Government attacks on the media are escalating as the battle for the narrative grows in importance.
For the last decade, stories produced and amplified by the democratized media have put the power structure at risk. People saw government documents showing war crimes and violations of international law. We all saw police killing unarmed people and extreme militarized violence in response to nonviolent protests. These stories have been magnified by people realizing they are the media and sharing stories in their networks on a variety of platforms.
To maintain control, the power structure needs to stop people from knowing the truth. The recent RAND Report on the future of warfare cites the following concern: “As smartphones and social media saturate the developing world, militaries will find themselves harder pressed to control both what images the public sees and the narrative surrounding operations.”
Powerholders are striking back. This article focuses on two aspects of this conflict – the new indictment brought against Julian Assange this week and the attacks on media by the police during the nationwide uprising against police violence. Part of the job of each of us is to let them know we see what they are doing to try to hide the truth of their actions. We must hold them accountable for the false narrative they produce and their efforts to criminalize those who are the truthtellers and work to put out the true narrative those in power want to suppress.
Federal government’s new indictment against Assange based on smears
The leading truthteller who is under attack is Julian Assange. The prosecution of Assange will define freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and our right to know in the 21st Century.
This week the federal government sought to bolster its bogus case against Assange with more false and misleading claims in another superseding indictment. The centerpiece of the indictment remains the 17 Espionage Act counts for the publication of documents leaked by Chelsea Manning exposing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and illegal global diplomatic intrigues. The federal government did not add new charges but instead sought to mischaracterize Assange as a hacker because the charges based on the Espionage Act are problematic. The Espionage Act has never been used against a journalist and extradition from the UK is not allowed for political prosecutions. The prosecution of a journalist for reporting the truth about US foreign policy is clearly a political prosecution.
The federal government sought to define Assange as a hacker using speeches he gave at conferences calling for transparency and describing the power of government whistleblowers who share documents and hackers who acquire them. The government twists important political arguments made by Assange about the need to expose corruption and crimes of government, especially the US government, as conspiring with hackers.
To achieve this feat, they produced an indictment that “is riddled with inaccuracies, glaring plot holes, and amateurish errors, relies heavily on testimony from a literal convicted pedophile and diagnosed sociopath, and appears to be little more than a feeble attempt to legitimize the injection of the words ‘hacking’ and ‘hackers’ into the prosecutorial narrative,” as Caitlin Johnstone writes. In addition, the prosecutors leave out important details including the FBI’s own complicity in hacking in an effort to set people up, including Assange, for prosecution.
They also sought to claim Assange and his colleagues at Wikileaks were conspiring with hackers because of the assistance they gave to Edward Snowden to avoid capture by the US government and move to Russia for political protection. Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks is described as a co-conspirator for her heroic role in saving Snowden from prosecution even though she is not charged with any crime. Other Wikileaks members are included as co-conspirators.
The new indictment points to statements made by Assange and other Wikileaks members at the Chaos Computer Club conference in Germany on December 31, 2013. Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, and Harrison participated in a panel discussion called, “Sysadmins of the World, Unite! A Call to Resistance.” This effort to turn a public speech by Assange into a hacker-conspiracy shows the desperation of the government to convict Assange. Kevin Gosztola writes in Shadowproof that “At no point does the Justice Department attempt to connect the alleged ‘recruitment’ of ‘hackers’ or ‘leakers’ to an actual individual, who heard these words and acted upon them.”
The original indictment, which claimed Assange assisted Chelsea Manning in acquiring classified documents, was obviously false. Manning had security clearance and legal access to the documents she leaked and did not need to hack the files. She had already downloaded the documents on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanomo Bay, and State Department cables before contacting Assange. During the extradition hearings it was revealed she asked Assange to help her acquire prohibited video games and music for her military colleagues. Assange did not even provide help to accomplish these innocuous objectives.
The government’s desperation is made glaringly clear in this new indictment as almost all of the new material has been on the public record in one form or other, for six years or longer. They date back to Assange’s speeches to public conventions of computer experts in the Netherlands and Malaysia, in 2009 and 2010.
As has been true with each of these indictments, the government is seeking to criminalize normal journalistic practices. This includes encouraging people with inside information to provide the media with documents that are in the public interest. Assisting whistleblowers with avoiding prosecution is common practice. Glenn Greenwald says you can find very detailed instructions on the New York Times and Washington Post websites about how to safely be a whistleblower. He describes it as the “duty of a journalist to help their source not get caught.”
