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WIKILEAKS: Australians Call For Legislation to Protect Whistleblowers

Neena Bhandari

SYDNEY, Mar 23 2011 (IPS) - Some Australians are convinced their government is sharing intelligence information with foreign powers about citizens implicated by documents released by Wikileaks.

The government’s refusal to acknowledge any hand in the case against Wikileaks’ Australian founder Julian Assange has earned the ire of students, academics, lawyers, journalists, and teachers, plus members of the community who are supporting Assange and free speech.

“The Australian government, like other western governments, is increasingly involved in activities which its citizens would renounce if they knew of them,” Julian Burnside, a human rights and refugee advocate here, told IPS.

Assange has accused Prime Minister Julia Gillard of swapping information about Australians with foreign countries – particularly those who work with Wikileaks.

In a question videotaped for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Q&A programme last week, Assange asked, “Prime Minister, when will you come clean about precisely what information you have supplied to foreign powers, about Australian citizens working, or affiliated with Wikileaks? And, if you cannot give a full and frank answer to that question, should perhaps the Australian people consider charging you with treason?”

Gillard denied the claim, saying, “I honestly don’t know what he is talking about. So I am afraid I can’t help him with full and frank disclosures. I don’t know anything about exchanging information about people who work for Wikileaks.”

She did acknowledge, however, that Australia regularly exchanges information about its citizens with other countries in relation to law enforcement matters.

With regard to Wikileaks, however, she said, “To my knowledge, it hasn’t happened.”

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has also denied claims that Australia exchanged information about Wikileaks employees with foreign governments.

Sources within Wikileaks told the Melbourne-based ‘The Age’ newspaper that an Australian intelligence official privately warned them in August last year that Assange was the subject of inquiries by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

The official also reportedly warned the group that information relating to Assange and others associated with Wikileaks had been provided to the U.S. in response to requests made through intelligence liaison channels.

The Australian intelligence official is also claimed to have specifically warned the employees that Assange could be subject to “dirty tricks” of the U.S. intelligence community, including the possibility of sexual entrapment.

Assange was arrested in November and is out on bail in the U.K. pending extradition to Sweden over charges of rape, sexual molestation and coercion. Assange’s supporters believe all this is part of a wider conspiracy to discredit him and Wikileaks.

“It would not surprise me at all as ASIO reaches deep into the lives of many Australians, but keeps its activities secret from everyone, even the courts,” said Burnside told IPS.

“There is a culture of secrecy and cooperation at all costs, particularly when it comes to the U.S. So I am pretty certain that people associated with Wikileaks and people who have Twitter accounts have been and are being discussed,” Professor Emeritus Stuart Rees, director of the Sydney Peace Foundation at the University of Sydney, told IPS.

The Sydney Peace Foundation awarded Assange a Gold Medal for Peace with Justice in February. The citation reads, “For exceptional courage and initiative in pursuit of human rights.”

“We welcome efforts to put information about human rights abuses into the public domain in a responsible way, and a number of Wikileaks documents have revealed such abuses to international scrutiny,” Amnesty International Australia National Director Claire Mallinson told IPS.

Some 2,000 people attended a public forum entitled “Breaking Australia’s Silence: Wikileaks and Freedom” at the Sydney Town Hall last week.

Andrew Wilkie, an independent member of parliament from Tasmania, told the forum he would like to see whistleblower legislation passed before the next elections so that those who speak up are protected and the rule of law, freedom of speech and presumption of innocence are upheld as fundamental rights.

Wilkie is the only serving Western intelligence officer to break cover and expose the truth about the invasion of Iraq.

“It is a tough country to speak up. Whistleblower is a dirty word in Australia with all sorts of connotations like troublemaker,” Wilkie told the forum.

“I don’t think for the most part even democratic governments are all that keen on divulging information that affects their interest, but with the production of the Wikileaks cables and indeed video clips of foreign policies used by powerful governments we know a bit more,” Rees said. “This contributes to freedom of expression and you can see that Wikileaks has enormously helped the revolutions that have gone on in Tunisia and Egypt.”

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