Killing the Messenger

In yet another case of reality being stranger than most writers of fiction would dare to think possible, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to two investigative journalists.  In true Cold War fashion, the prize was split between one journalist from Russia and one from the western orbit, in the neocolonial land of the death squads known as the Philippines.  The prize might be inferred to be a statement about the importance of investigative journalism in countries where journalists are regularly killed by unaccountable, state-funded assassins.

Meanwhile, many of the same media outlets that were informing us about the Nobel ceremony made no mention whatsoever of the fact that a journalist imprisoned in London, England had just become one step closer to being extradited to the US, where he faces a potential 175-year prison sentence.  On the very same day as the Nobel ritual, the judges of the Royal Courts of Justice declared that they trusted the promises of the lawyers from the Biden administration who assured them that Julian Assange would not be tortured in prison.

If the rulers of the western world weren’t still fighting the Cold War — and Cold War 2.0, the War On Terror — then Julian Assange would long ago have received the Nobel Peace Prize for which he was already previously nominated.  And he wouldn’t be in a British prison, facing extradition to the US, either.

This has been said many times by many people far more eloquent, and more famous, than me.  But to find perspective like that these days, you’ll have to look somewhere other than BBC and NPR.  In fact, just to find any coverage at all of this extradition trial, or any of the many outrages surrounding it, such as the CIA plot to extrajudicially assassinate this Australian journalist on the streets of London that was being considered in 2017, you’ll have to look to Al-Jazeera or RT.

When I was in London in October during the latest hearings around US efforts to extradite the founder of Wikileaks, to face trial under the Espionage Act as a hostile foreign intelligence service, the march Julian’s supporters organized, which ended with a rally in front of the Royal Courts, began in front of the headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

If you’re a long-term, regular listener to the BBC, as I am, for better or for worse, then you’ll know that Julian Assange and Wikileaks were once celebrated on BBC’s airwaves, and by many other networks, as ground-breaking high-tech opponents of secrecy and censorship who were exposing scandals and war crimes and bringing down corrupt politicians everywhere.  But that was a long time ago.  For years now, on the rare occasion Julian Assange is mentioned on the BBC, the outrageous details of his persecution are hurriedly avoided or quickly papered over, so that they can have yet another guest from the US State Department on to tell us about what dangerous secrets he exposed, and then find a reason to once again mention the allegations from Sweden which have since been dropped, and never had any relevance to the US’s case against him in the first place.

The case against him does have the interest of much of the world’s press, outside of places like the US and the UK.  And he has the support of a veritable who’s who of politicians, journalists, and other people with principles, who aren’t serving the interests of the neoliberal machine.  And so, while the leadership of both major political parties in the US and the UK regularly condemn him as a high-tech terrorist, which is what Biden called him, Julian’s supporters can be found among the ranks of the authentic opposition, no longer leading their party, in members of the British parliament such as Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Burgon.  While the servants of empire running the BBC choose the stories and the guests interviewed for them, the real defenders of press freedom and journalistic integrity are to be found within the ranks of Julian’s most vocal supporters, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, or former whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg.

It’s one thing to be a consumer of mass media, and to see how coverage of Julian Assange and Wikileaks has changed so dramatically over the years.  But I can also confirm, from at least one small vantage point, just what an impact these changes have had on the public.

When there were still at least performative levels of interest in some sectors of the liberal establishment in the idea of persecuting the Bush administration for war crimes, and Daniel Ellsberg was calling on the new Daniel Ellsberg to please come forward, along came Chelsea Manning, exposing many horrific war crimes committed and covered up by the US military.  In progressive circles, there were only good things to be said about Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and exposing war crimes.

Exposing war crimes under Obama was much less fashionable, though, and publishing State Department cables that exposed the corruption of the Democrats, along with many other governments and ruling parties around the world, seemed to cause Assange’s public support to plummet.  The allegations of sexual impropriety that arose at the same time from Sweden were then permanently available to focus on by the media, a convenient vehicle for avoiding any of the real reasons so many American politicians were openly talking about killing this man, live on TV.

