On June 26 at the National Press Club, media bosses demanded greater protection for whistleblowers and journalists, yet in the treatment of journalist /whistleblower Julian Assange, mainstream media have colluded in slander promoted by the US, UK and Australian political establishment. In response to this campaign, journalists have been negligent. Perhaps intimidated by threats from governments and intelligence agencies, they have stuck their heads in the sand.
Nils Melzer the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture argues that the slander of Assange has been used to divert attention from the crimes which he has exposed. Regarding that slander, and the accompanying conning of the public, journalists, politicians and the general public need to wake up to the link between the US extradition proceeds against Assange and an overall assault on democracy.
In public theatre called the administration of justice, the scapegoating of one alleged deviant can result in a grotesque injustice. This process has occurred many times in history and is happening to Assange.
Consider the slander. Follow the arguments that refute each charge, then redefine who you think Assange is and what he stands for.
First Assange image is that he was an irresponsible whistleblower and an untidy guest of the Ecuadorian Embassy, even though Embassy staff insisted that Julian handled any inconveniences ‘with mutual respect and consideration.’
Next public image is of a sexual predator who committed rape in Sweden. The potential charge of ‘minor rape’ never materialised. The Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association concluded that the handling of the Assange case by Swedish and UK authorities had been ‘deplorable.’ In the first week of June, a Swedish judge dropped the case against Assange, so will those who had joined the slander on the assumption that Assange had committed a serious sex offence, now have the guts to revise their views?
Then there’s the assumption that the WikiLeaks cables identified individuals in Afghanistan and put lives at risk. Those who have made a scrupulously forensic appraisal of the content of the cables, such as Professor Clinton Fernandes in his book What Uncle Sam Wants, say this did not happen. Even an Australian Defence Taskforce Report concluded that the WikiLeaks disclosures, ‘were largely insignificant’ did not cause harm to US interests and no Afghans with whom Australia worked were identifiable.
Who cares about those conclusions? It serves the interests of British and US politicians to continue the slander by saying they know – even as they lie, they always ‘know’ – that lives were put at risk.
Next on the checklist is the claim that Julian is not a journalist, a slander which if it sticks removes protection in the US accorded by that country’s constitutional First Amendment guaranteeing free speech and a free press. These ‘he’s not a journalist’ assertions have been marked by the ingratiating behavior – seeking popularity with establishment interests – of those, such as Peter Greste, who have written in this way.
WilkiLeaks and Julian Assange have been using social media which admittedly had not been part of conventional journalist practice. But by appealing for information, encouraging sources to provide documentation and then reporting classified information thought to be in the public interest, Assange has followed accepted investigative practices. Bernard Keane, the editor of Crikey says, ‘If you don’t think WikiLeaks is a publisher or you think that Assange should be rendered to the US, then you think that what they revealed – war crimes, indiscriminate murder, systemic corruption never happened.’
Julian Assange had cooperated with newspapers The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde and Der Spiegel. Although their editors were apparently grateful for the information received from Assange and published that material, they’ve mostly forgotten him, though The New York Times, in an editorial of May 23, criticised the indictment against Assange as the Trump administration’s attempt to ‘redefine what journalists can and cannot publish.’
Challenging and changing the grossly unfair negative views of Julian Assange requires refutation of the lies told about him. That task also requires a reminder of his achievements. Even a cursory look at his record produces the following truths.
The 2010 WikiLeaks collateral damage video showed the murder by gunfire from a US Apache helicopter of twelve Iraqi citizens, including children, in a Baghdad street. Two of the killed were Reuters News agency photographers. For three years the agency had tried unsuccessfully to discover from the Pentagon what had happened to their employees. Assange told them.
Assange and WikiLeaks revealed the rules and rationale for torture in Guantanamo Bay and Camp Delta. They showed Tibetans resisting Chinese oppression and that the Russian government spied on the cell phones of Russian citizens. Assange has also offended corporate and intelligence interests. Barclays Bank was shown to have used a tax avoidance scheme to net one billion pounds. Assange reported that the Texan Stratfor security group spied on Occupy Wall Street activists and on protesters against the Bhopal gas disaster.
The Australian political and media establishment still have time to find the guts to resist the US government’s fascination with revenge and cruelty. They can protect an Australian citizen from the macabre prospect – who in heavens name concocted this – of 175 years in prison for telling truths. In expressing their resistance, they will be defending invaluable democratic principles, and they’ll be in good company.
The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review says ‘Espionage charges against Assange are a ‘terrifying threat to press freedom.’ James Goodale the lawyer for the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case insists that the seventeen US espionage charges against Assange ‘criminalize the news gathering process.’ Pulitzer Prize winner and former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges writes that Assange and WikiLeaks ‘have done more to expose the abuses of power and crimes of the American Empire than any other news organization…We face an Orwellian dystopia where journalism is outlawed and replaced with propaganda, trivia, entertainment and indoctrination to make those demonized by the state as our enemies.’
Insight into the serious implications of the extradition proceedings against Assange comes from the brave and principled Chelsea Manning who is in prison for refusing to testify against Assange. She says that the US government is attacking the very institution which has existed in order to protect the rights of free speech, a free press and related freedoms.
These protests have been made by significant American citizens. Key public figures in Australia, Mary Kostakidis, John Pilger, Mark Davis, Greg Barns, James Ricketson, are also trying to persuade politicians and mainstream journalists to take a stand for Assange, to stop scapegoating him.
If media bosses want greater protection for whistleblowers and journalists, they could start by rejecting the slander of Assange and the conning of the public. They could heed Nils Melzer’s warning that telling the truth has become a crime while the powerful enjoy impunity.
The years of slandering Assange have been followed by US prosecution and UK compliance in cruelties which have been compounded by the indifference of Australia’s leaders. Let’s finish this appraisal on a deeply personal note. Terry Hicks, father of Guantanamo prisoner David Hicks says, ‘There’s only one word to describe the victimisation and persecution of Assange and Manning and that word is ‘barbaric.’
Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus at the University of Sydney and recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize.