15 years ago, in January 2007, Nairobi hosted the World Social Forum at the Moi International Sports Centre Kasarani. Attending this alter-globalist, anti-capitalist convention was Julian Assange, an Australian ex-hacker then unknown outside a small geeky circle. At this time, only recently sacked by Transparency International Kenya, I was a few months into the establishment of what became Mars Group Kenya, with an office just off Limuru Road.
Having obtained my contacts – I don’t know how – Assange walked in for a chat. We got on, and met several times over the next months he stayed in Kenya, quite a bit of the time living in an apartment off Argwings Kodhek Road in Kilimani, Nairobi. Assange and I had corresponded before this meeting when WikiLeaks was being founded – I was in touch with its core discussion group on an online forum. At the time, I was persuaded that there was scope for a global transparency forum that was not your typical non governmental organization. This would be a diffused organization built around the democratic internet, harnessing new technology to help bring to light the dirty secrets of despots and official law breakers.
It was an idealistic mission-match indeed.
Things moved fairly fast and I started posting invitations to the world on Mars Group Kenya’s blog for leaks. In August 2007, WikiLeaks, with my slight assistance, published its first major leak, a Kenyan one. It exposed the contents of a suppressed investigation report by the famed Kroll and Associates into the wealth of our former President Daniel arap Moi. WikiLeaks stated then that the leaker was at a high level within the Government of Kenya. My involvement should not be controversial, and was not covert, despite claims by some.
Like many Kenyans, I was stupefied at the sum totals (amounting to billions of US dollars reportedly held in extremely dubious circumstances in dozens of countries around the world) which Kroll had traced to Moi’s associates; and disgusted that the Government of Kenya under Mwai Kibaki had suppressed these revelations when Kibaki had made campaign promises to trace and restitute stolen funds.
The Guardian newspaper partnered with WikiLeaks to publish the Kroll Report and famously headlined Xan Rice’s story on this leak “The Looting of Kenya.” This established a template for WikiLeaks, in which it would seek to collaborate with mainstream journalism to get its information to the people, its essential mission being to bring to light that which was but should not be hidden from the people. It thus assisted the Oscar Foundation to tell the story of the Mungiki extrajudicial killings for example.
I never met Assange again, in person. I helped remotely with press liaison when asked and chatted intermittently over the next few years. I was impressed by his energetic stewardship of the WikiLeaks movement, which exploded beyond imagination after its Iraq War atrocity exposes quickly followed by the US State Department Cablegate. It is this latter cluster of leaks which destroyed Assange’s life. Ironically, none of his numerous media collaborators have faced any peril for the very same acts of publishing US State Department cables as done by Assange.
To the contrary, some of his partners in The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times have even driven a boot in, while Assange was down. In indicting the press, Roy Greenslade, writing for The Guardian, wrote “far from championing the whistleblowing cause, the strategy adopted by the mainstream media effectively delegitimised WikiLeaks, marginalised stories of significant public interest, and succumbed to the very whims of exclusivity and sensationalism.”
The cables were pre-emptively published in Kenya by the Daily Nation (which as I recall violated an agreed embargo to steal a march on The Star newspaper, which was also a WikiLeaks partner). Apparently, the Nation struck a high-level side deal with The Guardian to get around having to share the cables with competitors in Kenya. Ethics aside, the Kenyan people were eventually greatly empowered by the revealing descriptions of the machinations and personalities of a cross section of our leadership. We should thank Assange for this gift of information.
And yet, Julian Assange remains a man with few advocates in the mainstream press.
The sad thing is that the collaborative model by which WikiLeaks would partner with major mainstream outlets is being duplicated almost as a standard practice by the very same media which abandoned Assange to his fate. The work Assange did a decade ago is the template for international journalistic collaborations such as the Pandora Papers, and for numerous regional and national efforts including Kenyan independent journalism. And yet, Assange has become a non-person in our concern, and the Kenyan media which sold so many papers on his efforts have dropped him like a rock. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery they say, so it is always good to see the emergence of yet another variation of the WikiLeaks website.
I have always argued that if the British judges sought us out, Kenyans would vouch for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. I am still persuaded by the WikiLeaks theory of change which states that “public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions pressures them to act ethically. What official will chance a secret, corrupt transaction when the public is likely to find out? What repressive plan will be carried out when it is revealed to the citizenry, not just of its own country, but the world? When the risks of embarrassment, through openness and honesty, increase the tables are turned against conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it. It exposes and undoes corruption, and is the most cost effective method of promoting good governance.”
Julian has not been at liberty for more than ten years. The proximate causes of his loss of freedom were publishing over 10 million documents of restricted official material and rape allegations made against him in Sweden. The latter ultimately collapsed, but the very nature of the accusations denuded Julian of support from many who backed his transparency work but had no access to contrary information about the Swedish allegations. As a result, Julian spent seven years in severely confined refuge at the Ecuador Embassy in London, until April 2019 when his asylum was revoked by a new Ecuadorian president and the UK police were invited onto diplomatic premises to seize him. I feel badly for Julian because I knew him and believe he is a victim of double standards.
Spare a thought for Julian Assange who since April 2019 has been incarcerated inside H.M. Prison Belmarsh, London, England, fighting extradition to the United States where he faces serious political charges related to the publication of hundreds of thousands of secret cables from the US government, leaked to WikiLeaks more than a decade ago ostensibly by Chelsea Manning.