Op-Ed | Why is the media ignoring Julian Assange? | Wasi Ahmed

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Observers feel that the Assange case creates a precedent that threatens freedom of the press in Britain and elsewhere. If Assange is extradited, then any journalist who publishes information that the American authorities deem to be classified, however well-known or harmless it may be, will risk being extradited to face trial in America.

 

Isn’t it surprising that the media today is strangely silent over the extradition proceedings against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange? Lawyers for the US government have sought the extradition of Assange to the US in a London court to face 17 charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 and one charge of computer misuse. The main accusation is that by leaking a trove of classified US diplomatic and military cables in 2010, Assange and WikiLeaks endangered the lives of US agents and informants. Other allegations against Assange put forward by the lawyers for the US government are flimsy. Yet, he is still in real danger of being sent to a maximum-security prison in the US after the court makes its ruling on January 4. Once there, he faces a sentence of up to 175 years, or whatever the length of his imprisonment, he is likely to spend it in solitary confinement.

One of the many peculiarities of this case is that the evidence for any such thing is non-existent. The Pentagon has admitted that it failed to find a single person covertly working for the US who had been killed as a result of the WikiLeaks disclosures. This failure was not for lack of trying. The Pentagon had set up a special military task force, deploying 120 counter-intelligence officers, to find at least one death that could be blamed on Assange and his colleagues but found nothing.

Assange’s opponents were marking the cards as early as February 2008, when the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center set out to “damage or destroy this centre of gravity” that was WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks, from the time Assange and his friends created it in 2006, was attracting sources around the world to entrust them, securely and anonymously, with documents exposing state crimes. The audience for the documents was not a foreign intelligence service, but the public. In the governments’ view, the public needed protection from the knowledge of what they were doing behind closed doors and in the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq. To plug the leaks, the governments had to stop Assange. The Pentagon, the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the State Department soon followed the Counterintelligence Center’s lead by establishing their own anti-Assange task forces and enlisting the aid of Britain, Sweden, and Ecuador.

Observers feel that the Assange case creates a precedent that threatens freedom of the press in Britain and elsewhere. If Assange is extradited, then any journalist who publishes information that the American authorities deem to be classified, however well-known or harmless it may be, will risk being extradited to face trial in America.

There is hardly any arguing the fact that what Assange and WikiLeaks did — obtaining important information about the deeds and misdeeds of the US government and giving that information to the public — is precisely what all journalists ought to do. At its best, it is an extension of typical newspaper journalism. In this context, one may recall Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking the Pentagon papers to the media in 1971.  Ellsberg told the court he had revealed the secret history of the Vietnam War to show the public that the war was continuing though its perpetrators knew it could not be won. Assange had done much the same, this time about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks disclosures were similar in every way.

People all over the world deserve the right to know what their governments are up to in national and international policy decisions, and how fairly or otherwise the state authorities are involved in doing so. In a democracy that keeps drumming up the freedom of speech and transparency of governance, it is incredibly vital that the norms are recognised in all spheres of activities of the government as well as those professionally committed to remaining engaged in these. Journalism is all about disclosing important news to people so they can judge what is happening in the world, and the actions of their governments in particular. The WikiLeaks disclosures in 2010 only differed from other great journalistic scoops in that they were bigger — 251,287 diplomatic cables, more than 400,000 classified army reports from the Iraq War, and 90,000 from the Afghan War.

Surprisingly, many British and American commentators are in a state of denial about Assange’s credentials as a journalist. They argue bizarrely that he is not a journalist, though the Trump administration implicitly accepts that he is one since it is pursuing him for journalistic activities. The motive is openly political, one of the absurdities of the hearing being the pretence that Trump-appointed officials provide a reliable and objective guide to the threat to the US posed by the WikiLeaks revelations.

If the court verdict goes in favour of his extradition, it must be recognised as a sinister attack on free speech — that too involving mighty state powers.

 

 

Wasi Ahmed, a novelist, short story writer, and journalist, lives in Dhaka.

 

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