RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now for the story of a man who released so many classified U.S. documents on Iraq: Julian Assange. It's been several years since the founder of WikiLeaks left his own country, Australia, but Assange remains at the center of an intense national debate there.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on how he's viewed in his home country.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting) Hands off WikiLeaks.

ANTHONY KUHN: Hands off WikiLeaks, protesters shouted at a rally last month here in the capital of Julian Assange's home state of Queensland. Over the past couple of months, WikiLeaks supporters have protested in cities across Australia.

Local media have editorialized that Prime Minister Julia Gillard misjudged the degree of public support for Assange last month when she accused him of breaking U.S. and possibly Australian laws.

Prime MINISTER JULIA GILLARD (Australia): Let's not try and put any glosses on this. It would not happen, information would not be on WikiLeaks, if there had not been an illegal act undertaken.

KUHN: Gillard backed down a bit when an Australian Federal Police investigation concluded that no Australian law had been broken. But she insisted that Assange was in the wrong.

Prime Minister GILLARD: The release of all of this documentation has been grossly irresponsible, and I stand by the remarks that I've made about this previously.

KUHN: Gillard's words cost her some support among members of her ruling Labor Party. Some members felt that Gillard had unfairly pre-judged Assange, and that whatever Assange had done, his legal rights as an Australian citizen should be upheld.

Lawmaker Sharon Grierson, who sits on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement, sees the Assange case as a litmus test for freedom of speech and information.

Ms. SHARON GRIERSON (MP, Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement, Australia): We're a government that's improved freedom of information. So it seems to me slightly hypocritical that we would make that judgment very quickly about the information being released.

KUHN: Robert Stary is Assange's lawyer, based in Melbourne. He believes his client's defense should be pretty straightforward, because he considers Assange to be a journalist, protected by U.S. First Amendment guarantees of free speech.

But Stary is worried about some other possibilities.

Mr. ROBERT STARY (Attorney): Our main concern is really the possible extradition to the U.S. We've been troubled by the sort of rhetoric that has come out of various political commentators, and principally Republican politicians - Sarah Palin and the like - saying that Mr. Assange should be executed, assassinated.

KUHN: On her Facebook page, Palin suggests that Assange should be, quote, "pursued with the same urgency as al-Qaida and Taliban leaders," unquote.

Anyone who incites others to commit violence against his client, even outside Australia, Stary says, is violating Australian law and can be held accountable for it.

Mr. STARY: And certainly, if Sarah Palin or any of those other politicians come to Australia, for whatever purpose, then we can initiate a private prosecution, and that's what we intend to do.

KUHN: There is debate in the U.S. and elsewhere about whether Julian Assange is indeed a journalist, as WikiLeaks lacks the clear editorial structure of more traditional media. But many Australian journalists consider Assange one of them.

Ms. LOUISE CONNOR (Secretary, Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Victoria Branch): Julian Assange has been a member of our union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, for the past three or four years.

KUHN: Louise Connor is secretary of the Victoria Branch of the union, the main body representing Australian journalists. She says her union believes WikiLeaks has acted in line with the union's code of journalistic ethics. She adds that Assange is certainly no more at fault than other traditional media who have also published the classified documents.

Ms. CONNOR: The material is clearly in the public interest. Other media organizations have also judged it to be in the public interest when they have published. He's not the only person that's publishing the information, but it seems to us that the rhetoric around him isn't being extended to other journalists.

KUHN: U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that Australian officials, including Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, are far more demoralized by the state of affairs in Afghanistan than they let on in public. Australia's 1,500 troops form the largest non-NATO foreign contingent in Afghanistan.

Assange's lawyer, Robert Stary, says most Australians actually support the alliance with the U.S., but...

Mr. STARY: We see ourselves, albeit a junior partner, but an equal partner to the U.S. We don't like the fact that we've been misled or that our politicians have a sycophantic or subservient attitude.

KUHN: Stary says the alliance has become a something of a sacred cow in Australia, and Julian Assange is paying the price for shedding an unflattering light on it.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Brisbane.

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