There is no doubt that Julian Assange’s release of thousands of secret diplomatic cables sent shock waves through the upper echelons of power that continue to be felt almost 10 years down the line. With great support from the international media, he transformed WikiLeaks from a nondescript website to an important journalistic tool that exposed hidden injustices.
His revelation of human right violations, war crimes, corruption and tax dodging behaviour of the elites, enabled citizens to hold leaders to account and interrogate abuse of power. Assange saw this as the only means through which oppressive and corrupt governments could be disabled.
Nigel Bowles and James Hamilton in their book Transparency in politics and the Media: Accountability and Open Government, noted that Assange, through WikiLeaks, encouraged and gave a strong moral support to the act of whistle-blowing.
To the mainstream journalism and human rights activists, Assange’s revelations were for the common good since they deepened public understanding of the governing process, and also exposed the underhand of the state in human rights violation.
But despite WikiLeaks being a key resource for those who were interested in fighting for societal change and justice, it appears all those who benefitted from the revelations have deserted Assange in his hour of need. His suffering is mainly being investigated and highlighted by independent medics, and not members of the fourth estate as one would have expected.
Very few newspapers talk about his plight, and rarely will you hear human rights activists raising their voices to champion for his release. Even the few stories about his suffering that are highlighted in the press, do not attract much attention from the audiences, making one to conclude that Assange is on his own.
Just last week more than 60 British doctors wrote an open letter to the British Home Secretary expressing fear that that the WikiLeaks’s founder’s health is so bad that he could die in prison. The doctors based their fear on harrowing account of those who saw Assange when he appeared in court on 21 Oct and a recent report by the United Nation special rapporteur who warned that “continued exposure to arbitrariness and abuse may soon end up costing his life.”
Assange has been under detention for the last eight months following his forceful eviction from the Ecuadorian Embassy where he had been holed up since 2012. But even before his removal from the Embassy, doctors had begun to question the status of his mental and medical health.
One American doctor who had been conducting several medical and mental checks on him inside the Ecuadorian since 2017, had noted his deteriorating condition and raised the alarm. In a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the Commissioner for Human for the European Council, said that prolonged and indefinite confinement had seriously affected Assange’s mental health.
“Mr Assange’s situation differs from a typical prisoner in a conventional prison, in fact his position is worse than a conventional prison in many respects. His confinement is indefinite and uncertain, which increases chronic stress and its myriad of chronic physical and serious psychological risks, including suicide. I believe the psychological, physical and social after-effects will be long-lasting and severe,” she wrote.
Two days after the letter was written, Assange was hounded out of the Ecuadorian Embassy and arrested by British police for jumping bail.
Belmarsh prison where Assange is currently being detained is a Category A prison which was once described as Britain’s Guantanamo Bay. It holds hardcore criminals and individuals considered to be of the greatest threat to the public, such as terrorists.
In 2007 the prison was under probe for its large number of suicide cases. A task force was immediately set up to identify and prevent causes of suicide after three inmates killed themselves within just one month.
Although conditions at Belmarsh are said to have improved, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons in his report covering 29 January to 9 February 2018, revealed that the conditions inside the prison “were claustrophobic, cramped and extremely uncomfortable,” adding that, “there is a failure to ensure adequate treatment of and/or conditions for prisoners.” Similar views had also been expressed by a journalist from The Independent who after being granted access to the prison wrote, “The area is desperately cramped and uncomfortably warm.”
Experts believe the situation inside the prison can affect psychological and mental health of an individual, leading to suicide, and according to Samaritans, prisoners are ten times more likely to commit suicide. From this, it is evident that Assange’s condition may become worse and needs a quick response.
But how easy is it for journalists or other interested parties to visit Assange in prison so that the state of his health can be fully understood? According to British Ministry of Justice, any request for “face to face visits from either the prisoner or journalist should be directed to the Governor by written application, explaining why the visit is necessary, its purposes and why it cannot be satisfied by other means.
Approval of a visit request by a journalist will normally be granted where the prisoner can confirm that the matter in question relates to an alleged miscarriage of justice and that the sole purpose of the visit is to allow him/her the opportunity to highlight an alleged miscarriage of justice in his/her own case” Assange’s case has good grounds to meet this criteria as he is still being kept in prison despite finishing his jail term. The only reason for this according to British authorities is that he may run away if freed.
Secondly according to the Ministry of Justice, a request for a visit can be granted “if there is sufficiently strong public interest in the issue sought to be raised during the visit and the assistance of that journalist is needed.” Of course, Assange is a public figure and the status of his health is a matter of great concern to members of the public who still admire him. Therefore a visit by a journalist can help ease some anxiety among those concerned.
The Ministry of Justice further adds that “In respect of either reason for a visit mentioned above, the Secretary of State must also be satisfied that the visit is the only suitable methods of communication. That the journalist intends a serious attempt to investigate or bring to public attention the prisoners case or the other issue with a sufficiently strong public interest raised by the prisoner.”
It is difficult to tell whether an attempt had already been made by members of the fourth state to request for permission to visit Assange. But it is also possible that a request was made but denied. One British journalist once said that she found it easier to visit a military prison in Vladimir Putin’s Russia than to gain access to a British jail. This calls for some persistence from members of the fourth estate to have Assange’s health status be known.