Campaigning journos are failing Assange



The attack on Julian Assange has reached a sinister new phase, with a judge in a British court greenlighting American efforts to extradite the WikiLeaks founder. Assange has been detained since May, ostensibly for breaching his bail conditions. He's been held in the maximum security Belmarsh Prison under circumstances that the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer recently described as constituting torture, an assessment reinforced by Assange's reported frailty in the courtroom.

Supporters of Julian Assange gather to show their solidarity ahead of his appearance by video-link at a hearing in his ongoing extradition case in June 2019. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)Suffice to say, the persecution of Assange bears no relationship to the minor infraction used to justify his initial detention. Neither does it relate to Wikileaks' alleged publication of material pertaining to the US election — or, indeed, to Assange's conduct in recent years.

The American extradition effort pertains to a charge of conspiring to hack computers, levelled against Assange for allegedly working with Chelsea Manning to access and copy files from a defense department network in 2010. It also rests on subsequent charges of violating the Espionage Act by publishing material relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the Wikileaks site, including video of a US army helicopter attack that killed (among others) two journalists, evidence of widespread torture, and documentation of previously unknown civilian deaths.

Assange's latest court appearance coincided with the launch of the Right to Know campaign, backed by the major press organisations in Australia as well as the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. It was spurred by two recent AFP raids, the first targeting Telegraph journalist Annika Smethurst and the second directed at the ABC. But it goes much further than that.

As the Sydney Morning Herald explained, 'the campaign ... is pushing for stronger protections for media freedom after years of perceived deterioration ... to combat a growing culture of secrecy that restricts journalists' ability to hold the powerful to account'. These are necessary — even crucial — goals for a campaign that deserves wide support. Yet, the Assange case highlights major problems in the Australian media's attitude to secrecy and disclosure. Assange belongs to the MEAA.

To its immense credit, the union has consistently defended him, with, for instance, its leaders declaring the charges against him 'a real threat to press freedom for journalists and media outlets across the world' and urging the Foreign Minister to oppose them. But many prominent Australian journalists have not.

Most notoriously, immediately after Assange's arrest, the journalist and media academic Peter Greste — writing in his capacity as 'founding director and spokesman for the Alliance for Journalists' Freedom', of all things — contributed a piece to the Sydney Morning Herald insisting that 'Julian Assange is not a journalist, and WikiLeaks is not a news organisation ... he cannot ... hide behind arguments in support of press freedom.'


"If we want to win public support, we can't be seen to campaign merely for our own self interest. Those of us who work in the media need to show that we're opposed to the attacks on everyone's freedom, not just on restrictions that affect us directly."


A similar assessment presumably explains the absence of any reference to Assange on the Right to Know website, despite his imminent peril, the reluctance of the Australian government to provide any assistance to him, and the profound implications of his extradition for Australia and for the rest of the world. For, while the campaign does urge greater protections for whistleblowers, its key demands pertain to the rights of journalists, with a call for 'exemptions for journalists from laws that would put them in jail for doing their jobs' and for 'the right to contest the application for warrants for journalists and media organisations'.

One might argue that Assange has more basis on which to be classified as a journalist than many people whose bylines appear regularly in the media. Back in 2011, Wikileaks, with Assange as editor, won a Walkley for its 'outstanding contribution to journalism' — merely one of huge number of journalism prizes awarded to Assange.

As the Walkley Foundation subsequently explained, 'when he released the original Wikileaks material in 2010 Assange was assisting a whistleblower to reveal information in the public interest'. Selections from that material appeared simultaneously in the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde and Der Spiegel — and the journalists who used it could, in theory, face the same charges confronting Assange. In any case, arguments about who does or does not qualify as a journalist constitute a huge diversion.

The RTK campaign correctly highlights the need to defend a Daily Telegraph journalist targeted by the AFP. You can do that without assessing the ethics of the Telegraph, the worst newspaper in all of Australia. Opposition to repression should be unconditional — it should not depend on your moral approval of the particular victim under threat. Nor, for that matter, should it depend on their professional status.

