Defend Julian Assange and WikiLeaks: Press Freedom Depends On It

16.4.19

Julian Assange, photographed after his arrest at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on Thursday April 10, 2019 (Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters).

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Last week, when Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after the Ecuadorian government withdrew the asylum it had granted to him after he sought shelter there in 2012, I was about to set off on a long weekend away, without computer access, and I only had time to write a few brief paragraphs about the significance of his case on Facebook.

I noted that his arrest “ought to be of great concern to anyone who values the ability of the media, in Western countries that claim to respect the freedom of the press, to publish information about the wrongdoing of Western governments that they would rather keep hidden.” 

I also explained, “Those who leak information, like Chelsea Manning” — who leaked hundreds of thousands of pages of classified US government documents to WikiLeaks, and is now imprisoned because of her refusal to testify in a Grand Jury case against WikiLeaks — “need protection, and so do those in the media who make it publicly available; Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as much as those who worked with them on the release of documents — the New York Times and the Guardian, for example.”

I added that I had worked with WikiLeaks on the release of the Guantánamo files in April 2011, along with journalists from the Washington Post, McClatchy, the Daily Telegraph and numerous newspapers throughout Europe, and pointed out, along wth posting a link to the page on WikiLeaks’ website showing all the media outlets (myself included) who have worked with WikiLeaks over the years, that “everyone who worked with WikiLeaks needs to make sure that they all fight as tenaciously as possible to prevent Julian Assange’s extradition to the US.” 

Those files — classified US military files from Guantánamo — were extremely helpful, as they revealed the extent to which the so-called evidence against prisoners consisted of unreliable statements made by their fellow prisoners, who were named in the files, but had never been named in any of the other Guantánamo-related documents that the US government had been forced to release over the years via Freedom of Information legislation. My unfinished, million-word assessment of those files is here.

I concluded my Facebook post by stating, “If the US succeeds in taking down Julian Assange, no journalists, no newspapers, no broadcasters will be safe, and we could, genuinely, see the end of press freedom, with all the ramifications that would have for our ability, in the West, to challenge what, otherwise, might well be an alarming and overbearing authoritarianism on the part of our governments.”

The indictment

Since the initial news of Assange’s arrest, the intentions behind it have become clearer. The US Justice Department has unsealed an indictment against him, which, as Trevor Timm, the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, noted in an article for the Guardian, includes just “one count of ‘conspiracy’ to violate a computer crime law when he allegedly offered whistleblower Chelsea Manning help in cracking a password in 2010.” As Timm also explained, “The indictment does not allege they ever did crack the password, nor do they allege it helped Assange get any documents from Manning.”

As Jameel Jaffer and Ben Wizner pointed out for Just Security, “Hacking government databases isn’t protected by the First Amendment, and it isn’t a legitimate part of investigative journalism. But the indictment is troubling nonetheless. It characterizes as ‘part of’ a criminal conspiracy journalistic activities that are not just lawful but essential to press freedom.”

These commentators — and many others — were rightfully alarmed that, as Trevor Timm put it, it was clear that the Justice Department was “using the conspiracy charge as a pretext to target Assange and potentially criminalize important and common journalistic practices in newsgathering at the same time”; primarily, as Timm described it, “using encryption and protecting the anonymity of sources”, which, as he also noted, are “are virtually requirements in an age where leak investigations are common.”

The fear, therefore, is that the single charge to hook Assange will be followed by more charges if he ends up on US soil — charges perhaps involving espionage. As Jameel Jaffer and Ben Wizner explained, “While Assange wasn’t charged with violating the Espionage Act — the World War I-era law that criminalizes unauthorized dissemination of ‘national defense information’ — the indictment states that the purpose of the conspiracy for which he was charged was to violate the Espionage Act. This raises the question whether this indictment is just an opening salvo aimed at easing the path for extradition, with more substantial charges to be added later.” Furthering these suspicions, an affidavit was unsealed on Monday providing more detailed information about the case against Assange.

For the Guardian, Nathan Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs, weighed in against mainstream journalists dangerously suggesting that Assange’s work — and that of WikiLeaks — isn’t journalism, but “activism.” He drew from a column for CNN by Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer, correspondent and world affairs columnist, who as CNN put it, “is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review.” 

Ghitis wrote that Assange “is not a journalist and therefore not entitled to the protections that the law – and democracy – demand for legitimate journalists”. As Robinson explained, “This is a dangerous position. Generally, the law doesn’t actually distinguish between ‘journalists’ and ‘non-journalists’, giving everyone the same protections. This is for good reason: if such a distinction becomes legally relevant, it means the government is empowered to decide who the True Journalists are.”

As Robinson also reminded readers, “The Obama administration fished for years to find a charge that would stick to Assange, but ultimately couldn’t find a way of going after him that wouldn’t also criminalize ordinary acts of journalism. Donald Trump’s government is less scrupulous.”

Or, as Trevor Timm put it, “Despite Barack Obama’s extremely disappointing record on press freedom, his justice department ultimately ended up making the right call when they decided that it was too dangerous to prosecute WikiLeaks without putting news organizations such as the New York Times and the Guardian at risk.”

Legitimate criticism of Assange

None of the reasons given above for defending Julian Assange against US overreach is meant to defend him against other complaints. He sought asylum from Ecuador in 2012 to avoid facing potential extradition to Sweden to face rape and sexual assault charges. If there is still a case to answer in Sweden, he should be sent there to face those charges. 

He also alienated numerous former supporters during the 2016 US Presidential Election through leaks designed to damage Hillary Clinton, which can only have ended up helping Donald Trump.

It is also true that, over the years, Assange repeatedly showed a disturbing refusal to contemplate censoring anything in the documents he released. On Sunday, the Observer published an editorial describing hm as having “acted immorally and irresponsibly,” when WikiLeaks “dumped online thousands of unredacted secret diplomatic cables, potentially exposing thousands of individuals named in the documents to grave danger.” 

Quinta Jurecic of Lawfare also noted how Nick Davies of the Guardian, who worked with Assange on the release of the Afghan and Iraq war logs in 2010, until the relationship between the Guardian and Assange soured, “describe[d] Assange’s cavalier response to journalists’ concerns that releasing certain information could endanger the lives of Afghan civilians who had provided information to coalition forces.” Jurecic noted how Davies told Alex Gibney, who directed a film about Assange, that the WikiLeaks founder had said that “if an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces he deserves to die.”

I also witnessed this simplistic insistence that all information must be free in relation to the Guantánamo files, and the threat to a former prisoner’s life if his entire file was published unredacted, and I recall his inflexibility and the difficulty of reasoning with him.

Yet again, however, while these stories and others confirm a difficult naivety and intransigence regarding transparency, as well as a personality that regularly comes into conflict with others, none of it fundamentally detracts from Assange’s right not to be dismissed as a journalist and treated as some sort of terrorist, as Donald Trump wants. As Trevor Timm explained in his article, although “Assange is so disliked in journalism and political circles that many reporters and liberal politicians were publicly cheering” when the Trump administration released its indictment of him, this is a trap, “exactly what the Trump administration is hoping for, as the Department of Justice (DoJ) moves forward with its next dangerous step in its war on journalism and press freedom.”

As Timm proceeds to explain, “What’s the most effective way to curtail the rights of all people? First go after the unpopular; the person who may be despised in society and will have very few defenders. Assange fits this profile to a T. Once there is law on the books that says ‘this aspect of journalism is illegal’, it becomes much easier for the justice department to bring other cases against more mainstream government critics down the road, and much harder for judges to immediately dismiss them.”

His conclusion? “Instead of thinking, ‘I hate Julian Assange, so I’m glad he’s going to be punished,’ ask yourself this: do you trust Trump’s justice department to protect press freedom?”

If your answer isn’t no, you should really ask why it is that you should trust a government department that already had an unacceptable history of pursuing whistleblowers under Barack Obama, long before Trump shuffled into view, with his outrageous beliefs about journalism he doesn’t like. As Timm puts it, “Donald Trump has been furious with leakers and the news organizations that publish them ever since he took office. He complains about it constantly in his Twitter tirades. He has repeatedly directed the justice department to stop leaks, and he even asked former FBI director James Comey if he can put journalists in jail.” 

A president who thinks that way really shouldn’t be indulged.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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34 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following up on the arrest of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange last week, examining what has been revealed about the US case against him, and pointing out why all efforts by the US government to suggest that WikiLeaks was not engaged in journalism, but in some sort of espionage, must be resisted, because press freedom depends on our ability to hold our governments to account for things they would rather keep hidden.

    I worked with WikiLeaks on the release of formerly classified military files relating to the Guantanamo prisoners in 2011, and I know how important the release of these files – first leaked by Chelsea Manning – was to our understanding of the lies told by the US about the significance of the majority of the prisoners held there. These truths are still not as widely known as they should be, but without Manning and WikiLeaks the US government would, to this day, have succeeded in keeping hidden from the world crucial information about how extraordinarily inept their “war on terror” has been, and what a shame and disgrace Guantanamo is and always has been.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Thank you for, correctly as always, informing people. Assange is and always has been wrongly prosecuted, arbitrarily detained. Wikileaks is extremely important to freedom of information. I didn’t know you worked with them! Wow!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I didn’t know you didn’t know, Natalia. Yes, I worked with WikiLeaks on the release of the Guantanamo files in 2011: https://wikileaks.org/gitmo/
    And I then spent the rest of 2011 analyzing those files: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/category/2002-2011-the-complete-guantanamo-files-new/

