Free Julian Assange! Stand Up for Press Freedom!

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The arrest by British Metropolitan Police of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, dragged unceremonially out of the Ecuadoran Embassy in London on a charge of failure to appear for a court hearing on an expired (and trumped-up) accusation in Sweden of sexual assault, is a grave and terrible threat to independent journalism and to the US Constitution’s First Amendment promise of freedom of the press.

Make no mistake. This arrest, made at the UK government’s insistence, for “failure to appear” in court for a no longer required hearing on an expired Swedish extradition request to “question him” about a bogus charge of sexual assault, is all a gigantic fraud.

At the same time as the arrest was made, and that the Ecuadorian government shamelessly invited UK police into their Embassy to arrest and remove Assange, London Police revealed what has long been known by Assange and his attorneys: that behind it all is the US government, which has for nine years had a secret sealed indictment waiting, an indictment charging Assange with a conspiracy with Army veteran Chelsea Manning to steal and disseminate classified US military documents related to conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A US warrant requesting Assange’s extradition from the UK to the US was also reportedly issued in 2017.

As Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept, who worked with Assange and Wikileaks in reporting on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to help Snowden escape US arrest and win asylum in Russia, tweeted early this morning, “If you’re cheering Assange’s arrest based on a US extradition request, your allies in your celebration are the most extremist elements of the Trump administration, whose primary and explicit goal is to criminalize reporting on classified docs & punish (Wikileaks) for exposing war crimes.

Indeed, the specific documents that Assange and Manning released (the latter, released in 2016 from a 32-year military court-martial sentence for disclosing classified military and diplomatic documents after having her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama, but currently in prison again for refusing to testify to a Grand Jury investigating Assange and Wikileaks), exposed grave war crimes by US forces in those two wars.

Since Assange seven years ago accepted an asylum offer from Ecuador and its then president Rafael Correa to avoid being extradited by to the US, jumping bail and escaping into the safety of the Ecuadorian Embassy, a shameless campaign by the US government and a complicit mainstream US and UK media to denigrate him, portray him as a sex offender, and deny that he is a journalism, has been underway.

As well, during his seven years holed up in the tiny Ecuadorian Embassy, which is actually just one floor of an apartment building in a swanky part of London, the US brought intense pressure, including economic threats, against Ecuador trying to get the little Latin American nation to revoke the asylum offer granted to Assange by Correa. Following Assange’s arrest and disclosure by London Police of the US extradition request, Correa said of the decision by his successor to revoke that grant of asylum:  “The greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history, Lenin Moreno, allowed the British police to enter our embassy in London to arrest Assange. Moreno is a corrupt man, but what he has done is a crime that humanity will never forget.”

Investigative journalists around the globe, if they are honest, understand that Assange is a journalist in the best sense of the profession, and that Wikileaks is a publisher, an organization set up by Assange in the first place as a safe location for whistleblowers to leak information about corporate and government crimes. The organization’s leaks have led to many major stories published by major news organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the UK Guardian newspaper and various broadcast news organizations — often, as in the case of the Times, the Post and the Guardian, the very organizations that have participated in vilifying Assange while making oodles of money on publishing stories based upon information obtained from his Wikileaks publication.

The danger for all of us in this profession who rely on whistleblowers to do our jobs and who often publish information deemed classified or secret by the government — myself included — is that if the US and UK governments are allowed to convince a court that Wikileaks is not a journalistic organization and that Assange is not a journalist, it will begin a process of narrowing the definition of journalism that will ultimately erase real journalism in those countries.

Just as an example, I founded the online news site ThisCantBeHappening! back in 2010, teaming up with several other journalists to operate it as a collectively run, non-hierarchical news organization. It’s easy to imaging that a court these days in the US could decide that because we have no formal editors but simply publish our own articles as we write them, and that because we are not on any payroll, that we are simply a bunch of bloggers, not real journalists, and that therefore we are not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment?

