A Call for the Mainstream Media to Defend Press Freedom and to Oppose the Proposed Extradition of Julian Assange to the US

17.2.20

A screenshot from a video of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a prison van, as he was returned to Belmarsh maximum security prison from Westminster Magistrates Court after a hearing regarding his proposed extradition to the US. His full extradition hearing begins on February 24, 2020 at Belmarsh.

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Check out the opening paragraphs of ‘Press freedom is at risk if we allow Julian Assange’s extradition’, an excellent article written for the Guardian two weeks ago by Roy Greenslade, a Guardian columnist and academic, who was the editor of the Daily Mirror from 1990-91:

Later this month, a journalist will appear at a London court hearing in which he faces being extradited to the United States to spend the rest of his life in prison. The 18 charges against him are the direct result of his having revealed a host of secrets, many of them related to the US prosecution of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They included the “collateral murder” video which showed a US helicopter crew shooting 18 people in Baghdad in 2007, including two Reuters war correspondents, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh. Among the files were thousands of military dispatches and diplomatic cables that enabled people in scores of countries to perceive the relationships between their governments and the US. They also showed the way in which American diplomats sought to gather personal information about two UN secretary generals.

Unsurprisingly, the revelations were gratefully published and broadcast by newspapers and media outlets across the world. “Scoop” is far too mundane a term to describe the staggering range of disclosures. By any journalistic standard, it was a breathtaking piece of reporting, which earned the journalist more than a dozen awards.

Greenslade proceeds to explain that “this press freedom hero”, who is “now incarcerated in Belmarsh prison”, ought to be “enjoying supportive banner headlines in Britain’s newspapers ahead of his case”, but notes that, to date, coverage of his plight has been muted”, because of negative perceptions about Assange.

As he adds, however, whatever the negative perceptions about Assange — whether based on his alleged behaviour, on journalists’ perceptions of him when working with him, or on smears against him (Greenslade cites the “falsehoods” told about him during his nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, “including bizarre stories about his smearing faeces on the walls, ruining the floors by skateboarding and torturing a cat”) — the bottom line is that “personal feelings about Assange’s character have to be put to one side”, because “[t]he far-reaching implications of this case against him are hugely significant for the future of the journalistic trade.”

As Greenslade also explains:

Assange has been charged with 17 counts under the US Espionage Act of 1917, each of which carries a 10-year sentence, and one of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion”, which carries a five-year maximum sentence. He could therefore be jailed for 175 years. These offences may relate specifically to one man’s activities but, should they succeed, they would set a terrible precedent. The aim is to prevent whistleblowers from telling the truth and journalists from giving them a platform.

What [Chelsea] Manning [who leaked the material to WikiLeaks] and Assange did cannot be construed as espionage. They were casting light on the US government’s murky secrets and, in the case of the collateral murder video, the lengths it was prepared to go in order to cover up a massacre. That’s journalism, pure and simple.

It certainly is, and it’s reassuring that Greenslade not only recognizes that “press freedom is at risk”, but has also been canvassing national newspaper editors to find out whether they also agree and, if so, whether they also accept that doing nothing will be an act of self-defeating cowardice by the mainstream media.

Greenslade reports that Chris Evans, the editor of the right-wing broadsheet the Daily Telegraph, said that, although he was “heavily conflicted” about Assange, he was also “alarmed by ‘the implications for journalism’ should he be extradited.” Gary Jones, meanwhile, the editor of the right-wing tabloid the Daily Express, was “reluctant to describe Mr. Assange as a journalist”, but also concluded that he had “lifted the lid on very serious abuses of power and corruption”, and that, as a result, “the British government should stop his extradition.”

Greenslade also got a response from Katharine Viner, the editor of the Guardian, whose support, as he described it, “was unequivocal”, with Viner declaring, “State power should never be used to suppress the actions of whistleblowers and investigative journalists pursuing stories that are clearly in the public interest. The US extradition case against Julian Assange is a troubling attack on press freedom and the public’s right to know.”

Two other editors, “speaking off the record”, claimed that they “were reluctant to take a definitive position before they [had] more detailed knowledge about the case”, which, sadly, smacks of an unwillingness to do even the barest minimum to defend press freedom, as it is, frankly, inconceivable that newspaper editors wouldn’t have an opinion about Assange and WikiLeaks after so many years. Greenslade noted that they claimed that “[t]heir main concern was about the possibility that the release of files by WikiLeaks may have endangered people’s lives”, but as he stated, accurately, in response, “I cannot find any evidence that anyone was arrested, let alone tortured or killed, as a result.”