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    Julian Assange is a litmus test. Spend some time looking at the websites of human rights organizations. If there is no information about Assange this is not a human rights organization.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Aleksey!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    Who will protect them, Andy? Everyone has a price, seemingly, or a point at which their arm will bend.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    This is typical of Trump, and some horrible authoritarian Republicans, Tashi, who have long wanted to take him down, and, evidently, to go after Chelsea Manning again. I hope their efforts fail, and that everyone involved remembers or is reminded that Obama was advised not to go after Assange because it would be such an assault on the freedom of the press. But we know, of course, how much Donald Trump hates the media …

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    It’s a message to the world, isn’t it. Keep quiet, or else!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s definitely the intention, Tashi, and, btw, I didn’t mean to suggest that Obama didn’t do the same, even though he ended up commuting Manning’s sentence and didn’t pursue Assange. After all, he went after Manning in the first place, and was also savage in his general pursuit of whistleblowers. Our governments, in general, are definitely sending us a threatening message!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote:

    How sad that we have come to this. But we all knew eventually Assange would be betrayed. It’s another blot on the illegal nature of what has been passing as an American government since the end of WWII. Thank God we have people like you Andy working to keep us informed.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your support, Deborah!

  12. Tom says...

    Following this reminds me of Gary Webb. He was a investigative reporter that exposed the CIA connection to drugs flooding East LA. He had a solid reputation, sources and did great work. You’d think people would be happy with that. Instead, a lot of other media people got jealous. So what was the solution? Destroy him. Lose everything (career, home, marriage, blackballed from media). Then sadly, the despair was too much and he killed himself.

    After Assange started Wikileaks and gained some credibility, other media outlets naturally saw a business opportunity. Assange knew he needed the funds and respectability these partnerships could give him. So they teamed up with the Guardian and others, and everyone thought it was okay.

    But then, as in any partnership, egos kicked in. People wanted better deal terms. Others were jealous because Assange was making them look bad. They hated his global rock star hype. They split up, lawsuits were filed and in desperation, he ended up in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

    Was he forced in there? No he wasn’t. He skipped out on his bail and hid there to run out the pending rape charges against him. Under Swedish law, these could be refiled.

    Whether you’re a tourist or a citizen, when you’re in a country you’re subject to their laws. As messed up as you may say the UK, US and Swedish govts are, this includes Assange.

    Does Ecuador have the right to revoke Assange’s citizenship and asylum status? Of course they do. Asylum and citizenship aren’t treats that the govt. hands out to anybody. You have to meet certain requirements. If you fail to, you lose these. Many countries do this if the person commits a crime.

    Is he a political prisoner? No. Is he a journalist? Yes.

    After the Home Secretary makes their recommendation, May has to decide. Does my govt. really believe in and stand for defending human rights? Or, do we just meekly give in to the US so as not to piss them off? The US can make lots of threats. We’ll cut off all intelligence sharing. We’ll cancel “The Special Relationship”. Would Trump recall the US UK ambassador? A radical step. But anything’s possible with Trump.

    Now, Assange is a folk hero. If the US gets their wish and execute him as a “terrorist”, he’ll become a martyr. The same level as someone like Che Guevara? To some, yes.

    Anywhere in the US, an Assange trial would be a circus. How does the DOJ do this and give him a superficial appearance of a “fair trial”? If it involves “classified information”, this means a closed courtroom. or, just lock him away in a black prison site forever. Under Sec. 1021 of the NDAA, if he’s declared an “enemy combatant”, Assange could be locked away forever with no trial. The fact that he’s a foreigner is no protection.

    Possible Assange arguments:
    He’s a political prisoner. Therefore, he’s not an enemy combatant and subject to the NDAA.
    His 7 years in the embassy qualify as torture. Therefore he’s suffering from PTSD. This would mean a mental health evaluation. Is he competent to understand and participate in his own defense?
    It’s impossible for him to have a fair trial anywhere in the mainland US. His lawyers file a motion to dismiss all charges. Even though he’s a foreigner, he’s entitled to that right.
    Is he being held in solitary in a UK jail? This is torture. This is violating his human rights under the UN Charter of Human Rights and Intl. Court.

    His lawyers could appeal their way to the UK High Court. Then possibly the Intl. Court of Justice. If all of those fail, then whoever files an extradition request first gets first crack at Assange.