On my site, I exposed several US embassy and consular workers in Pakistan as CIA operatives — in one case as the CIA station chief. This is technically a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, a serious felony.  I did these stories based not upon stolen information or whistleblowers, but based upon old articles that my research turned up in a Brazilian magazine in one case and from and several Pakistani and Indian news organizations in the other, but I have no idea how those several publications obtained their information. Perhaps it was secret information obtained from police whistleblowers in those two countries. I felt confident in ignoring the US law because the information was in the public domain already in Pakistan and Brazil, but one publication I initially sought to publish my articles in nonetheless declined to publish them for fear they and I could end up facing prosecution under the act. I ended up publishing them on our site both times (and also in Counterpunch, which had no problem running them). My colleagues at ThisCantBeHappening! all volunteered to add their names to one article’s byline to share the risk of prosecution with me.

If Assange and Wikileaks were to be declared non-journalists and non-news organizations, could the next step be to declare independent online news outfits like ours nothing but collections of bloggers and strip them of their First Amendment protection?

As Rolling Stone investigative journalist Matt Taibi said, following Assange’s arrest, “All of us in the press should read the charges made against Assange very carefully, as this case has enormous potential ramifications for journalists everywhere.” 

He’s right.

The pressure needs to be brought on the UK right now, demanding that the government and the courts in Britain drop the bail-jumping charge against Assange, which was mooted anyhow when the Swedish request for Assange to be extradited there to answer questions from prosecutors expired. (Though the mass media keep incorrectly reporting that he was charged with rape and sexual assault, Assange was in truth never formally charged with either crime and the women who made complaints against him later withdrew them saying they had been pressured into making them by prosecutors linked to Swedish intelligence in what appears to have been a secret effort to get Assange later deported from Sweden to the US.)

The British government, under Prime Minister Theresa May, notoriously subservient to the interests of the US government particular on military, foreign affairs and national security issues, must also be pressed to resist the US government’s extradition request. The Trump administration and all too many members of the US Congress—Republican and Democrat—may be ready to  trample on the First Amendment where Assange is concerned, particularly as he is also being vilified for disclosing the embarrassing emails of the Democratic National Committee and of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. But Britain should not be party to that shabby and dangerous erosion of press freedom here in the US.

These are dangerous times for democratic freedoms in the US and around the globe. We hear all the time about a creeping fascism in America, and the long pursuit by the US government, under both President Obama and President Trump, aided and abetted by both members of Congress and by the US corporate media, is contributing to that trend.

Predictably, scumbag politicians in Congress on both sides of the aisle, all representing the two wings of the US War Party, are reflexively calling now for Assange’s hasty extradition to face the tender mercies of US “justice” —  the same “justice” that saw Chelsea Manning forced to spend a year in pre-trial detention, much of it in solitary confinement and much of that time forced to remain naked in her cold cell, and that featured a judge who would not allow her to claim in her defense that she was acting under the US Military Code of Justice and the Geneva Convention Rules of War that require a soldier to expose war crimes, not cover them up or ignore them.

Within hours of Assange’s arrest, national security state apologists like Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, were accusing Assange of jeopardizing US National Security “again and again” through release of secret US documents, and through support of “Russian efforts to undermine the West” and of a “conspiracy to undermine American security.”  Meanwhile Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, called Assange “an agent of the Russian intelligence agencies,” as did Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC ) the committee chair, who went further to claim Assange “engaged in a conspiracy to steal classified information, putting millions of lives at risk all over the world.”  Although so far only charged with one count of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified US government computer,” a crime that carries a maximum 5-year sentence — less than the time Assange has been trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy,  Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) tweeted today that he should serve “the rest of his life” in prison.

This kind of jingoistic crap, spouted by far too many American politicians who are supposed to be sworn to “uphold and defend the Constitution,” is powerful evidence of how seriously freedom and especially a free press are under threat and actual assault in the US by our government.

Release Julian Assange! No extradition to the US!

To help defend Assange, please go here or here.

CounterPunch contributor DAVE LINDORFF is a producer along with MARK MITTEN on a forthcoming feature-length documentary film on the life of Ted Hall and his wife of 51 years, Joan Hall. A Participant Film, “A Compassionate Spy” is directed by STEVE JAMES and will be released in theaters this coming summer. Lindorff has finished a book on Ted Hall titled “A Spy for No Country,” to be published this Fall by Prometheus Press.