Despite the disappointment of these two editors’ positions, I found it reassuring that the editors of two right-wing newspapers were, at least, prepared to be quoted opposing Assange’s proposed extradition, although there is, sadly, no sign that Greenslade’s wish — for “Britain’s editors — national, regional and local — [to] get to grips with this case in advance of the first hearing, due to start on 24 February, and then to issue a considered statement, probably through the Society of Editors, opposing Assange’s extradition” — will happen, or, as he also hoped, that these same editors would also “alert their readers and pressure politicians, in order to highlight the injustice of this prosecution and why it is so important.”

In the run-up to the start of Assange’s extradition hearing next Monday, I have been trying to do my part, as someone who worked as a media partner with WikiLeaks on the release of documents overlooked by Roy Greenslade — classified military files about the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, released in 2011 — to flag up the importance of this case, submitting a statement to the court, and also being interviewed by a film-maker for a video that will hopefully be released imminently, in which I explain why the release of the Guantánamo files was crucially important in understanding the extent to which false statements, made by prisoners who were tortured, abused or bribed with better living conditions, constitute far too much of the US government’s so-called evidence against the prisoners.

Despite this, I have seen little expression of support for Assange and WikiLeaks in the mainstream media I worked with on the release of the Guantánamo files, or who worked with WikiLeaks on the release of other files (see a helpful list here), and it would be enormously beneficial for the cause of press freedom if this indifference was addressed before the hearing begins next week — and especially, right now, in the British media, which is most closely placed to put pressure on the British government to do the right thing, and to refuse to proceed with Assange’s proposed extradition because of the chilling and unacceptable impact it will have on press freedom.

As Roy Greenslade put it, when urging Britain’s newspaper editors to come together to oppose Julian Assange’s extradition, “They don’t have to change their minds about the man’s character. They just need to stick to the principle” — that principle being that, if we don’t resist efforts to suppress whistleblowers and investigative journalists by a nakedly authoritarian US government, the very future of a media that is able to speak truth to power is severely endangered.

* * * * *

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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven 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 the 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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26 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    With one week to go until the start of the US extradition hearing for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, here’s my latest article, in which I urge the mainstream media to get more involved, drawing on a recent Guardian article by journalist and academic Roy Greenslade, in which he called on newspaper editors to speak out against the proposed extradition as an urgent and necessary defence of press freedom.

    Greenslade got the editors of two right-wing newspapers, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express, to express their opposition to Assange’s proposed extradition, but as I have been getting involved in his defence – based on my experience of working with him as a media partner on the release of the Guantanamo files in 2011 – by submitting a statement to court, and being interviewed for a soon-to-be-released video, I have become aware that far too few senior figures in the mainstream media have expressed opposition to his proposed extradition. This is in spite of the fact that, if it goes ahead, it will pose an unprecedented threat to the media’s ability to expose government wrongdoing.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. While it’s pretty clear that the mainstream journalistic profession isn’t doing enough, there is pressure on other fronts. Two Australian MPs have just arrived in the UK to visit Julian Assange in Belmarsh, and to call for the extradition to be stopped, and Jeremy Corbyn has been discussing the significance of Boris Johnson’s recognition that the US-UK Extradition Treaty is one-sided: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-18/julian-assange-and-us-extradition-deal-view-changing-in-uk/11974080

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy, thank you for writing about Julian.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    I’ve been working a lot on Julian’s case recently, Natalia, submitting a statement to the court, and filming a video, all dealing with my work with Julian and WikiLeaks on the Guantanamo files in 2011, when I was a media partner, and advising the mainstream media partners what to look for in the files.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Jeanine Molloff wrote:

    Agreed. We must defend ASSANGE.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jeanine – defend Assange, defend press freedom!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    In another update, doctors who wrote a letter to home secretary Priti Patel in November, in which they “requested that Assange be transferred from Belmarsh prison to a university teaching hospital for medical assessment and treatment”, and “also raised the question as to Assange’s fitness to participate in US extradition proceedings”, have written to Patel again, having received no reply, with their letter published in The Lancet. Over 60 doctors signed the first letter; 117 have signed this update: https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2820%2930383-4
    Here’s my article about the November letter: https://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2019/11/28/over-70-doctors-write-to-uk-home-secretary-priti-patel-expressing-fears-that-julian-assange-may-die-in-belmarsh-prison/

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Also, Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, has been interviewed on the Victoria Derbyshire Show on the BBC. He “told the BBC his son would face what is effectively a ‘death sentence’ were he sent to the United States to face trial”, and “raised concerns over his son’s health ahead of [the] extradition hearing … saying Assange had felt ‘ceaseless anxiety.'”
    See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-51530280/julian-assange-father-fears-worried-son-s-extradition

