So far, as with much of the reporting in the U.S. and Europe, the first “Canberra Cables” have not been earth-shattering. Rather, they have been revealing of how diplomacy is done and the frank language in which that happens.

What’s most interesting about the Australian media’s reaction to WikiLeaks is the difference a citizen makes. Assange is one of their own. Thus when those on the U.S. right call for his neutralization, Australians ask just what a government has to do to protect one of its citizens from such calls. And many have expressed displeasure at the government’s failure to condemn them. They have also questioned the government’s calling Assange’s actions illegal, threatening to cancel his passport, and generally toeing the U.S. line. (Assange is contemplating a defamation action against Gillard for having accused him of “illegal” conduct, a statement she has since walked back.)

Take this from author and blogger John Birmingham. (*“Vegemiters” is a colloquialism for Australians).

But in the end Assange remains an Australian citizen and he is due the protection we offer to all our citizens when they are threatened by rogue actors, even states, because their actions have upset somebody in power somewhere. It doesn’t mean he gets a free pass on the allegations against him in Sweden, but it should mean that at the very least those moronic politicians and media celebretards in the US who’ve been calling for his murder should be getting a visit from one of our consular officials, preferably an ex-SAS or Commando Regiment old boy, to have a quiet word in their shell—like about how seriously we take incitement to murder our fellow little Vegemiters.

Even Malcolm Turnbull, a former lawyer, opposition leader, and current shadow minister for the conservative Liberal Party, has come out on the point of Assange’s rights as an Australian citizen. In a blog post mostly critical of Assange (and designed to score political points against Gillard), Turnbull writes:

I cannot see how he could be said to have breached any Australian law and I understand that it is not alleged he has broken any American law.

Mr Assange is free to return to Australia and if he is charged with a crime overseas then he would be entitled to consular assistance.

So his claims of being “abandoned” by Australia seem rather melodramatic. On the other hand the Prime Minister’s clumsy accusations of criminal activity on the part of Mr Assange just reinforce the impression that in this, as in so many other areas, she is way out of her depth.

The debate came to a bit of a head yesterday when the Australian Broadcasting Network—the nation’s publicly-funded broadcaster—published an open letter to Prime Minister Gillard on its website signed by more than 200 notable citizens, including famed academic Noam Chomsky and author Helen Garner. Citing the violent rhetoric of U.S. commentators like Jonah Goldberg and Bill Kristol, who have called for Assange’s assassination, and others who have compared him and his organization to terrorists, the letter reads:

As is well known, Mr Assange is an Australian citizen.

We therefore call upon you to condemn, on behalf of the Australian Government, calls for physical harm to be inflicted upon Mr Assange, and to state publicly that you will ensure Mr Assange receives the rights and protections to which he is entitled, irrespective of whether the unlawful threats against him come from individuals or states.

We urge you to confirm publicly Australia’s commitment to freedom of political communication; to refrain from cancelling Mr Assange’s passport, in the absence of clear proof that such a step is warranted; to provide assistance and advocacy to Mr Assange; and do everything in your power to ensure that any legal proceedings taken against him comply fully with the principles of law and procedural fairness.

A statement by you to this effect should not be controversial - it is a simple commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law.

We believe this case represents something of a watershed, with implications that extend beyond Mr Assange and WikiLeaks. In many parts of the globe, death threats routinely silence those who would publish or disseminate controversial material. If these incitements to violence against Mr Assange, a recipient of Amnesty International’s Media Award, are allowed to stand, a disturbing new precedent will have been established in the English-speaking world.

Assange Chimes In

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.