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

Assange himself weighed in on the debate yesterday, presumably penning the op-ed that ran in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian just hours or days before turning himself in to British police. He is fiercely critical of Gillard in the piece, seizing on the wave of support among Australian intellectuals. Assange writes:

And Australians should observe with no pride the disgraceful pandering to these sentiments by Julia Gillard and her government. The powers of the Australian government appear to be fully at the disposal of the US as to whether to cancel my Australian passport, or to spy on or harass WikiLeaks supporters. The Australian Attorney-General is doing everything he can to help a US investigation clearly directed at framing Australian citizens and shipping them to the US.

Prime Minister Gillard and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not had a word of criticism for the other media organisations. That is because The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are old and large, while WikiLeaks is as yet young and small.

We are the underdogs. The Gillard government is trying to shoot the messenger because it doesn’t want the truth revealed, including information about its own diplomatic and political dealings.

Has there been any response from the Australian government to the numerous public threats of violence against me and other WikiLeaks personnel? One might have thought an Australian prime minister would be defending her citizens against such things, but there have only been wholly unsubstantiated claims of illegality. The Prime Minister and especially the Attorney-General are meant to carry out their duties with dignity and above the fray. Rest assured, these two mean to save their own skins. They will not.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.