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Also of interest – an article in Elle magazine about Jen Robinson, Assange’s longest-serving lawyer: https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a30460536/jennifer-robinson-attorney-julian-assange/
    The only problem with it is that Elle repeats the now-dropped sexual misconduct allegations. For more on how that and other allegations are deliberate smears by the US and accomplice nations, see this article by Ray McGovern for Consortium News, focusing on UN torture rapporteur Nils Melzer’s explanation of how he realised that there had been a deliberate effort to smear Assange: https://consortiumnews.com/2020/02/06/ray-mcgovern-german-tv-exposes-the-lies-that-entrapped-julian-assange/

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    And also check out James Risen’s New York Times article about the growing threat to journalists from their own governments, following efforts by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to prosecute Gleen Greenwald for “cybercrimes”, following Trump’s DoJ’s claims against Assange. As Risen puts it, “Prosecutors are seeking to criminalize journalism by turning to anti-hacking laws to implicate reporters in the purported criminal activity of their sources in gaining access to data on computers or cellphones without authorization. This blunt approach gives the government enormous leverage over journalists and, in the United States, provides them with a detour around First Amendment concerns. If these cases become templates that prosecutors in the United States and other nations follow, virtually every investigative reporter will become vulnerable to criminal charges and imprisonment.”
    See: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/26/opinion/greenwald-brazil-reporter.html
    And in Assange’s case, of course, lest we forget, it is not his government that is pursuing him, but the US. As WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson said after the last hearing in January, “We have learned from submissions and affidavits presented by the United States to this court that they do not consider foreign nationals to have first amendment protection. Let that sink in for a second. At the same time the US government is chasing journalists all over the world, they claim they have extraterritorial reach. They have decided that all foreign journalists have no protection … this is not about Julian Assange. It’s about press freedom.”
    See: https://www.newsweek.com/wikileaks-julian-assange-latest-extradition-case-doj-belmarsh-prison-1483814

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    And this just published in the Guardian, on the two Australian MPs who are visiting to call for the extradition to be stopped: “Andrew Wilkie, an independent federal MP, said the extradition of Assange, who has been charged by the US with conspiring to hack into a secret Pentagon computer network, would set a dangerous precedent.” Wilkie said, “This will establish a precedent that if you are a journalist who does anything that offends any government in the world then you face the very real prospect of being extradited to that country. This is a political case and what is at stake is not just the life of Julian Assange. It is about the future of journalism.”
    And there were great comments from the Liberal National MP George Christensen, the co-chair of the Bring Julian Assange Home parliamentary group, who “said he was joining forces with those on the left even though he was a conservative.”
    Christensen said, “I am a big fan of Trump, I am a big fan of Bojo [Boris Johnson] but I’ll tell you what I value more: free speech.” He added, “There are a lot of Australians on the right and left who think that Julian Assange is a rat bag, that I am a rat bag, but that he should be brought home.”
    Noting how Johnson “had spoken about how he believed that the extradition treaty was somewhat imbalanced, to the cost of the UK”, Christensen said, “I hope that Boris Johnson withdraws this case that is before the courts.”
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/feb/18/julian-assange-australian-mps-uk-boris-johnson-block-us-extradition

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    For anyone in London, or able to get here, this is a march on Saturday, featuring Roger Waters, M.I.A. and other high-profile supporters: https://www.facebook.com/events/931609000567992/

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Here is Reuters report on these events. If you think press freedoms aren’t under threat, it’s worth noting that Reuters was one of the news organisations Number Ten elected to exclude from their briefings. I don’t know whether the prosecution can prove that Assange did more than function as any publisher or editor in a news outlet might have in publishing but his current treatment seems to be bringing the rule of law into disrepute, though hardly as much as the disreputable things that were happening in the war zones that Wikileaks exposed. This should all have been legally resolved by court decisions a decade ago.
    https://uk.mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/idUKKBN1ZM1LS

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David. Well said. Sadly, however, the Reuters report you link to featured this rather dismal example of journalistic fence-sitting: “To some, Assange is a hero for exposing what supporters cast as abuse of power by modern states and for championing free speech. To others, he is a dangerous rebel who has undermined US security by WikiLeaks having published hundreds of thousands of secret US cables.”

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s a statement opposing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s proposed extradition to the US, which has just been issued by Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights: https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/julian-assange-should-not-be-extradited-due-to-potential-impact-on-press-freedom-and-concerns-about-ill-treatment

    As Mijatović explains, “Julian Assange’s potential extradition has human rights implications that reach far beyond his individual case. The indictment raises important questions about the protection of those that publish classified information in the public interest, including those that expose human rights violations. The broad and vague nature of the allegations against Julian Assange, and of the offences listed in the indictment, are troubling as many of them concern activities at the core of investigative journalism in Europe and beyond. Consequently, allowing Julian Assange’s extradition on this basis would have a chilling effect on media freedom, and could ultimately hamper the press in performing its task as purveyor of information and public watchdog in democratic societies.”