The investigation of Julian Assange began in the Obama-Biden administration. While Trump praised Wikileaks during his campaign, Mike Pompeo made it his goal to prosecute Assange and destroy Wikileaks to prevent any journalist anywhere in the world from reporting on US war crimes and corruption.
This prosecution is a threat to the fundamental purpose of the First Amendment that allows people freedom of speech to criticize the government without being punished for doing so. The First Amendment is not a protection of corporate media or some narrow classification of journalists but protects all people. The Assange case is important because Wikileaks has democratized the media by giving people a method to expose crime and corruption of governments and corporations. And, it is important because the US is prosecuting an Australian journalist, writing from the UK about the United States, thereby putting people at risk not just in the United States but anywhere in the world.
National uprising exposes attacks on media
The national uprising against police violence and the killing of people in communities of color are exposing more efforts to suppress the truth. This comes from arrests, harassment, and violent attacks on media reporting on the protests and showing police violence. Newsrooms are also complicit by suppressing reporting.
Charles Baker writes in Business Insider that in early June, “in Minneapolis, local law enforcement took aim at Linda Tirado, a photojournalist, and shot her in the eye as she covered protests over the police killing of George Floyd. They later subjected a black journalist from CNN to wrongful arrest. In Louisville, TV reporter Kaitlin Rust and her crew were targeted by local cops who peppered them with non-lethal bullets during a live broadcast.” This led to an open letter to police endorsed by groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the National Press Club to stop the devastating targeting of journalists.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there have been 499 journalists affected in over 400 cases of press freedom violations in the United States since May 26. The US Press Freedom Tracker reports more than 440 aggressions against the media during the protests, including 116 journalists attacked and 36 arrested. An example of this involved two journalists for the Associated Press who were assaulted by six police officers and ordered to leave the scene of protests in New York City. The police claimed they were violating the curfew; the reporters said they were essential workers and therefore allowed to be there. A video shows an officer responds, “I don’t give a shit.” Another reporter was violently arrested in New York and held for two nights in Manhattan Central Booking. And, another reporter was violently attacked while he held up his press credentials and shouted he was with the media, as shown in footage captured by the Associated Press.
In Los Angeles, an independent journalist was arrested for covering protests after the curfew after he responded to the police who asked if he was press, saying “Yes, sir.” In Oakland, a reporter covering a protest was arrested as the curfew approached despite her press credentials being visibly on display. There have been reports from many parts of the country including Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Atlanta, Worcester, Omaha, Dallas, Lincoln, Santa Monica, Des Moines, Denver, and Minneapolis among others.
The police also served a subpoena from the county prosecutor’s office for videos, photos, and audio captured by reporters for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com during recent protests in downtown Cleveland, thereby making journalists into an arm of the police. Also in Cleveland, police banned the media from covering protests.
Commercial media outlets have taken actions to restrict coverage of protests. US-controlled media outlets, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, have been censoring and downplaying the uprising and the violent police response. A Black reporter is suing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for not allowing her to cover the protests because of a tweet she made. In response to a long history of media suppressing the voices of oppressed people, there is a growing revolt among Black journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times.
Knowledge is power
This century there has been a dramatic increase in awareness of government and corporate corruption, state violence, and systemic oppression. The internet and social media platforms have given everyone the tools to expose what is going on. It is this awareness that has fueled the rise in consensus that there are significant crises, that the current systems can’t address these crises and that we need new systems. The facade of democracy is fading. That we live in a failed state is becoming obvious. And now we have a summer of rebellion beginning with the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd.
The powerholders are afraid because they can no longer control the narrative. Even those within their institutions, the corporate media, are breaking ranks and refusing to be complicit. The ruling class will do whatever it can to wrest that control back even if it means arrests and intimidation of people, breaking the law, and violating the Constitution.
The prosecution of Julian Assange, assaults on the media, and censorship of alternative voices are all an attack on our right to know. Knowledge is power. We must not lose the right to know what our government, state actors, and corporations are doing.
Julian Assange’s extradition hearing will be in September. The latest superseding indictment is another attempt to smear Assange’s reputation and weaken his public support. It is no coincidence that it came out just as the revelation of his two young children was garnering greater sympathy and Australian 60 Minutes did a favorable show on him. We must defend Assange by countering the smears, getting the truth out, and showing up for him. DefendWikileaks.org is one place to get information about what is happening and how to take action.
In this era, we all are protectors of the right to know. We encourage you to question what you see in the corporate media (and that includes the so-called public media like NPR), support independent media, and make it your responsibility to share information that counters false narratives. Learn how to be the media by covering injustice where you see it. It’s as simple as writing a letter to the editor or a blog, taking photos and videos with your phone, and sharing articles on social media.