A Call for the Mainstream Media to Defend Press Freedom and to Oppose the Proposed Extradition of Julian Assange to the US
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. Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration. If you can help, please click on the button below to donate via PayPal.
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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2020-02-17 | Belmarsh, control orders, deportation and extradition, Guantanamo, UK politics | English | AndyWorthington