The US government’s indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange marked the worst attack on press freedom in modern history. Assange has been charged with 18 counts, including 17 violations of the Espionage Act. James Goodale, former general counsel of The New York Times, who urged the paper to publish the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon administration noted, “If the government succeeds with the trial against Assange, if any, that will mean that it’s criminalized the news gathering process.”
On June 12, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid signed the extradition papers. Assange’s hearing is now set to begin next February. He is currently being held in London’s Belmarsh high security prison for what amounts to a politically motivated, 50-week sentence given by a judge for violating bail conditions in 2012 while attempting to obtain political asylum in Ecuador against the threat of extradition to the US.
Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture visited Assange with two medical experts and assessed that Assange has been subjected to prolonged psychological torture by the US government and its allies for nearly a decade, and warned about his serious physical deterioration. While this multi-award winning journalist who published truthful information in the public interest about the US government, is in jail, the British government (that has been a key player in this political persecution) recently held a Global Conference for Media Freedom.
Despite its stated mission of protecting the safety and rights of journalists, the conference failed to address the degrading and inhumane treatment of Assange and the US government’s prosecution of the publisher that could set a dangerous precedent for press freedom. This total hypocrisy was best shown by the fact that this gathering was hosted by UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt who, last month, told US TV that he would happily extradite Assange to Trump’s America where former CIA officer John Kiriakou indicated that he would receive no fair trial and face life imprisonment.
The true face of Western liberal democracy
Why has Assange become a target of these Western governments’ coordinated attack? Over 10 million documents that WikiLeaks released with a pristine record of accuracy revealed the corruption of these governments, including US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is apparent that Assange is being punished for revealing these governments’ inconvenient truth. But more significantly, he has been condemned because WikiLeaks’ publication exposed the true face of Western liberal democracy, informing the public about how the structure of power really works.
What is Western liberal democracy? It is a particular style of governance that was developed in the US and exported around the world. Political theorist Sheldon S. Wolin (2008) described it as “modern managed democracy” and attributed its creation to the framers of the Constitution. Wolin described how the Founding Fathers made a system that favored elite rule and that “the American political system was not born a democracy, but born with a bias against democracy” (p. 228).
The framers of the constitution wanted to have power over people. As a testimony to this, the original draft of the constitution did not have a Bill of Rights. They were added to the constitution as amendments. This didn’t come about without a struggle. The proponents of the Bill of Rights demanded them in order to safeguard individual liberty and challenged those who seek to preserve levers of control.
Even after the constitution was ratified with a Bill of Rights, the existence of this unaccounted power was never truly addressed. The wording of the First Amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Here, the First Amendment was aimed to restrict the governmental power. It was specifically addressing what Congress can’t do. However, the constitution didn’t ensure that corporations would not be able to circumvent laws and restrict freedom of speech.
This lack of oversight made the system of governance vulnerable to corruption, as was observed by Thomas Jefferson, when he warned American people about a time when the American system of government would degenerate into a form of “elective despotism”.
New mechanism of accountability
The managed democracy relies on secrecy and deception to control the will of the populace. With the infiltration of commercial interests and the consolidation of media, the big business class has found a way to regulate free speech on their terms. The establishment of corporate media turned journalists’ First Amendment protection into a privilege that they can use against the public.
Journalists, who have now become a new class of professionals, no longer share interests with ordinary people. They serve the agendas of the powerful state in maintaining an illusion of democracy, by restricting the flow of information and controlling narratives. For instance, The New York Times has publicly acknowledged that it sends some of its stories to the US government for approval from “national security officials” before publication.
With the merger of the state and corporations, the power of private companies to influence governments and erode civil liberty has increased. Transnational corporations can now revoke and restrict basic rights at any time, crossing the judicial boundaries on the borderless cyberspace. Tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter censor free speech online and, without warrant, spy and invade the privacy of users.
Assange recognized the anti-democratic forces that existed at the very founding of the United States and the establishment of the constitutional republic. He also understood that within the existing political system there is no mechanism for ordinary people to check on this unaccounted power. Civil right activist Audre Lorde once wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Assange through his work with WikiLeaks provided vital tools that make it possible for everyday people to counter corporate media’s weapon of mass deception and dismantle the master’s house.
At the core of WikiLeaks is scientific journalism. By publishing full archives in a searchable format, the whistleblowing site gave ordinary people a mechanism to independently check the claim of journalists and to hold them, with their unelected powers accountable. This way, the whistleblowing site enabled a true function of free press and opened a door for democracy.
Call for real democracy
With the Trump administration’s prosecution of Assange and imprisonment of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, we are now seeing a deepening crisis of enlightenment values. In Chinese, the word for crisis signifies danger and opportunity. This attack on free press poses great threat to democracy, but at the same time, perhaps it also presents an opportunity that has never been available before.
The truths that Assange and Manning have brought forward with enormous courage have pierced the façade of democracy. They sacrificed their personal liberty in order to give us a chance to create a society that is truly aligned with our values.
Manning has now been confined for more than four months after being found in contempt by a federal judge for refusing to testify before a grand jury, and is subject to punitive fines. Assange being locked up in the notorious UK prison previously referred to as “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay” has been made defenseless. He is not allowed to use a computer and has limited access to his lawyers, making him unable to adequately prepare for his legal defense.
In a message sent out from a high security prison, where he is being held in solitary confinement, Assange asked everyone to take his place. Democracy requires ordinary’ people’s participation in power. In order for us to alter this oppressive system, change ought to be made first within ourselves. Each of us needs to start exercising our right to free speech, assemble and associate with one another and organize a society, governed not by the elite few, but through networked conscience of common people.
Even after Assange’s imprisonment, character assassination and smearing designed to deceive the public continues with the latest CNN hit piece twisting embassy surveillance records against him. Assange remains silenced. He is suffering for all of us, urging us to find strength within to seize this opportunity to take back the power that belongs to us. Let us fight for his freedom. Let us complete the great work of justice and democracy he started with WikiLeaks. His plight of curtailed freedom is a call for a real democracy. We all must now take his place and claim our own significance. We must become Julian Assange, for his struggle is ours. We are all Julian Assange.