ANALYSIS: By Wendy Bacon
Journalism is not a crime, which is why we must support Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in his battle against extradition to the United States, where he would be tried for offences under the Espionage Act.
On Wednesday last week, it was Assange’s birthday. His last seven birthdays were spent in Ecuador’s London embassy where he had sought refuge to prevent extradition. After UK police violently removed him from the embassy in April, he spent this year’s birthday in Belmarsh high-security prison.
In February, there will be a hearing to decide if Assange will be extradited to the United States. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. Assange is literally in mortal danger.
Recently the professor of international law at Glasgow University and UN Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, who visited Assange, found he was showing “symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture …”.
He referred to a “relentless and unrestrained” campaign since Wikileaks started publishing evidence of war crimes and torture in 2010, to criminalise its investigative journalism in violation of both the US Constitution and international human rights law.”
Melzer said this campaign includes intimidation, defamation and an “endless stream of humiliating, debasing and threatening statements in the press and on social media, but also by senior political figures, and even by judicial magistrates.”
Support for media freedom – not based on who you like or don’t like
Media freedom is very much in the news. Earlier this month, Australia’s most senior media bosses from the ABC, Newscorp and Nine fronted the National Press Club to argue for media law reforms that would strengthen the capacity of journalists to expose the truth.
This followed Federal Police raids on the ABC and the home of The Australian’s reporter Annika Smethurst.
Reform is badly needed. Giant messages of collective solidarity – Journalism is Not a Crime – were beamed across social media. Those messages of solidarity are not based on our opinion of the individual journalists nor the record of Smethurst’s employer Newcorp, which has bullied its critics and promoted climate denialism.
Those matters are irrelevant to our support when it comes to an issue of the freedom of journalists to publish in the public interest. Let’s remember this when we approach the terrible predicament of Assange.
Assange has been a member of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance since 2007. In 2011, Assange won a Walkley Award for his “outstanding contribution”. The Walkley judges said that Wikileaks applied new technology to “penetrate the inner workings of government to reveal an avalanche of inconvenient truths in a global publishing coup”.
One of those many inconvenient truths was the exposure by video of US helicopter attacks in Baghdad that killed 11 civilians including two Reuters journalists. These are the very same acts of journalism that are now the basis of the US Espionage charges.
Much will turn in any US trial on whether First Amendment protection of free speech is offered to Assange as a journalist and publisher. The issue of his relationship to journalism could turn out to be critical.
Let’s consider the significance of his act of publication – an important test of journalism is whether the publication was in the public interest.
Nine years have passed since acts of journalism for which the US government wants to put him on trial. Younger Australians may not remember the massive furore caused by the publication in 2010 of the Collateral Murder videos. Thousands of other documents revealed secret manoeuvres by US, Australian and other politicians, and their mendacious public stances.
The impact of these publications needs to be remembered in the context of revelations that the US justification for the war on Iraq was based on fabricated US intelligence fed to uncritical politicians and journalists, including in Australia. The 2010 leak was a blow to the US security state not because anyone was harmed, but because it threatened public support and compliance for US foreign policy goals.
Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning was subsequently imprisoned and tortured for her role in releasing the files. She has currently been reimprisoned and is facing bankruptcy for refusing to testify in Grand Jury proceedings investigating Assange.
Back in 2010, US and Australian leaders threatened Assange with criminal action, the international community of journalists stood in solidarity with him. This is not to say that there were no detractors but to acknowledge an international groundswell of respect and support for Assange.
“It is unacceptable to try to deny people the right to know,” said Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) that covers 600,000 journalists in scores in more than 140 countries. “These revelations may be embarrassing in their detail, but they also expose corruption and double-dealing in public life that’s worthy of public scrutiny.
“It’s untenable to allege, as some people have, that lives are being put at risk here. The only casualty here is the culture of secrecy that has for too long drawn a curtain around the unsavoury side of public life.”
In accepting a Walkley Award, leading journalist Laurie Oakes said he was ashamed of the Australian government’s hostile response and called on journalists to reject then PM Julia Gillard’s view that the Wikileaks publication was illegal. This was greeted with applause.
In 2012, the UK National Union of Journalists also acknowledged the “important contribution made by Julian Assange himself” and stated that “the type of journalism to which Wikileaks has made a significant contribution represents a real challenge to those governments, wherever they are, which rely on propaganda, torture, warfare and subversion to accomplish their political and economic aims.”.
In 2011, Assange was also awarded the Martha Gellhorn prize for brave reporting. This award is given for reporting that “a human story that penetrates the established version of events and illuminates an urgent issue buried by prevailing fashions of what makes news.”
The winner must tell an ” unpalatable truth, validated by powerful facts, that exposes establishment conduct and its propaganda …”.
Seven years on, we live in more conservative times. There is no denying that support from journalists this year has been muted, but it is worth noting that there are many journalists, filmmakers and other media workers among 200 people who wrote recently to Assange’s union – the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) – calling on it to build its campaign in support of Assange.
