In December, The New York Times ran a headline reminding the world that publishing is not a crime. The paper urged President Biden to move to have the charges against Julian Assange dropped. The response was silence.
US President Joe Biden recently addressed the annual White House Correspondents’ dinner. His speech was full of jokes and humour. He was among friends. There was also a serious note. He focused closely on something that nobody would argue against when he turned his attention to the work of journalism.
He made the point that ‘journalism is not a crime.’ His audience nodded their collective heads. Was the president about to finally respond to the persistent call from around the world that Assange should be immediately released? Would the charges that mean that he would die in prison be dropped? Nothing of the sort.
None appeared to recognise the importance of Biden’s remark, or the cruel irony. He was not speaking to the millions around the world who want to see justice. He was specifically speaking about an American journalist, held in Moscow on an espionage charge. The rights or wrongs of the charge against Evan Gershkovich are not the issue. Biden assured his audience that Gershkovich and Austin Tice who has long been in held in Syria were in the forefront of his mind.
‘I promise you I’m working like hell to get them home.’ Among those who applauded this remark were representatives from the New York Times. The Times has apparently not connected their own appeal for Assange’s release with the president’s remarks, and nor has the bulk of the mainstream media in the USA.
Biden’s speech was carefully constructed. It was not simply an expression of support for a ‘free’ media in the land of the free. It was a reminder of the importance of the role that the mainstream media plays in the affairs of a global power. The ‘free press’, the assembled journalists were told, ‘is a pillar – maybe the pillar – of a free society, not the enemy.’
The shamelessness of the president, his speech-writers, and his assembled audience was on show. At a time when propaganda has all but replaced journalism; when the world is presented with no shade of grey, the president invoked the memory of Thomas Jefferson: ‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate…to prefer the latter.’ Just what Jefferson might have said about Julian Assange’s treatment can only be imagined. Jefferson might also have reacted differently to Washington’s cancelling of multi award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh for doing what he has done for decades – reporting the truth. But such is the reality of the Orwellian world we inhabit.
The speech, while playing up the credentials of a free and fearless American media, also served as a direct and thinly veiled threat to nations who dare to disagree with the view from the White House and the Pentagon. To make his point, the president singled out Russia, Iran, Venezuela and China for special mention, because, as he stressed, Americans are held ‘unjustly’ in these countries.
The world is in a parlous state. Arbitrary arrests and detentions are to be deplored. Allegations of espionage are flung about. There are no good guys in this. We can all remember Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive who spent years under house arrest in Canada for no valid reason. Foreign citizens are routinely ill-treated. Sixty-seven journalists died in 2022. There is a disquieting selectivity about how America responds. Saudi Arabia faced no repercussions when dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi officials in Istanbul. The defenders of media freedom in the White House found a way to get on with business.
In 2019, large numbers of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants sought entry to the USA across the Mexican border. NBC revealed how the US government specifically targeted journalists travelling with the migrants. The outcome was a direct suppression of news revealing the treatment of asylum seekers.
In 2020, when the Black Lives Matter protests were at their height, 110 journalists were arrested and another 300 assaulted, mostly by police, according to a report from the Committee to Protest Journalists.
These are not isolated, one-off incidents. There is a growing trend to censor the press. It works. We hear only how countries deemed to be enemies of freedom mistreat the media. Biden announced at the correspondent’s dinner that he had ‘recently signed an executive order increasing the consequences for criminal groups and terrorists who engage in the appalling practice of treating human beings as bargaining chips, political pawns … my administration announced the first sanctions under this new authority, punishing individuals and security services in Russia and Iran who’ve been part of the wrongful detention of Americans.’
The message is clear. If you do the right thing, and accept the rule of the USA, then detention of individuals, or even the murder of journalists is manageable. If you consider any other road, then you are not living by the rules-based order and therefore under threat of sanctions or worse.
The fact of the matter is that the United States is experiencing a significant decline. It is a decline in economic power and in international prestige. Its capacity to control the world is based purely on the force of arms. Its spending on the military is the equivalent to the next 10 nations combined. Every utterance from the president becomes a threat to those America seeks to control. Even in the relaxed, ego-massaging atmosphere of the White House Correspondent’s dinner, there was the ever-present hint that it is not wise to buck the imperial might of the USA.
The role of the media in alerting the world to the power and threat potential of the USA is a vital one. That role has been subverted and the media works to do the bidding of the powerful. Biden said it well when he stated that ‘this is not hyperbole: You make it possible … That’s what makes this nation strong. So, tonight, let us show ourselves and the world our strength, not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.’
Julian Assange languishes in a cell awaiting a trial that will see him die in prison for publishing the truth. Seymour Hersh, one of the greatest American investigative journalists since Vietnam, is silenced for reporting the truth. This is the power of example that Biden speaks. It is a threat to freedom of the press and to dissent.