STUART REES. Self-Censoring Journalists: the BDS Movement and Julian Assange

In June at the National Press Club, the bosses of News Corp, Channel Nine and the ABC spoke about press freedom. David Anderson, Managing Director of the ABC said, ‘Press freedom is proxy for public freedom.’

In London in July, at the Global Conference for Media Freedom, the UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt pontificated, ‘We must stand with those who seek to report the truth and bring the facts to light’. The same privileged operator had insisted that Julian Assange could be extradited to the US and that his treatment within the UK (torture and imprisonment) was ‘the right thing’.

In Sydney in September, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom heard from Ita Buttrose, Chair of the ABC, who protested that police raids on the ABC and on a News Corp journalist, intimidated journalists and put terror into whistleblowers ‘so they won’t come and talk to us’.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that his government was committed to press freedom. To echo government attitudes, ALP leader Anthony Albanese said that he gave ‘unequivocal support for press freedom’.

Draconian security laws appear to curtail such freedom, but self-censorship also ensures that certain topics must not be discussed, at least not in any positive light. Mainstream media avoids coverage of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement (BDS) in support of Palestinians’ rights to self-determination and there’s seldom any positive commentary concerning the persecution of Julian Assange. Why?

BDS is a world-wide, non-violent social justice movement which promotes Palestinians’ rights to self-determination. Despite predictable claims that it is anti-Semitic, the movement is based in international law and forbids racism of any kind.

Nevertheless, mainstream media remain scared to touch this topic (BDS) despite claims that their freedom to write as they will is a cornerstone of democracy. Why are they so scared? Perhaps because they do not want to bite the hand that feeds them?

Encouraged by politicians who are blindly loyal to Israeli governments, many journalists have enjoyed junket trips to Israel which ignore the oppression and discrimination of Palestinians. In his book Balcony Over Jerusalem the experienced journalist John Lyons wrote:

In my opinion, no editors, journalist or others should take these trips. They grotesquely distort the reality and are dangerous in the sense that they allow people with a very small amount of knowledge to pollute Australian public opinion.

On Palestinian issues, journalists’ aim to distort reality has been the stock in trade of the Murdoch media, always dismissive of BDS activists and on occasion referring to them as Nazis. A more responsible standard of journalism might be expected from more high-brow publications.

Even in The Monthly and The Saturday Paper, coverage of Palestinian issues is either derisory or non-existent. Journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald know the risks involved even if they write accurate descriptions of violence towards Palestinians. When Mike Carlton wrote about the carnage in Gaza following Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014, he was forced to resign.

Staff of apparently powerful media institutions such as the ABC are aware that if they broadcast anything slightly positive about Palestine let alone about BDS, they will receive abusive mail, far more than just the odd derogatory letter.

In Australia, those who speak about the BDS movement also risk character assassination. In July, Richard Falk, Professor of International Relations at Princeton and former UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Territories, who also happens to be Jewish, spoke about the BDS movement in the NSW Parliament. Via the Jewish News and their supporters Falk was demonized and efforts were made to prevent his entry to Australia.

He did appear. His message was that ‘Any accommodation between Israelis and Palestinians must be based on equality, not hierarchy and permanent subjugation’. Hardly a controversial statement but mainstream media covered neither his presence in an Australian parliament nor what he said.

Powerful forces suppress discussion of BDS but journalists’ reluctance to speak on behalf of Julian Assange is less easy to comprehend.

Perhaps professional jealousy prompts indifference to Assange who revealed US murder in Iraq and Afghanistan, issues largely overlooked by conventional journalism. Instead of making amends for their neglect, several prominent journalists have been wasting time claiming they are real, and Walkley award winning Julian Assange is not. Brave members of a noble profession have been preoccupied with their self-importance. Oh dear.

At least UK journalists have expressed alarm that the espionage charges against Assange and the demand for his extradition to the United States are a serious threat to press freedom.

