In the court of public opinion, Julian Assange is a divisive figure. Depending on your perspective, he represents the best, or the worst, of journalism.
In the courts of the United States, the US Department of Justice had initially charged Assange with one criminal charge: helping Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning to hack into a computer to gain access to top secret government files. In charging Assange with only hacking, the US avoided any First Amendment, or free speech, skirmish.
Many journalists supported this saying that Assange wasn’t a true “journalist” if he helped Manning hack into a computer. Their claim, justifiably, was that a journalists job is to report the story. It’s not to help create the story and then report it.
Using a term he calls “scientific journalism” Assange acted as both journalist and publisher with Wikileaks. Where traditional journalism and reporting relies on sources and quoting, the idea behind “scientific journalism” is different. Wikileaks, and its contributors, function as journalists and then link to original documents to support their reporting, eschewing sources and quotes. This isn’t a bonus in reading an article on Wikileaks, it’s a requirement.
Now some were surprised when the US Department of Justice slapped Assange with 17 counts of espionage in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, in addition to the original hacking charge. Others weren’t, considering they originated from a President who has repeatedly called for his enemies, which include journalists, to be “locked up”. Nonetheless, journalists were forced to backpedal, because these new charges were a direct threat threat – not only to Assange, but to journalists and publishers alike.
Most surprising about the charges is that this marks the first time in American history that the government is attempting to prosecute a publisher for publishing truthful information. The story from which these charges stem is not in doubt and has never been denied.
What alarmed journalists after the espionage charges, and forced them to backpedal on their original support of the hacking charge, was that they see themselves as the next logical stop on this prosecutorial train.
But are these espionage charges really meant to extradite Julian Assange and then prosecute him, or are they simply a red herring in order to scare the US corporate, or mainstream, media to back off President Donald Trump?
Wikileaks published many of their articles in conjunction with The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, Le Monde and El Pais. It’s because of this that Assange’s attorneys could easily argue that he published information from a whistleblower, in this case Chelsea Manning. And because this published information embarrassed the Pentagon and US State Department, his extradition would therefore be politically motivated and not criminally motivated.
Well, according to the US-UK extradition treaty from 2003, “extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense.”
There was also a threat of Assange being sent to Sweden to face rape charges, but as of June 6, Assange does not face extradition to Sweden. Even if he had, Sweden has the same extradition rule as the UK and won’t extradite for a political offense.
Now it’s hard to imagine that the US DoJ was not aware of these extradition agreements ahead of time. Regardless of what you may think of the Trump administration, the US DoJ is not full of imbeciles. Which can mean only one of two things things. One – someone at the DoJ made an egregious mistake in overlooking that extradition treaty, or two – it’s a threat to warn corporate, or mainstream, media that this administration will use any means at its disposal to keep some semblance of order.
Which is odd if one considers just how complicit mainstream media have historically been in the last 20 plus years at maintaining the American message. Traditional media have been exceptionally selective in how they tell the stories to the American public on the government’s role internationally. For example, in a speech from March of this year, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said, “Do we really want to fight wars forever? Twenty-seven years in Iraq, 18 years, almost, in Afghanistan and counting, with no definition or strategy or end in sight.”
The 18 years in Afghanistan is irrefutable, but media outlets around the country pounced on the “27 years in Iraq” comment. They chose to define “war” as the inclusion of ground troops. In which case, it’s true, it’s not been 27 years in Iraq. However, if you consider the US/UK air combat occupation, or the “no-fly zone”, that took place from the end of the 1991 Gulf War until March of 2003 (which includes a cruise missile attack on Iraq) then it is indeed 27 years.
And if you don’t think a “no-fly zone” is an act of aggression, or war, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove certainly does. In an article from Stars & Stripes in 2013 he refers to the “no-fly zones” in Syria this way, “It is quite frankly an act of war and it is not a trivial matter.”
In another case, the mainstream media has also been complicit in its aggressive non-reporting of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is the United States’ chief middle eastern ally and was Presidents Trump’s first foreign visit after being elected. Perplexingly, from 2016 to 2018, “liberal” powerhouse MSNBC, owned by media juggernaut Comcast, led a virtual blackout on reporting about that war. It took the senseless slaughter of 40 children in Yemen, from a US made bomb, for MSNBC to finally report about it.
It may also be worth noting that just two weeks prior to that report there was a FAIR Action Alert report that noted that, from July 2017 to July 2018, MSNBC mentioned Stormy Daniels 455 times and Yemen 0. Whether that played a role in MSNBC’s reporting is unprovable.
If the goal of hitting Julian Assange with 17 counts of espionage and the threat of extradition was to intimidate the American media into submission, maybe it’ll work. Although, how much more is US Department of Justice or the Trump Administration looking for?
While it’s obvious the mainstream media are not fans of the current administration, they’re not exactly holding truth to power or serving as the best public advocate. If they were, they’d spend more time and energy reporting on the Trump administration’s de-regulation actions and policies, their conservative judicial appointments and re-shaping of the judicial branch, drone attacks and civilian murders, and less time on the president’s tweets, political and social faux pas, and bad grammar.
The media is no more the enemy of the people than it is the enemy of the government. While it seems to often catch the ire of the current president, its purpose is not to serve as a propaganda machine. Certainly the US media can sometimes walk a fine line with that, but arguably its largest crimes to date against this administration is repeatedly pointing out President Donald Trump’s buffoonish tendencies.
Under the US current legal system, that’s not a criminal offense… yet.
As divisive as Julian Assange is, and likely to remain, he isn’t the issue. The issue is the First Amendment to the US Constitution which states, “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…”
The one consistency that Donald Trump has brought to the geopolitical environment is inconsistency. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a new U.K. Prime Minister could choose to simply ignore the 2003 extradition treaty and extradite Julian Assange to the United States to face prosecution for the 17 violations of the US Espionage Act. At which point, the media in the United States could become subject to the same restrictions, albeit self-imposed (for now), seen in many authoritarian countries.
These are curious times, at best, for journalists and publishers alike. These are potentially quite perilous times, at worst, for everyone.