    Mijatović also endorses the opinion of Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, that “both the detention conditions in the United States and the sentence likely to be imposed on Julian Assange present [a] real risk” of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, and concludes that, “In view of both the press freedom implications and the serious concerns over the treatment Julian Assange would be subjected to in the United States, my assessment as Commissioner for Human Rights is that he should not be extradited.”

  16. Anna says...

    Thanks so much for fighting for him, Andy.
    All the while Pompeo is pontificating about ‘press freedom’ to other countries…
    Wonder whether there will be any attempt to link this to the failed UK extradition request for the US “diplomat”s wife who killed a UK teen. And for what it’s worth, here’s a Code Pink petition, won’t hurt to sign it.
    https://www.codepink.org/assange?utm_campaign=assange_alert_feb20&utm_medium=email&utm_source=codepink

  17. Anna says...

    Just read your Ray McGovern link (8) which is very interesting. There also is interesting additional info about actions in Germany in the first comments.
    As for the ‘rape’ case having been a trap, I never understood why anyone at all had fallen for it – or Assange’s naivity to be honest.
    As I remember the story, a female Swedish ‘fan’ of Ąssange’s offers her appartment for him to stay in during his short visit in Stockholm for a conference. She won’t be there herself, so if [I assume] there is only one bed, no problem. So far, so good.
    But then she unexpectedly and unannounced appears after all ? They have consensual sex and when the next morning he’d like more of it she refuses and he rapes her ?
    An adult woman, not some smitten teenager …
    Perfect story for a spy thriller. Why would an admiring perfect stranger offer her appartment and leave herself, forsaking a unique chance to meet the object of her admiration ?
    No chance either of interesting discussions over dinner of coffee, possibly the start of a lasting friendship. Something to boast about to your friends.
    It simply made no sense, but maybe you have to be a woman to find this highly improbable.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, I could hardly stand by and not get involved, Anna, after working with Julian and WikiLeaks on the release of the Guantanamo files back in 2011.
    As for Pompeo, I remember under George W. Bush when the State Department continued to lecture other countries about their human rights, which seemed particularly hypocritical as the US’s crimes in the “war on terror” unfolded, and clearly nothing has changed.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for following the links, Anna. I thought they were worthwhile.
    As for your comments about Sweden, I won’t, as a man, try and make an assessment 😉

  20. Anna says...

    The disclosure of the Swedish scam should be on MSM front pages, as crucial evidence of the stakes being rigged against him.

    Just found this petition which is liable to have more of an impact, as it is from Reporters Without Borders and already has over 50.000 signatories :
    https://rsf.org/en/free-assange
    Found it on AJE – at least one mainstream medium that does pay attention : https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/assange-lawyers-seek-asylum-france-whistleblower-200221092101008.html

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the link to the Reporters Without Borders petition. I hadn’t seen that.
    I like that they state that Assange “could be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for charges that include publishing and providing journalists with information that served the public interest.” That captures the essence of it.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m very pleased to have signed this statement in support of Julian Assange, as one of – to date – 1,267 journalists from 99 countries around the world calling for the WikiLeaks founder’s proposed extradition to the US from the UK to be stopped, and for him to be freed: https://speak-up-for-assange.org

    As we say in the statement, “As journalists and journalists’ organizations that believe in human rights, freedom of information and of the public’s right to know, we demand the immediate release of Julian Assange. We urge our governments, all national and international agencies and fellow journalists to call for an end to the legal campaign being waged against him for the crime of revealing war crimes.”

    Any journalists out there who haven’t yet signed up can do so here: https://speak-up-for-assange.org/journalists-speak-up-for-julian-assange/
    The list of signatories is here (I’m No. 1261): https://speak-up-for-assange.org/signatures/

  23. Anna says...

    Asked the few journalists and/or political commentators I know to co-sign the letter. So far only one did, I hope it’s because the others did not have time yet to read my mail, not because they fear it might hurt them or worst of all, because they do not care…

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna. I see there are now 1,316 signatories, which is encouraging, but I have to say that it wouldn’t surprise me if people are nervous about signing – and not on the basis of having “dounts” about Assange himself, but because it’s understandably a bit unnerving to be going up against the US government, and the particularly vindictive figure of Donald Trump.

  25. Anna says...

    Just saw that a second one signed. One you personally met too :-). But a young – and great – one who works in the field in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, just told me that he’s afraid to take the risk. Maybe not so much because of the US as Turkey – through which he often has to travel – and I fully understand and respect that. With coalitions & fighting among proxy war wagers in the Middle East changing faster than first grade little girls’ friendships & animosities, one has to tread very carefully.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Well. I’m glad a second friend signed, Anna, but I’m also not surprised about the friend who didn’t. It feels in a way as though, these days, we’re all painting targets on ourselves when we stand up for what’s right. Hopefully, for those signing (1,325 so far), there won’t be any retaliation from the US – or anyone else.

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Andy Worthington

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