Why Julian Assange Matters for the Freedom of the Press

There is no one issue that unites those of us on the left so firmly with the right as the topic of freedom of the press. And the case of Julian Assange, Wikileaks co-founder, encapsulates perfectly this dilemma that seems to have many drinking the Kool-Aid of Russiagate which seems to have an endless season renewal. Like so many current events, the case of Julian Assange divides many within political camps as the feminists are shouting “believe the women” and those analyzing the meta-narrative in all its intricacies see no crime has been committed by Assange whom they view as being demonized for bringing to light the crimes of the U.S. government. Worse, mainstream media is acting as the mouthpiece for the government efforts to shut down Wikileaks, or as Craig Murray writes, that the collaboration of the Guardian, New York Times and Washington Post in the hunt for Assange “is clear evidence that the idea of the “liberal media” no longer exists in the new plutocratic age. The press are not on the side of the people, they are an instrument of elite control.”

Yet, the media continues its onslaught of information through inundation. And, of course, sharing anything on social media by RT will land you with comments like, “He works for the Russians.” For those confused about what to do or think related to the Assange affair, here are some items we need to put on our ethical to-do list. First, read articles from a wide array of political spectrums. Don’t take my word for it that this is a stitch-up. Basic human rights have been denied Julian Assange that even Isis fighters under interrogation have from the barring of Julian Assange’s lawyer, Per Samuelson, when questioned at the Ecuadorian Embassy by the Swedish prosecutor in 2016 to the evidence that suggests that the so-called “accusations” made against Assange for sexual assault and rape seem to be highly contested. Reading the history of this case and there is a yo-yo effect from the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office in 2010, regarding the veracity of the allegations where Eva Finne, the chief prosecutor, states that the rape accusation was without merit to when Swedish Director of Prosecution, Marianne Nye, later re-opened the case issuing an international arrest warrant for Assange when he offered to answer questions at the Swedish Embassy in London.

Reading news reports of this initial stage of the investigation, however, and the major media tells a different story to include the elision of basic facts such as the two “accusers” stating in text messages to each other that the police started the accusations, that the “police made up the charges”, and that “the police were keen on getting their hands on him.” It is even hard to call these two women “accusers” since even this part of the story is entirely muddled by what seems to be an usurpation of basic legal protocol as both women, known as AA and SW, went to the police to see if Assange could be obliged to get a test for STIs since they had unprotected sex with him.

As many gleefully scream on social media “Got him!”, these individuals are oblivious to the dangers of Assange’s arrest. And most of the Americans in favor of Assange’s capture are perfectly molded sycophants—in true cookie-cutter fashion—of the Obama administration. You know, the kinds of liberals who saw Obama as a leftist (he wasn’t) and believed the lie that Obama perpetuated about Assange: that publishing classified documents on Wikileaks amounted to espionage. Of course, this was during an administration where a record number of reporters’ sources were imprisoned. Still, the Obama administration, while critical of Assange, weighed on the side of the First Amendment as it realized that charging Assange with a crime would call up the central issue of freedom of the press. As Paul Waldman writes in The Washington Post, “That’s because, whatever you think of WikiLeaks, if we criminalize receiving classified information, some of the most important works of journalism in American history would be transformed into crimes, and every reporter who works on national security would be a potential criminal.”

So, if you notice among the crimes Assange was charged with yesterday, both the previous espionage and 2016 hacking claims are nowhere to be found. Why? This goes back to the Obama administration’s reason for not pursuing this line of attack: where does the freedom of the press end and a journalist instructing an informant how to hack information to later hand over to him. This seems to be the crux of the issue at heart. Even former federal prosecutor, Renato Mariotti, has weighed in on this, stating that despite the impetus on the UK government to extradite Assange, the federal government must “prove a criminal conspiracy between Manning and Assange, and Manning does not appear to be cooperative.” Even Robert Mueller’s indictment of Russian intelligence officers for crimes related to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta where batches of the hacked emails were released by Wikileaks excluded Assange for this very reason. Did Assange conspire in the hacking? This is the question that needs to be answered.

Given that Mueller hasn’t pressed for this investigation to be re-opened ought to be a clue as to how much evidence is lacking to make such a link. From Guccifer 2.0 to the Russian military intelligence to the 2016 presidential election, Mueller’s probe has not confirmed that Assange is key to unlocking this enigma. As for the sexual assault probe in Sweden, it was long ago dropped with chief prosecutor Marianne Ny officially revoking Assange’s arrest warrant. Given his arrest yesterday, however, the investigation may possibly be reopened given that the statute of limitation does not expire until August 2020.

As for those banging on about Assange’s guilt, I can only recommend to revisit the basic civics lessons that most of us had in high school. In the United States, not only is due process sort of part of the deal when assessing someone’s guilt, but the history of the world is replete with false allegations made to frame journalists and whistleblowers. Using accusations of rape to ensnare or entrap innocent men is hardly new—from the use of the rape myth as a political tool during the antebellum and postbellum American South used to keep black men under control, false accusations of rape are astonishingly effective in reframing who is oppressed by whom. Even sex has long been a tool of intelligence agencies with the Israeli government catching Mordechai Vanunu through a “honey trap” operation and the recent revelation of British spying operations using  GCHQ’s SIGINT (signal-intelligence) program which monitors diplomats’ hotel bookings.

The recent EU Copyright Directive is part of the greater assault on independent journalism which views digital media as a huge threat to the monolithic powers of government and major media. As both state and media agencies are buttressing each other in order to tighten their hegemonic grip on information and democratic expression, it is time for people to check their knee-jerk reactions of glee in reaction to Assange’s arrest. Instead, we should seriously reflect upon how supporting his arrest only feeds to legitimate yet another chapter of state-sponsored censorship.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com. Read other articles by Julian.