No-one elects journalists. We neither stand for office nor put a platform before voters. There's nothing innately democratic about working for a media organisation. The idea that, just because Rupert Murdoch offers you a job, you become more worthy of protection than anyone else is, quite frankly, bizarre, particularly in a context in which the traditional journalistic models have broken down more or less completely.

The days in which information came mostly from a few huge newspapers are over. All kinds of media platforms now proliferate, some of them relying on professional reporters and some of them not. In particular, the rise of social media means that most ordinary people now regularly write about the issues that concern them. Shouldn't they be protected too?

Yes, some journalists care deeply about the public, about democratic values and the common good, and use their professional training accordingly. But so do lots of people who aren't employed in the media. As Tim Dunlop wrote on Twitter about the Right to Know campaign: '[I]t's ... easy to think of this exclusively as issue of *media* freedom. It isn't. It affects everyone's right to participate, and the campaign would be strengthened if it recognised that more fully. Including whistleblowers is good, but it's not enough.'

After all, the crackdown on freedoms in Australia did not begin with attacks on journalists. The draconian provisions of the national security laws were initially honed for use against Muslims, while the isolation of refugees in cruel detention facilities helped establish a pattern of secrecy and abuse.

'Scott Morrison says no one should be seeking a "leave pass" to be above the law, but that is exactly what has happened with the rise of the national security state. Politicians and officials, whether by accident or design, have constructed a "trust us" apparatus. But the enemy is not journalism per se. The enemy they've constructed is any scrutiny at all — not only do they want to keep our eyes off their actions and inactions, they ultimately don't want you to know what they are doing.'

That's an editorial in the Australian in support of RTN. Fine words, and all of them true. But nowhere does the editorialist acknowledge that, for decades now, the Australian — and for that matter the Daily Telegraph — has thrown its support behind the construction of that apparatus, an edifice built not only with the backing of both major parties but with genuine enthusiasm from the rightwing media.

Better late than never, you might say. But the problem isn't simply grotesque hypocrisy. It's that a campaign built on such a basis will struggle to galvanise much support.

By and large, the Australian public doesn't think particularly highly of the media. The widespread hostility to the political class extends to journalists, whom most people see as privileged insiders aloof from the rest of the population. Most people don't see the Daily Telegraph as an institution on their side. Why should they care about the legal travails of one of its employees?

That's why, if we want to win public support, we can't be seen to campaign merely for our own self interest. Those of us who work in the media need to show that we're opposed to the attacks on everyone's freedom, not just on restrictions that affect us directly.


"A successful defence of Assange's rights will show that it's possible to win and that the powerful don't always get their way. It will demonstrate the viability of solidarity, helping to establish networks upon which other campaigns can rely."


The argument relates to another — and more important — point, which is simply that, while we should defend a Right to Know, knowledge, in and of itself, means very little. Too often, when journalists discuss freedom of the press, they do so in terms that suggest that the mere exposure of criminality or wrongdoing will suffice to bring change. It won't.

Wikileaks itself provides a good example. The War Logs and other documents provided irrefutable evidence of criminality in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet almost none of the senior military leaders implicated in torture, murder and other war crimes have been arrested, punished or otherwise inconvenienced. On the contrary, most of them have been promoted and rewarded.

Or think about the career of Donald Trump. Trump's incompetence, buffoonery and misogyny could not be more public. He blurts out his thoughts not only in press conferences but on his private Twitter account, leaving a trail of scandals in his wake. We know all that we need to know about Trump. Does anyone actually think further information would make any difference?

In Australia, it's the same. The real frustration about working in the media is that nothing sticks, that scandals come and go, and those in authority remain entirely unscathed. The problem isn't knowledge but power, a lack of agency to transform information into political change. The hollowing-out of the traditional institutions of the public sphere — unions, political parties, religious groups etc. — renders the people largely unable to exert their will and that, in turn, generates a sullen apathy, an indifference to most political scandals.

That doesn't mean that knowledge doesn't matter, nor that we shouldn't keep fighting for transparency. But it does mean that a successful campaign must be broadened and linked to genuine political change.

