Julian Assange appearing via video linkChris Williamson / Getty Images

Julian Assange made an appearance at the Union on Wednesday after weeks of controversy surrounding his proposed invitation which saw the resignation of the Union's Women's Officer and an unprecedented referendum on his attendance among the society’s members.

Assange, currently claiming asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden where he faces sexual assault charges, did not face protest at the Union as some had expected, and spoke via a video link on the subject of “The Challenges of Freedom of Speech in the West” to those gathered in the auditorium. During his appearance, Assange played declassified footage of an Apache Helicopter shooting by the US Military in 2007 in Baghdad. He had first shown the video at the Oxford Union in 2013, but it was subsequently censored on the union’s event video because the footage was claimed to have been under copyright of the American government.

Despite the controversy and national press ban imposed on the event, the event proceeded largely calmly. Questions about the role of Wikileaks in relation to security concerns, the abuse allegations made against Assange, and his acceptance of asylum from Ecuador considering its human rights record, were the only reminders of the earlier discontent.

Choosing to ignore the sexual allegations during his opening remarks, Assange talked at length about the challenges to freedom of speech, comparing his role in challenging “Western censorship” to that of Wilfred Burchett, the war-time journalist who reported on the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He claimed that Burchett suffered “vilification from quite substantial attacks by US agencies”, and that “a lot of what has happened to Wikileaks is a bit like that”.
Assange also launched an attack on the Western press, claiming they were both owned and read by “a wealthy, connected elite,” and that the BBC in “collaboration with the CIA and UK intelligence services” was complicit in censorship and information exchange between the British and American governments.

Criticism of the United States government was a recurring theme during throughout the evening, with Assange lamenting the way in which Australia, the country of his birth, has become what he called a “Pacific theatre US aircraft carrier”, attacking the “sycophancy and slavishness towards the US” in both the Australian Liberal and Labour parties.

Describing the internet as a tool for the “great lateral spread of information and mass political education”, Assange warned against further moves to place limits on it in an attempt to “suppress an irritating under and middle class able to speak out against powerful interests”.

Despite a confident start, Assange was largely put on the defensive during the Question and Answer session which followed.

Defending Wikileaks from the critics who claim it is a threat to both national security and intelligence operatives working abroad, Assange replied that the US government “had, under oath, been unable to confirm a single instance of physical harm” as a result of Wikileaks cables, and lauded his organisation as a force which has ousted corruption in countries “from Peru to Kenya”.

In response to further questions regarding the leak of Sony documents and communications in 2013, within which was included staff health records and national security numbers, Assange claimed that he was “proud publishing this material”, claiming they had exposed cases of the company’s “manipulation” of the British government during the Scottish Referendum in an attempt to acquire tax concessions, and a supposed link between Sony cameras and guided missiles.

Although fielding some friendly questions, Assange was put under the spotlight when responding to concerns about the controversy surrounding both his acceptance of asylum with Ecuador and the sexual assault charges levelled against him.

Denying the charges, Assange claimed that “no women ha[d] alleged rape against [him]” and that he had been “acquitted by the chief justice of the Swedish supreme court”, accusing the women who levelled the accusations of being “railroaded” into making “trump-up allegations” by Swedish authorities. He alleged that Sweden had only acted against him under pressure from the United States, “who ha[d] launched an espionage case against [him] unprecedented in size and scale”.

In regards to his asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy, Assange argued that “he had accepted the first democratic offer of asylum” and whilst ceding that Ecuador had “its share of problems”, he also highlighted his unique position “as a political refugee”.

Although there were no protests arranged in relation to Assange’s appearance, the CUSU Women’s Campaign held a pre-arranged forum discussion on the topic of Free Speech. A Varsity correspondent attending the event was informed that she could not report on it because it had been declared a ‘safe space’.

With additional reporting from Sarah Collins.