Assange ‘rape’ coverage deserves notice

Published Dec. 6, 2010, Romenesko Letters
Dana Kennedy reports that Julian Assange‘s alleged crime isn’t violent rape, but that his trouble with the law “apparently stems from a condom malfunction.”David Cay Johnston writes: “If Kennedy is right, and at a minimum her report deserves to be checked out today, then our best news organizations are behaving more like (to borrow a hoary newspaper phrase) those ‘semi-official’ newspapers and broadcast outlets that reliably convey official government truths.”
From DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: The first rule of journalism — check it out — seems to have been forgotten by every journalist in the world writing about the Swedish “rape” charges against Julian Assange.
The exception is Dana Kennedy of AOL.
Kennedy reports that the charge against Assange is not “rape” or anything close to the violent, or at least coercive, crime implied by that word.
The actual crime Assange is suspected of “apparently stems from a condom malfunction,” Kennedy wrote. Put another way, in Sweden it may be a crime if a condom comes off during consensual relations.
How would such a crime be proven, absent exceptionally revealing videotape or a confession? Would anyone reasonably think of this as “rape” in the everyday sense that word is used by American news organizations?
Our best news organizations — The NYTimes, WashPost, WSJ, LATimes, USA Today, AP, ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, PBS and Reuters — all used “rape” as the crime at issue with little to no nuance, clips at Google News show. None, as best I can tell, reported that the crime in question is condom slippage.
While it is true that the word “rape” was attributed to Swedish authorities by each of these news organizations, that is not enough.
Accurate and nuanced translations — linguistic, legal and cultural — are necessary. So is asking precisely what the law in Sweden is and what precisely the accusers assert. Asking for a statutory citation and then getting expert analysis of the law would be a smart move.
As journalists we are supposed to carefully check and crosscheck facts. We are also supposed to independent. We are not supposed to take anyone’s word for it, especially not in a case where governments have a powerful interest in silencing someone.
If Kennedy is right, and at a minimum her report deserves to be checked out today, then our best news organizations are behaving more like (to borrow a hoary newspaper phrase) those “semi-official” newspapers and broadcast outlets that reliably convey official government truths.
Kennedy also reports that the Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, “has been active in the proposed reforms of Swedish rape laws that would, if passed, involve an investigation of whether an imbalance in power between two people could void one person’s insistence that the sex was consensual.”
The line above is another subtlety not conveyed in news reports I examined.
Kennedy did not speak to me about this — I merely read her article by chance and was struck by how it stood out from the lazy, uncritical reporting I had read and heard. I then expected to see follow-ups that either advanced her report or knocked it down. Instead, nothing has been pursued either way.
My hope here is that the top editors at the organizations named above will immediately call or email their reporters and tell them to check out Kennedy’s story and find out the actual facts. Better yet, the reporters whose bylines were atop stories about this will act on their own.
Ombudsmen and reader/listener/viewer representatives should also be raising questions within their organizations and reporting on what they find out.
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Julian Assange in a sex-crime investigation in Sweden apparently stems from a condom malfunction.  
Assange's London attorney, Mark Stephens that Swedish prosecutors told him that Assange is wanted not for allegations of rape, as previously reported, but for something called "sex by surprise," which he said involves a fine of 5,000 kronor or about $715.  Assange is the subject of an international manhunt, as a result of Interpol issuing a "red notice," a warrant indicating the person should be arrested with a view to extradition. 

"We don't even know what 'sex by surprise' even means, and they haven't told us," Stephens said, just hours after Sweden's Supreme Court rejected Assange's bid to prevent an arrest order from being issued against him on allegations of sex crimes.

"Whatever 'sex by surprise' is, it's only a offense in Sweden -- not in the U.K. or the U.S. or even Ibiza," Stephens said. "I feel as if I'm in a surreal Swedish movie being threatened by bizarre trolls. The prosecutor has not asked to see Julian, never asked to interview him, and he hasn't been charged with anything. He's been told he's wanted for questioning, but he doesn't know the nature of the allegations against him."

The strange tale of Assange's brief flings with two Swedish women during a three-day period in mid-August -- and decisions by three different prosecutors to first dismiss rape allegations made by the women and then re-open the case -- has more twists, turns and conspiracy theories than any of Stieg Larsson's best-sellers.