There were many years when if I mentioned Wikileaks or Julian Assange at a show, usually in the context of introducing a song about Chelsea Manning or the Collateral Murder video, there would be spontaneous cheers from various audience members.  Only a few years later and a mention of Julian will frequently result in some guy (always a guy) denouncing him as a rapist, a stooge of Vladimir Putin, a supporter of Donald Trump, or all of the above.  People feel so strongly about one or more of these charges that someone will frequently actually interrupt a song to denounce Assange from the audience, once they realize a song is about him.  At the end of such a song, applause will be tepid.

The media’s Cancel campaign, in effect, worked.  So much of the public seems, by my informal observation, to be incapable of seeing the case against Assange for what it is, as an attack on fundamental principles of investigative journalism.  If they believe the allegations from Sweden are something other than a smear campaign, then they’re rendered unable to defend investigative journalism or whistle-blowing, if Assange is involved.  As with other Cancel campaigns, anything having to do with the individual being canceled is toxic, and any association with the person being Canceled is an implicit endorsement of anything they ever did wrong, or were accused of having done wrong.

While the individual’s personal behavior, in this case, and the charges against him can and should be separated from each other by anyone with a brain, let alone anyone concerned about the freedom of the press, all I’ve seen points to the deepest possible integrity.

The risks taken by Chelsea Manning were as obvious to her as they were to Daniel Ellsberg when he did the same sort of thing decades earlier.  At the time that Julian called me on my phone almost a decade ago, he was thanking me for writing the song I wrote about Chelsea’s heroic efforts, which was being used on a Wikileaks benefit album.  At the time, Chelsea Manning was in prison, and Julian was not.  I agreed with Julian about Chelsea’s heroism, but spent most of our brief conversation praising him for all the fantastic work he has done to expose war crimes and corruption around the world.  I’m sure I made him uncomfortable with my fanboy behavior, but I couldn’t help myself.

At the time we spoke, I imagine Julian was already making plans to seek refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy, as legal machinations surrounding the US’s case against him continued.  In the years since his various forms of imprisonment began, the unmistakable impression I get from his circle of colleagues, supporters, and friends is the best and the brightest are still on his side, Canceled or not.  Along with his more well-known supporters such as the former Labor Party candidate for prime minister, his fiancé, Stella Morris, is one of the most effective organizers I’ve ever met, and the two young children they managed to have together are brilliant and beautiful kids, in spite of the fact that they only can see their father by visiting him in prison.

As is par for the course, some of Assange’s vocal supporters showing up day after day when things are happening at the Royal Courts include vaccine skeptics and lockdown opponents.  It’s not at all surprising that a man who is most well-known for exposing actual conspiracies to cover up actual war crimes would be well-loved by other people who want to expose conspiracies.  Without judging them or the legitimacy of the conspiracies they believe are happening, it is absolutely inevitable that anyone facing the kinds of charges Assange is facing would have such supporters.  If the western press bothered covering this trial or the man on trial these days, they would surely focus on the most bizarre tin hat wearer available.

But as the appeals continue and Julian Assange continues to be held in prison by the British government for the crime of journalism, as other journalists receive the Nobel Peace Prize for doing the same sort of work, Stella Morris and many other people regularly remind us of the case of another journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.  He was reviled by the Saudi royal family for the same kind of investigative journalism for which Rappeler is being awarded and Wikileaks is being condemned.  And he was chopped into pieces in a gruesome assassination carried out at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.

As revealed several months ago by a brilliant investigation by Yahoo News reporters, the CIA had similar plans for dispatching of Julian Assange, also on foreign soil, in England rather than Turkey.  Would the Royal Courts of Justice have extradited Khashoggi, too?

 

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response.  Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort.  Another Portland is possible.