Julian Assange and the increasing threat to freedom of the press

The continued persecution of Manning and Assange shows that while actual war criminals are showered with praise and given lucrative sinecures, those who reveal their crimes are the ones who will face punishment.

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On April 11th, within hours of Julian Assange being taken into custody on charges of jumping bail in the U.K., the United States released an indictment calling for the Australian publisher to be extradited there to face trial on hacking charges related to the 2010 leaks that first brought him and Wikileaks to the world’s attention. The whistle-blower who provided those leaks, Chelsea Manning, has also been returned to jail indefinitely for the second time this year.

While the price to be paid by Assange if found guilty of this initial charge seemed relatively small (about five years maximum) and didn’t seem to infringe on the United States’ First Amendment protections,  much of the press, at least in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, seemed almost gleeful as images of the disheveled, obviously psychologically distressed Wikileaks co-founder being pulled out of Ecuador’s London embassy by police were broadcast around the globe.

The Manning leaks, just short of three quarters of a million documents and other materials that revealed, among many other things, U.S. complicity in brutal torture by Iraqi authorities and the murder of dozens of innocent civilians at checkpoints during the war, are of vital historical importance. They not only revealed the carnage that was being wreaked in Iraq and Afghanistan but a separate cache showed a U.S. diplomatic corps drowning in cynicism and often dedicated to impeding social and political progress in other countries, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. 

The Obama administration, perhaps in part to let what the 2010 leaks revealed lie, eventually decided after years of investigative work that Wikileaks and its publisher could not be prosecuted for making them public, especially considering the fact that many mainstream outlets, from the New York Times to the U.K. Guardian to Der Spiegal, vetted and published many of the same documents. 

This probably has no impact on the current occupant of the White House, who routinely calls mainstream outlets ‘enemies of the people’ and would probably love to limit the protections given to all Americans under the 1st amendment. It wouldn’t be too surprising if we were to find that many in the so-called political center would also like to ‘professionalize’ the practice of journalism, but part of the genius of the United States’ free speech protections, the gold standard for the rest of the world, is that anyone can be a journalist (or for that matter, a publisher), something actualized to a greater degree than ever with the internet and social media.

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The main criticism that can be made about Assange’s work on the basis of multiple accounts is that he has shown a lack of patience when it comes to redacting documents to ensure the safety of named individuals contained within them. He seems to be a person who takes the idea that information wants to be free to its uppermost limit, over time making it hard for most journalists to work with him. Having said this, there is little actual proof that any materials made public by Wikileaks have led to individual harm and they have provided vital resources to journalists from the smallest to the largest outlets.

For some reason, Ecuadoran authorities sent Assange’s possessions, which included hard drives, not to U.K. authorities as one might expect, but on to the U.S., where we can safely assume they are being looked at by authorities and seemingly a separate grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia that demanded Manning’s appearance, which we have to assume is also investigating other possible charges against the publisher.

Regardless, Assange’s future began to look much bleaker when further charges were brought on Thursday, May 23rd, as he’s now facing up to 175 years in prison for revealing U.S. war crimes, government malfeasance and incompetence, once again in 2010, not 2016 as we might assume considering the unproven narrative that Wikileaks is what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called a “non-state hostile intelligence agency” rather than a publisher.

While its doubtful that a U.K. government would extradite the publisher if he faced the death penalty, there is no assurance that he would avoid the ultimate penalty once safely in U.S. custody. In fact, these new charges including counts under the 1917 Espionage Act, seem to have only been brought to fit into a 60 day window under established rules for superseding charges as part of an extradition request.

Some in positions of authority, especially in the U.S. and U.K., like to pretend that Assange hasn’t suffered over the past 7 years. In reply to this they should be reminded that the publisher has been living in the cramped quarters of what amounted to the two room Ecuadoran embassy, isolated for months, spied on by his hosts for many years and without access to the outdoors or to some degree, sunlight, the entire time.

Currently held in Belmarsh prison, Assange was recently visited by Professor Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, who voiced concerns about his mental health and the actions of various states that claim to be law abiding members of the international community in relation to the Wikileaks co-founder.

On the latter issue, Melzer was particularly damning, saying he had, “never seen a group of democratic States gang up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.”

In terms of the possible damage being done to Assange’s mental health, the UN rapporteur was quoted elsewhere as saying, “What was worrying was the psychological side and his constant anxiety. It was perceptible that he had a sense of being under threat from everyone. He understood what my function was but it’s more that he was extremely agitated and busy with his own thoughts. It was difficult to have a very structured conversation with him.” 

While some mainstream journalists and newsreaders seem to have begun to realize what a dangerous precedent the jailing of Assange under the Espionage Act (itself brought into being to criminalize the left and antiwar voices) would create for journalists, especially those U.S. reporters focused on national security issues, most continue to make the claim that what Wikileaks does is not journalism.

If this is truly the case, it seems odd that the model Wikileaks pioneered has influenced the way much larger, mainstream outlets solicit leaks, with Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept noting that, “Last September, the New York Times published an article (titled “How to Tell Us a Secret”) containing advice from its security experts on the best means for sources to communicate with and transmit information to the paper without detection, including which encrypted programs to use.” 

It should bother more people, both in the United States and beyond, that no one of any consequence has been punished for what the Manning leaks revealed. Instead, George W. Bush dances on day time T.V. and Dick Cheney remains a fixture on Sunday talk shows like Meet the Press. Massive failures like John Bolton are invited back into government and given even more power while armchair war-mongers like Bill Kristol are invited to pontificate on cable news as ‘Never Trumpers’.

Failing upward is the norm for this set and rather than these powerful people facing the consequences of their actions, a brave soul like Chelsea Manning is the one who is being held in indefinite detention for taking a principled stand, risking fines that could do irreparable harm to her personal finances over the long term.

The continued persecution of Manning and Assange shows that while actual war criminals are showered with praise and given lucrative sinecures, those who reveal their crimes are the ones who will face punishment.

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