    What’s Assange’s “crime”? He told the truth about serious crimes. This really pisses off the rich and powerful. Therefore, he must be killed.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Agastyan Daram wrote:

    Very well written and thoughtful article.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Agastyan. Good to hear from you. As you know, I’m sure, I’ve been writing articles every day, or every two or three days, since 2007, so I’m used to being able to write quickly, but for this article it was really challenging to explain what needed to be explained, and it took up much of the last two days. I’m really glad you liked it.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Agastyan Daram wrote:

    I understand completely. It’s really hard to correctly articulate this stuff. I often find myself silenced these days. I feel we are moving into new and uncharted territory. I enjoy reading your thoughts. This article jumped out at me as explaining things very clearly.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Agastyan. There appear to be more and more topics on which people have fixed positions, and seem unwilling to engage with nuance, or to see that there might be different aspects of a story, and that some analysis is required to establish which points are the most important. And people – not just on the right – can be quite intolerant. We seem to be getting deeper and deeper into some dangerous new reality, signposted by Brexit and Trump, but consisting of something much more disturbingly pervasive and fundamentally illogical.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Tom. The extradition angle is interesting, as the US-UK extradition treaty has been subject to serious criticism in the UK, because the party requesting the extradition doesn’t have to provide any evidence whatsoever, and there is no built-in way of, for example, assessing whether an alleged crime might be better prosecuted in the country to which the request is being made.
    Technicalities aside, when Theresa May was home secretary (for six long and authoritarian years), she relished sending Muslims to the US, but refused to extradite Gary McKinnon, a hacker with Asperger’s, who was white. Assange is unpopular with the Tories, of course, but I wonder if his situation will be picked up on by lawyers. I’ve found myself wondering if he has Asperger’s, and it has been discussed over the years, including by Assange himself. In 2011, he told the Independent, “when I became well known, people would enjoy pointing out that I had Asperger’s or else that I was dangling somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, so let’s just say I am – all hackers are, and I would argue all men are a little bit autistic.” See: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/julian-assange-i-am-ndash-like-all-hackers-ndash-a-little-bit-autistic-2358654.html

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Jeanine Molloff wrote:

    Excellent piece.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jeanine!

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Not only should a President who thinks that way not be indulged.. he should be impeached, but that’s another matter

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    I concur

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David. Good to hear from you. it’s ironic, really, because Trump, in general, has a dangerous contempt for the law, which he has shown again and again, but this time around he’s hoping that the law will help him nail Assange.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, I doubt it was his call… the Pentagon hawks have had this in play from the get go. There never were “rape” charges by the way and leaking of the private PGP password was a Guardian clunker… but I agree with the general thrust that this is potentially going to make investigative reporting more difficult

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s undoubtedly correct about the long gestation of this witch hunt involving Republican right-wingers, David, but as with so many blunt injustices under Trump, it’s only made possible because of his enthusiasm for it.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul Astles wrote:

    Andy, it’s very confusing because he wouldn’t have been elected if it wasn’t for wikileaks!

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Exactly, Paul. During the 2016 election, he was forever praising WikiLeaks, and now look at him, claiming he knows nothing about them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7n7VyHbqkas

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Andy, as usual, you wrote it well. It doesn’t matter if people hate Assange or love him or even if they are indifferent to him. The threat is to the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. If the US government succeeds in extraditing and convicting Assange, it sets precedent for attacks on other journalists, publishers and media forums. Those attacks will happen and ultimately destroy all adversarial journalism.

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan, for summarizing what this is all about. US citizens seem, in general, to have been easily persuaded to forget why they have the protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – it’s to prevent tyranny on the part of their leaders!

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, Trump isn’t that complex to understand if you have a reasonable grasp of the devastating cognitive impairment of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He fits all nine classic symptoms/signs to a T. He is essentially only interested in things that provide narcissistic feed… i.e subjects about him and whatever it takes to prop up his ego driven persona. The idea that he has anything more profound in mind is, I would assess, mistaken. He will leave the persecution of Manning and Assange to those inclined to press the matter.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s a great analysis of him, David, but he’s also driven by his blunt and simplistic political obsessions – the horribly racist Mexican wall, for example, and the horribly Islamophobic Muslim travel ban. I also doubt if anyone could get him to understand why it’s not acceptable to keep everyone still held at Guantanamo locked up forever without charge or trial. On these issues he is facilitating a far right establishment position that simply wouldn’t be possible under a leader with actual political awareness.

  31. Tom says...

    Re: McKinnon. I was happy that he wasn’t extradited. But I felt bad at the way he was manipulated. The focus was on aliens and not on him.

    Obama didn’t try to extradite Assange because that would have caused many problems. One, how could you try him and convict when you massively prejudiced his case. First year law students know not to do that. Second, he would have become “The President that Destroyed Media and Freedom of the Press”.

    If Assange is extradited, convicted and executed he’ll become a martyr. Trump, Pompeo and the others can try to downplay this all they want. But it won’t work.

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom, for the follow up. Perhaps wisdom will prevail, but I’m not holding my breath for that. Anyone who ends up nominating Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court must be getting bad legal advice!

  33. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, thanks very much for the many excellent points you made about Assange. Assange, Manning, Snowden, and Matthew Diaz, all put public safety first, and took risks to help keep the rest of us informed.

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the supportive words, arcticredriver!

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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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