On Thursday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested by the UK secret police, who forcibly dragged him out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had been granted political asylum in 2012. This abrupt termination of asylum by Ecuador in violation of international law came a week after WikiLeaks warned the public it had received information from two high level Ecuadorian government sources about a US-backed plan for the Ecuadorian government to expel Assange from its embassy, in coordination with UK authorities.
Assange’s lawyer confirmed in addition to a 2012 breach of bail UK charge, British authorities arrested him under a US extradition warrant charging him with conspiracy to help whistleblower Chelsea Manning (then known as Private Bradley Manning) gain unauthorized access to a US Department of Defense computer, handing over to WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified documents revealing US government war crimes and atrocities. Specifically, the charge relates to leaked materials published by WikiLeaks in 2010, including documents concerning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, US Diplomatic Cables, and the infamous ‘Collateral Murder’ video — previously unreleased footage shot in 2007 from a US Apache helicopter repeatedly and indiscriminately firing upon a public square in Eastern Baghdad, slaughtering over a dozen civilians including 2 Reuters journalists, first responders, and 2 young children.
Wikileaks released this video with transcripts and a package of supporting documents on April 5th, 2010 at https://collateralmurder.wikileaks.org.
Addressing the press outside Westminster Magistrate’s Court in London, Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks Kristinn Hrafnsson declared that Assange’s arrest marks a “dark day for journalism”. Human rights and free speech organizations have recognized the prosecution of Assange as an attack on press freedoms everywhere.
James Goodale, First Amendment lawyer and former general counsel for The New York Times, warned of the US government’s efforts to charge a journalist who is not American and did not publish in the US, possibly with espionage:
“If the prosecution of Julian Assange succeeds, investigative reporting based on classified information will be given a near death blow.”
David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, noted that:
“…prosecuting Assange would be dangerously problematic from the perspective of press freedom.”
Responding to the brutal eviction and arrest of the WikiLeaks founder, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) commented:
“…any prosecution by the United States of Mr Assange for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations.”
The Freedom of the Press Foundation also issued a statement, alerting that the charge against Assange is a serious threat to press freedom” and noted that it “should be vigorously protested by all those who care about the First Amendment.”
Just a day before his arrest, WikiLeaks held a press conference with the former Ecuadorian consul and the UK attorney representing Assange. They presented shocking photos, documents, and recorded video as evidence of the Ecuadorian government’s expansive spying operation against Assange, whose asylum and citizenship rights the country has an obligation to protect.
Ecuador’s intrusive round-the-clock surveillance inside the London embassy, conducted in cooperation with the US government, had constituted a total invasion of privacy, and included the recording of Assange’s private meetings with his lawyers and doctor. Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson described this as a severe breach of lawyer-client privilege, which had undermined the ability of his legal team to properly defend their client.
The seriousness of Ecuador’s treatment of its own citizen and asylee was recognized by the United Nations. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Joe Cannataci, and Independent UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Nils Melzer, who warned last Friday that Assange’s arrest may be a “serious human rights violation,” had previously made arrangements with the Ecuadorian government to meet Assange in the embassy on April 25 to investigate these outrageous rights violations.
Assange’s arrest and possible extradition to the US is much bigger than an individual issue. This cuts right to the heart of freedom of expression, basic human rights and due process. Our failure to resist the US government’s assault on this groundbreaking journalist and publisher could empower authoritarian states to further attack and erode press freedoms and the rights of citizens to be informed. The overall lack of protest and silent complicity from the mainstream Western media shows the extent of their corruption and institutional moral decay.
“Oh please, Assange is no journalist. We know who he works for,” Vox’s Alexia Campbell tweeted, making a not-so-subtle reference to Russia.
“Julian Assange is not a journalist,” concurred The New Yorker‘s Jelani Cobb concurred.
Since Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 presidential election, the Democratic Party and its press functionaries have maintained a scathing misdirected hostility against Assange, whom they blame unequivocally for Hillary Clinton’s humiliating loss, along with the Russian government. By their histrionic scapegoating of Russia (with no evidence) for allegedly interfering to steal the 2016 election for Trump, Democrats have managed to successfully divert the public attention and outrage away from their very own actual stealing of the primary election from Bernie Sanders, revealed by WikiLeaks in the leaked DNC emails. By simply publishing true, verified authentic materials that provided voters factual information about whom they were voting for, WikiLeaks was mercilessly demonized as a Kremlin agent that tipped the election in favor of Trump. However, neither Assange nor WikiLeaks invented a single word of the DNC’s communications — the DNC incriminated themselves entirely with their own words, without which the leaked emails would not have elicited any public interest or attention whatsoever. Yet, because of their obstinate refusal to take accountability for their electoral failure, they are enthusiastically red-baiting a return to McCarthyism and Cold War hysteria as they gleefully cheer on the jailing and prosecution of an award-winning journalist for the crime of journalism.
If the US government can pluck a foreign journalist out of another sovereign country and ostensibly kidnap them back to American soil to prosecute them for publishing in the public interest truthful materials that they disapprove of or condemn, then what is to stop Russia from abducting a troublesome Ukrainian reporter traveling abroad to bring them on espionage charges before a Moscow court? Or why can’t Saudi Arabia prosecute an American journalist for revealing secrets about the consulate murder and dismemberment of its expatriate Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi?
WikiLeaks has done nothing except publish true and verified authentic materials given to it by whistleblowers in the public interest. Many authoritative media organizations have subsequently published those materials, including the Guardian, New York Times, and Washington Post. Will they be the next to face charges? Or do they believe their privileged insider status grants them immunity from prosecution?
Should a publisher who released truthful information about real government corruption, waste, fraud, or abuse be outlawed and condemned? When did telling the truth become a crime? The act of publishing information that is verified to be authentic in the public interest must not be punished — in fact, it should be protected at all costs. This is the very function of a free press, acting as a vanguard of our democracy. Exposing war crimes, human rights atrocities, and torture is not a crime, and the blanket of “national security” should not be used as a veil to cover up such unlawful acts.
The prosecution of Assange sets a very dangerous precedent. This is an unconstitutional prosecution of our democracy — whose very health is dependent on an informed and engaged public — that stifles freedom of expression and muzzles the free press. This is not a political issue, defined as left vs right or one ideology against another. This is an issue that concerns our fundamental human rights. It is a question of whether or not we should have a civil society, governed by the rule of law.
Now is the time to take urgent action. We must pressure the UK government to oppose and stop the extradition of this persecuted journalist and publisher to the US, where he is guaranteed to not receive a fair trial, and is likely to be tortured and disappeared indefinitely into a facility like Guantanamo. We must mobilize globally to demand the Trump administration drop the criminal charges against Assange, and free Assange and Manning. We must fight to defend Assange, not for his sake, but for ours and for our democracy.