers? I bet the common perception is yes, but we don’t know.

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