True, one of Assange's accusers sounds tailor-made for those who think Assange is being set up in Sweden by dark CIA-backed operatives who want him smeared or silenced for his document dumping with WikiLeaks. She's a 31-year-old blond academic and member of the Social Democratic Party who's known for her radical feminist views, once wrote a treatise on how to take revenge against men and was once thrown out of Cuba for subversive activities. 

But others say Assange, who denies any wrongdoing and says the sex was consensual, may have just run afoul of Sweden's unusual rape laws, which are considered pro-feminist because of the consideration given issues of consent when it comes to sexual activity -- including even the issue of whether a condom was used.

In fact, the current prosecutor, Marianne Ny, who re-opened the case against Assange, has been active in the proposed reforms of Swedish rape laws that would, if passed, involve an investigation of whether an imbalance in power between two people could void one person's insistence that the sex was consensual.

Swedish tabloids and the country's blogosphere have been rife since August with stories and speculation about Assange's accusers, the flip-flopping prosecutors and just what, if any, crime was committed by Assange during sex with the two women.

"He's innocent, that I can tell you," Bjorn Hurtig, Assange's Stockholm-based lawyer, told AOL News today. Hurtig later issued a statement saying the international arrest warrant for Assange is based on "exaggerated grounds."

Assange arrived in Sweden on Aug. 11 to speak at a weekend seminar sponsored by the Social Democratic Party and arranged to stay at a Stockholm apartment belonging to the event organizer, a member of the branch of the party who would become one of Assange's two accusers.

According to a police report obtained by the Daily Mail in August, she and Assange had sex, and at some point the condom broke. While she was apparently not happy about the condom breaking, the two were seen the next day at the seminar, and nothing appeared amiss.

Another woman at the seminar, a 27-year-old art photographer, said in her police statement that she'd come to hear Assange's lecture because of her fascination with him and his work. She can be seen in video footage on the Internet sitting in the front row during Assange's lecture, wearing a pink sweater and snapping pictures of him.

According to the police report, the woman managed to get an invitation to go out for lunch with Assange and his entourage after the seminar. They spent time together before he went back to stay at the event organizer's apartment.

Two days later, on Aug. 16, they reconnected by phone and the woman invited him to her apartment, more than 40 miles outside Stockholm. She paid for the ticket since Assange apparently had no cash and doesn't like to use credit cards because they could be traced.

She complained in her police statement that during the train ride to her hometown, "he paid more attention to his computer rather than me." She also said that by the time they arrived at her apartment, "the passion and excitement seemed to have disappeared."

The woman and Assange also reportedly had sex. According to the Daily Mail account, Assange did not use a condom at least one time during their sexual activity. The New York Times today quoted accounts given by the women to police and friends as saying Assange "did not comply with her appeals to stop when (the condom) was no longer in use."

According to the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, the photographer contacted the other woman two days after her assignation with Assange, and the two apparently had a conversation in which it became clear they had both had sex with Assange. The photographer was worried about having had unprotected sex and decided she wanted to go to the police.

The other woman accompanied her to the police station on Aug. 20 just to support her but then told the investigating officer on duty that she, too, had had sex with Assange, Aftonbladet reported.

Based on what was said to police, the on-call prosecutor, Marie Kjellstrand, decided to issue an arrest warrant on charges of rape and molestation, and the next day the story hit the Swedish paperExpressen and newspapers all over the world. 

Kjellstrand's decision was overruled the following day by a higher-level prosecutor, Eva Finne, who withdrew the arrest warrant and said she did not see any evidence for rape allegations.

Then, on Sept. 1, a third prosecutor, Ny, re-opened the rape investigation, implying that she had new information in the case. 

On Nov. 18, Swedish judicial officials approved a prosecutorial request that Assange be detained for questioning for alleged sex crimes, and on Nov. 30 Interpol issued a "red notice" against Assange for alleged sex crimes in Sweden. Despite what has happened, the woman who organized the event and had Assange stay at her apartment told Aftonbladet that she never intended that Assange be charged with rape.
"It is quite wrong that we were afraid of him. He is not violent, and I do not feel threatened by him," she told the newspaper in an interview that did not identify her by name. "The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl lies with a man who had attitude problems with women."

When the second accuser was reached on her mobile phone today by AOL News, she said simply, "I have nothing to say on the matter."

Stephens, Assange's lawyer, said that even though British police know Assange's whereabouts -- reportedly in southeastern England -- they have not yet arrested him because of the inadequacy of the arrest warrants issued by Sweden.

"The Swedes couldn't even produce another warrant today that was valid," Stephens told AOL News. "The police here sent it back."


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