The US Freedom of Information Foundation insists: ‘Whether or not you like Assange, the charge against him is a serious press freedom threat and should be vigorously protested’.

A week ago from Moscow, in a MSNBC interview, the principled and significant whistleblower Edward Snowden warned that the 1917 Espionage Act under which Assange has been charged does not allow a jury to consider whether the WikiLeaks revelations were in the public interest. Assange would face not a jury trial, only sentencing.

Perhaps politicians’ and media’ smearing of Assange has been so effective that a critical view of him has been so taken for granted that even by their silence, journalists’ voices can’t be distinguished from the government’s?

In the hope of keeping a job in mainstream media, these journalists may be heeding politicians who discourage any criticism of US polices, such as those evident in the espionage charges against Assange. If convicted, he faces a possible 175 years in prison.

What culture, what set of rules, which individuals could concoct such a sentence? Here was an opportunity for journalists and for politicians to identify a political trial and to scorn the US desire for revenge. Instead silence.

Self-censorship on key issues makes journalists their own worst enemies. There has been much grandstanding about press freedom but to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it has been ‘full of sound and fury signifying nothing’.

Stuart Rees, OAM, is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney and inaugural recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize


Stuart Rees OAM, human rights activist, poet, novelist, author of books on social justice. Recipient of the Jerusalem Peace Prize, Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

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4 Responses to STUART REES. Self-Censoring Journalists: the BDS Movement and Julian Assange

  1. Alison Broinowski Alison Broinowski says:

    You are spot in, Stuart. Our media are so happy to talk about freedom and censor themselves and others. Readers may be interested in my piece from the AHT that said similar things a few days ago (more recent than the one cited with yours in P&I, where it also appeared).

  2. Avatar Jane Wright says:

    An excellent article by Stuart Rees. Thank you.
    You could apply that quote from “Macbeth” to pretty much all of our political landscape, not just the media. Perfect description of Scomo’s blustering. Trouble is, these blusterings are NOT the rants of a naive fool. He is a calculating blusterer in fact.
    Sorry, off topic . . . maybe not.
    This man and his government see no discrepancy between pursuing and prosecuting whistle blowers who tarnish the “good names” of a certain petroleum company and the Government on one hand, and then bleating on about supporting press freedom. Those involved in the wrong doing exposed by the whistle blowers aren’t prosecuted. The whistle blowers are. We live in dangerous times folks. Australia is fast becoming a “police state”. I
    As far as whistle blowers go, all you have to do is make an example of a few individuals (Ms Smethurst, Witness K) and a much loved public broadcaster (ABC), and of course, there is little doubt that Assange will be thrown to the wolves.
    These were NOT random choices. We’ve been warned! Shut up or you’ll be “f****d up”.

  3. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    Thanks, Stuart. I am in agreement with every point in this address. And oh, yes – the Israeli junkets – could you please confirm how many on both sides of the House – and their names, too – who have participated in these bribe/travels – and in the same kinds of trips to the US – for equal assessment of who is serving other “lords” and not necessarily the people off Australia. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are heroes. One wonders how a CIA operative in the White House can be called a whistleblower – when in a sense it is his job to tell his bosses the kinds of skulduggery or other otherwise hidden things which he uncovers in his line of duty – or have those same bosses suggested he become a “whistle-blower” because of a kind of Gotcha-Trump moment in the ongoing determination by the establishment to bring Trump down? All whistle-blowers need protection until Godwin Grech-like we can determine their bona fides…and if indeed the public interest is being served. As it has been by Julian, Chelsea and Edward.

  4. Avatar Lawry Herron says:

    The deathly silence, political, official and public, over Julian Assanges’ parlous situation is shameful. Colour it how you will, he is a political prisoner. There are persuasive precedents for not submitting political prisoners to extradition, the more so in the face of inevitable swingeing punishment. In the face of US demands, such humane precedents go by the board. Assange is an Australian and our support for him, consular, political and public, should be loud, insistent and ongoing.

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