Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange in 2010 published information provided to him by the then-US Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning that comprised nearly 750,000 classified or unclassified but sensitive military and diplomatic documents. In this story are the wellsprings of an existential threat to the freedom of the press, not just in the United States, but across the planet.
Among those documents was a collateral murder film clip that showed US Apache helicopters killing people in Iraq including two local Reuters news agency employees, exposing a US military cover-up. The military had claimed that the helicopters were responding to an active firefight and that all killed were insurgents. The film clip showed otherwise, that a war crime was committed.
Manning, who later claimed a transgender identity and changed his name to Chelsea, was jailed for 35 years for transmitting the information to Wikileaks, eventually serving seven before having her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama. Julian Assange spent almost eight years cooped up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to escape extradition to Sweden on allegations of rape purportedly committed during a visit in 2010.
In April, the Ecuadorian government rescinded Assange’s asylum, stripped him of his Ecuadorian citizenship and invited the London Metropolitan Police to forcibly remove him from the embassy. Soon after, Assange was found guilty of skipping bail when fighting the Swedish extradition application and was sentenced to 50 weeks imprisonment, where he is now housed in solitary confinement at HM Prison Belmarsh.
On the day of Assange’s arrest in London, the US charged him with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion by allegedly having attempted to crack a password so that Manning could search for more classified information using a different username. Chelsea Manning is also now back in prison for refusing to give evidence before a grand jury against Assange, something that made up part of the charges she was convicted of in 2011.
Over the past few days Assange has been further indicted with 17 more charges under the US's Espionage Act, passed in the midst of war hysteria during WWI, with penalties which could see him spending the rest of his life in a US prison should he be expedited. Swedish prosecutors have also reopened the investigation of Assange for rape and are preparing another request for extradition to Sweden.
Assange has been painted as an arrogant, narcissistic sexual malingerer and a threat to ‘national security’ by politicians, the media and even close associates. He was portrayed as an egotistical, unsociable and un-empathetic person in the film made about him, “The Fifth Estate,” most of which is apparently true.
However, it’s not Julian Assange’s manner, personality, or social behavior that should be of concern here. It’s our future freedoms and right to know that are at stake in a world that is becoming less transparent and more totalitarian.
There are two major issues that are of concern. The first is about how whistle-blowers are treated by governments. The second is what will be the consequences to our rights and freedoms from what is happening to Assange.
The Trump Administration’s use of the Espionage Act is alarming. The Espionage Act is backdoor censorship to keep information about government secret, especially embarrassing information. It seeks to circumvent the US First Amendment which guarantees freedom of the press as a pillar of democratic and transparent government. The government is the one that defines what is seditious, and acting in the public interest is not a defense under the Espionage Act.
The US government has never charged a single journalist with obtaining or publishing classified information in the 100 years since the Espionage Act became law – notably, for instance, during the New York Times publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The use of the Espionage Act thus awakens concerns among journalists and news organizations that the Trump administration is opening a new front against the profession, which the president has branded the enemy of the American people.
Equally worrying, by using the Espionage Act to go after a foreign national – Assange is an Australian – the administration is making US law another weapon in its international arsenal. Assange is not a US citizen and did not commit any offense on US soil. The US assumption of global legal sovereignty has not been resisted by any government. The power of the US to catch whistle-blowers and muzzle the press is gradually increasing.
It’s now most probable that Julian Assange will never be able to walk as a free man anywhere ever again. The Nobel Foundation has been found wanting again for not highlighting the plight of whistle-blowers, preferring to side with the establishment in the awards it has been handing out. So too are the major press houses complacent when the journalistic profession is under major attack by the US government.
The ‘war on terror’ and Russia meddling in the US election are mere diversions from attempts to gain more control over the rights and freedoms of its citizens. Unelected officials and opaque, rather than transparent, government institutions are an affront to representative government and accountability. There is also the direct attack upon the nature of journalism. The word investigative is now dangerous. Persuading a source of information to provide more information has been defined as a crime now. The message is out there, investigate what the government doesn’t want people to know, and the same will happen to that journalist that is happening to Julian Assange now.
National security is the new mode of censorship and journalists no matter where they are can be subject to indictment. The press is becoming more restricted now than it was a couple of generations ago.
While liberals are concerned about same-sex marriage and the greens about climate change, the greatest threat to the rights and freedom of people is left alone, allowing governments the freedom to continue to encroach on these freedoms.
The Assange experiment with Wikileaks has been of great personal cost to him. However, the episode playing out now will result in a wider loss of the freedom of speech and the right to know. Journalism could slip into the dark ages where pure investigative reporting may give way to placid reporting of public events. This is a victory for the unaccountable elements of government that are willing to circumspect the Constitution, break laws, kill and prosecute those who may divulge the truth to the public.