On Sunday night, John Oliver dedicated much of the opening to his post-Game of Thrones final season premiere episode to the expulsion and arrest of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange.
Yes, the Last Week Tonight host tackled Assange’s expulsion from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he’s spent the last six-plus years, and subsequent arrest by British authorities, jokingly branding the hacker-turned-publisher “the most controversial Australian export since Vegemite.”
After running a montage of cable-news coverage of Assange being hauled out of the embassy, much of which focused on Assange’s bearded, disheveled appearance, he remarked, “That’s a weird tone to take on a story that’s this important. Yes, his arrest sparks a difficult debate about the efficacy of journalistic protections in the age of cyber espionage, but look how bad he looks!”
“But look,” Oliver continued, “this is a big deal.”
Oliver then went over some of the reasons Ecuadorian officials gave for booting Assange from their embassy, including causing damage by skateboarding through the halls, stealing WiFi, hosting soccer matches, and bad hygiene—including (allegedly) smearing feces on walls.
“It is easy to dislike Julian Assange,” offered Oliver. “He first fled to the embassy to escape extradition to Sweden on rape charges—charges he denied. Alongside the valuable information that WikiLeaks has helped release, they’ve also recklessly published the sensitive personal data of hundreds of ordinary people, potentially putting lives at risk. And that’s not even getting into the fact that WikiLeaks’ publication of hacked emails in 2016 helped elect Trump president.”
He added: “You are allowed not to like him, but America’s current attempts to extradite him hang on a specific charge that many press advocates find unsettling.”
The U.S. Department of Justice is trying to extradite Assange on charges of conspiracy for allegedly helping Chelsea Manning crack a password in order to gain access to the Pentagon’s computer network. “The charge relates to Assange’s alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States,” the DOJ said in a press release.
This worries Oliver. “On its face, it currently seems more than a little flimsy—prompting the Committee to Protect Journalists to call it ‘troubling for press freedom,’ because the indictment’s language seems to criminalize a broad range of legally protected and common journalistic activity,” the HBO host explained.
“And while it is still early at this point, and we don’t know what else Assange might be charged with—or even if the U.K. might extradite him at all—this story is worrying for a number of reasons,” he argued. “One, because journalistic freedoms may be under threat; and two, unfortunately, in order to protect them, we may be forced to utter the one phrase in the English language scarier than ‘Halloween Brexit,’ and that’s: ‘I’m really sorry, everyone, but it might actually be time to defend Julian Assange.’”