On Sunday, the 19th of August, VICE News headed down to the Ecuadorian embassy in London to get a glimpse of Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks founder and government whistleblower has been there for two whole months now, breaking his bail conditions and fleeing there after he lost his last appeal against extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges. He's claiming political asylum at the embassy because he fears that if he's sent to Sweden, he could be extradited in turn to the US to face espionage charges. If found guilty of those, he could get the death penalty.
In an effort to pressure the Ecuadorians into not granting him asylum, last Wednesday the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office threatened to storm the embassy and seize Assange, citing the 1987 Consular Premises Act as justification. This sparked worldwide outrage – the precedent set by that could have thrown the sovereignty of every other embassy in Britain into doubt. But in the end the British authorities didn't follow through with their threat and the next day Ecuador announced it would let Assange bunk down indefinitely.
Yesterday, Assange stepped into the sunlight for the first time in two months to deliver a speech to those gathered outside the embassy in London's West End. The world's press were in attendance, outnumbering even the police who were there in ludicrous numbers to contain the 50-100 supporters penned into the "free speech zone".
There were a number of speeches before the main event, undercards if you will. Tarik Ali, the campaigner and activist, Craig Murray, former British diplomat turned whistleblower on rendition flights, and other speeches read out on behalf of Vivienne Westwood, John Pilger and Ken Loach.
Finally, Assange emerged onto one of the embassy's balconies (and not, as had been rumoured, onto the embassy's steps – if he had done, it's likely the cops would have swooped in and hauled him off to the nearest cell). He began by praising his new hosts and championing Ecuador's free speech records, while glossing over their clampdown on the free press and the fact they're rated 104th in the world press freedom index. (According to Human Rights Watch, a referendum in Ecuador last year introduced reforms that could significantly increase powers to constrain the media and critics of president Rafael Correa's government.) Assange also praised the bravery of his supporters, but failed again to comment on the allegations he faces in Sweden.
Although highlighting the ongoing war on whistleblowers and free speech, overall the whole exercise seemed like a chance for Assange to massage his own ego and goad the police. He could've made this speech immediately after he was granted asylum on Thursday, it's not like he was busy doing anything else. But instead he dragged the world's press and his supporters to hear another rehashed missive that was as high on spectacle as it was low on content.
Assange claims to be entrenched in a battle for the future of freedom of speech and expression, but his one-man mission to manipulate and titillate the media could derail the work done by WikiLeaks.
Follow Henry on Twitter: @Henry_Langston
Video: Devin Yuceil