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Defend Julian Assange and WikiLeaks: Press Freedom Depends On It

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

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Last week, when Julian Assange, the founding father 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 an extended weekend away, without pc access, and I solely had time to put in writing a number of temporary paragraphs concerning the significance of his case on Fb.

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 additionally defined, “Those who leak information, like Chelsea Manning” — who leaked lots of of hundreds of pages of categorised US government paperwork to WikiLeaks, and is now imprisoned because of her refusal to testify in a Grand Jury case towards 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 information in April 2011, along with journalists from the Washington Publish, McClatchy, the Day by day Telegraph and numerous newspapers all through Europe, and pointed out, along wth posting a hyperlink to the page on WikiLeaks’ web site displaying all the media retailers (myself included) who have labored with WikiLeaks through 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 information — categorized US army information from Guantánamo — have been extremely helpful, as they revealed the extent to which the so-called proof towards prisoners consisted of unreliable statements made by their fellow prisoners, who have been named within the information, however had by no means been named in any of the opposite Guantánamo-related paperwork that the US authorities had been pressured to release through the years by way of Freedom of Info legislation. My unfinished, million-word evaluation of those information is here.

I concluded my Facebook submit 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

Because the initial information of Assange’s arrest, the intentions behind it have turn into clearer. The US Justice Division has unsealed an indictment towards him, which, as Trevor Timm, the chief director of the Freedom of the Press Basis, noted in an article for the Guardian, consists of simply “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 defined, “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 identified for Simply 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 — have been rightfully alarmed that, as Trevor Timm put it, it was clear that the Justice Division 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 worry, subsequently, is that the only cost to hook Assange can be followed by more expenses if he finally ends up on US soil — expenses maybe involving espionage. As Jameel Jaffer and Ben Wizner defined, “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 towards Assange.

For the Guardian, Nathan Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs, weighed in towards mainstream journalists dangerously suggesting that Assange’s work — and that of WikiLeaks — isn’t journalism, however “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 defined, “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 additionally 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.”

Authentic criticism of Assange

None of the causes given above for defending Julian Assange towards US overreach is supposed to defend him towards other complaints. He sought asylum from Ecuador in 2012 to avoid dealing with potential extradition to Sweden to face rape and sexual assault expenses. If there’s nonetheless a case to reply in Sweden, he must be despatched there to face those costs.

He additionally alienated numerous former supporters through the 2016 US Presidential Election via leaks designed to wreck Hillary Clinton, which may solely have ended up helping Donald Trump.

It can also be true that, through the years, Assange repeatedly showed a disturbing refusal to contemplate censoring anything in the paperwork he launched. On Sunday, the Observer revealed 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 labored with Assange on the release of the Afghan and Iraq warfare logs in 2010, until the connection 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 famous how Davies informed Alex Gibney, who directed a film about Assange, that the WikiLeaks founder had stated that “if an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces he deserves to die.”

I additionally witnessed this simplistic insistence that each one info have to be free in relation to the Guantánamo information, and the menace to a former prisoner’s life if his whole file was revealed unredacted, and I recall his inflexibility and the problem of reasoning with him.

But once more, nevertheless, while these stories and others affirm a troublesome naivety and intransigence relating to transparency, in addition to a character that recurrently comes into conflict with others, none of it basically detracts from Assange’s proper to not be dismissed as a journalist and treated as some type of terrorist, as Donald Trump needs. 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 launched its indictment of him, this can be a lure, “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 elucidate, “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 must really ask why it’s that you need to trust a government department that already had an unacceptable historical past of pursuing whistleblowers beneath Barack Obama, long earlier than Trump shuffled into view, together with his outrageous beliefs about journalism he doesn’t like. As Timm places 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 approach really shouldn’t be indulged.

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Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, writer, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and essential songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is obtainable by way of Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo marketing campaign (and see the newest photograph campaign here) and the profitable We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the writer of The Guantánamo Information: The Tales of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Jail (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’s also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (obtainable on DVD right here — or here for the US), and for his photograph challenge ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photograph a day from six years of motorcycle rides across the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy turned very involved in housing issues. He’s the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, concerning the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a track ‘Grenfell’, within the aftermath of the totally preventable hearth in June 2017 that killed over 70 individuals, and he additionally set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of group area in his house borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Previous Tidemill Wildlife Backyard in Deptford, to stop its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Though the backyard was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the timber have been reduce down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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