The MEAA has written two strong letters seeking to meet with the government and opposing extradition. The union wrote, “the extradition of Assange and prosecution by the United States for what are widely considered to be acts of journalism would set a disturbing global precedent for the suppression of press freedom”.
A petition opposing extradition now has more than 160,000 signatures.
US indictment criminalises journalistic inquiry
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), representing more than 600,000 media professionals in more than 140 countries, recently passed an urgent motion at the request of the MEAA. It wrote in a statement, “… this indictment would criminalise journalistic inquiry by setting a dangerous precedent that can be abused to prosecute journalists for their role in revealing information in the public interest. By following this logic, anyone who publishes information that the US government deems to be classified could be prosecuted for espionage.”
The range of those supporting Assange is impressive. But there are also a few dissenting voices including Peter Greste, himself imprisoned in Egypt on journalistic freedom issues.
Shortly after Assange’s arrest, Greste published a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, arguing that Wikileaks was not a news organisation. He argued that Assange simply “dumped” hundreds of thousands of documents onto his website, free for anybody to go through, regardless of their contents or the impact they might have had.”
Contacted by the author, Greste who is now a spokesperson for the newly formed Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom said that his board was “constantly reviewing the case, at this stage the AJF has not changed its position. We appreciate Julian’s awards and his membership of the MEAA, but for the time being, the AJF is standing by its current thinking.”
Experienced investigative journalist Andrew Fowler, who previously worked at Four Corners and has closely studied Wikileaks, strongly rejected Greste’s views. Respected retired SBS broadcaster Mary Kostakidos is also a strong supporter of Assange.
It is not correct to say that Wikileaks just dumped documents. Here, for example, is the introduction providing context for the publication of the Collateral Murder videos. (As far as I am aware the material providing at wikileaks.org is the same material as was there in 2011.)
Back in 2011, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) published a piece I wrote for World Press Freedom day on its website. It was also published by the Pacific Media Centre and on this blog. After pointing out that Wikileaks described itself as a media organisation, I wrote: “According to its website, the criteria WikiLeaks applies in deciding whether to publish leaks are these: that the information has not previously been revealed; that it was previously restricted, censored or otherwise withheld from the public; and the information is of political, diplomatic, ethical or historical significance.
“WikiLeaks also has a practice of querying issues about the veracity of information …The real issue is the openness of governments and whether they are actively misleading the citizens of their own and other countries. What is at stake are the boundaries of secrecy and whether citizens have a right to know what governments and large corporations are doing.”
Journalists will disagree about where those boundaries. There will be differences between journalists about how far deletions of names in leaked documents should go and whether documents on which stories rely should be published in full. Wikileaks’ focus on publishing documents to enable transparency influenced other news organisation. What is routine today was still unusual in 2010.
It has been acknowledged by the US State Department that no sources were found to have been harmed by the 2010 document publications. In any case, the 2010 documents had already been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. What we can say is that Wikileaks has a very strong record in publishing genuine documents and protecting hits own sources. That is the job of a journalist.
There is no space here to review all the accusations against Wikileaks. The opponents who constantly trivialised the threat from a US grand jury were wrong.
Given the campaign to denigrate his character, the least we can say is that personal allegations against him need to be validated by evidence, and there is much debate about their veracity.
Accusations of sexual misconduct
I will just say this on the matter of sexual assault allegations against Assange. As a feminist, I absolutely support the right of all women to make complaints and not to be abused or denigrated for doing so. There is now only one woman whose matter is an ongoing issue. There is no doubt that her statement raises suspicion that Assange had unprotected sex with her without consent.
But it equally true that Assange has provided evidence in the form of a statement that provides a different account consistent with his innocence. He waited years before being given the opportunity to do that. He has not been charged and deserves to be afforded natural justice – certainly, his guilt should not be asserted. It is no criticism of the woman to argue that the Swedish prosecutors have behaved inconsistently.
There is evidence that they have been pushed by UK authorities. (For those who want to read more about this topic, Professor Melzer published this considered response to some critics of his statements two days ago. He has found that in the Swedish case, “the responsible authorities have deliberately abused Swedish law, procedures and institutions for the purposes of persecuting Assange…”.)
This case cannot currently be resolved.
My support for Assange is not based on an issue of whether he is a good person or whether everything he has ever published was based on sound decision-making. I do not know him. This is about whether journalists who publish information in the public interest are criminals.
It is time to focus on the substance of the US Espionage charges. which place him in grave danger. We must hope that Assange does not spend his next birthday in a US prison. If we fail, other journalists who are not compliant with the goals of governments will be exposed to ever increasing risks.
Here is a link to a video of a speech I gave at a NSW Greens forum on Wikileaks in 2010.
- Wendy Bacon is a Sydney investigative journalist and retired journalism professor. She is on the advisory board of the Pacific Media Centre and is Frontline editor of Pacific Journalism Review. This is an edited version of an article by her published by Altmedia last week. It was also the basis for a speech I gave at a vigil in support of Julian Assange.
- Free Assange now petition