Again, the Assange case provides an illustration. If Assange disappears into the US prison system, where he's facing an astonishing 175 years in jail, his fate will serve, as the Americans know full well, as warning to those who might challenge the might of the imperium. It will have a chilling effect not just on journalists and whistleblowers but on anyone contemplating resistance to Washington and its designs. It will say to them: stand in our way and we will crush you like a bug.

On the other hand, precisely because the fight to save Assange involves standing up against the American government, its allies in Australia and their rightwing cheerleaders, a successful defence of his rights will also have implications. It will show that it's possible to win and that the powerful don't always get their way. It will demonstrate the viability of solidarity, helping to establish networks upon which other campaigns can rely.

Courage, as Assange used to say, is contagious. Unfortunately, so, too, is cowardice.

We need to defend the Right to Know, standing with those in Australia being threatened by the AFP. But we need to save Assange — and journalists should say so.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: Supporters of Julian Assange gather to show their solidarity ahead of his appearance by video-link at a hearing in his ongoing extradition case in June 2019. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, press freedom



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Existing comments

Excellent writing, thanks Jeff Sparrow and ES. It saps the credibility of the Right to Know campaign that they are silent on Assange’s cruel persecution by the US/UK Imperium. Greste’s equivocal stance is despicable. Fortunately Russia and China stand up for their sovereignty and do not allow themselves to be ‘crushed like a bug.’. My new book ‘Russia and the West - two action-packed years 2017-19’ , on sale now, reviews the international situation, and also makes public my troubling experience of exclusion of unwelcome writers and ideas and even news from the Australian public space. A covert velvet-glove disinformation action operates to sustain a false narrative on world affairs, and to silence the voice of those who oppose this narrative. Clusters of influence feed calumnies into the mainstream media space. See . for more information on my book and interstate launch events. I hope to see Jeff Sparrow at the Melbourne event on 25 November? We fight in the same struggle for truth .
Tony Kevin | 25 October 2019

Well said Jeff,I support you Tony. The defense of Julian Assange or rather lack of it is not only an embarrassment to the mainstream media it is a damming indictment of our so called democracy. The war crimes committed by US Troops that he exposed were too much for the top brass in Washington. No doubt they continue today, but now hidden from view. Even our own special forces are no longer 'clean skins'. I was in National Service and serving in Vietnam when the Me Lai Massacre was revealed by the U.S. Media. Did anyone really pay for that? The Western Powers were determined to make the Nazi leadership pay for the Holocaust crimes - why not apply the same criteria today?
Gavin | 25 October 2019

The media's refusal to engage with Julian Assange's case is a useful barometer of how many journalists and writers understand our system beyond the neoliberal social sphere we're encouraged to swim in relentlessly and expend all our political energy there. I feel a growing horror at the lack of understanding of what we're dealing with here, of how stupendously in the pocket of the Washington regime we are. There are 11 federal mps who have publicly called for the Morrison government to grow some. They are: Andrew Wilkie, independent. Adam Bandt, Greens. Richard Di Natale, Greens. Peter Whish-Wilson, Greens. Steve Georganas, ALP. Julian Hill, ALP. Zali Steggall, independent. George Christensen, Nationals. Barnaby Joyce, Nationals Rex Patrick, Centre Alliance. Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance. The best account I've read of Monday's hearing is from former British ambassador, Craig Murray. You can find it here:
Sue Stevenson | 25 October 2019

Terrific piece on Julian Assange. Congratulations. It nailed the lies told by UK/US and Oz enemies of press speech. However, not all "campaigning journos are failing Assange". This one isn't. See my Weekly Notebook of 16 October at: Alex Mitchell
Alex Mitchell | 26 October 2019

Jeff your article on journalistic freedom brings to mind a piece from Nikita Gill. "Remember what you must do when they undervalue you, when they think your softness is your weakness, when they treat your kindness like it is their advantage. You awaken every dragon, every wolf, every monster that sleeps inside of you and you remind them what hell looks like when it wears the skin of a gentle human." - Nikita Gill Of course Morrison is continually telling us he likes quiet Australians, not loudmouth whistle blowers, and he doesnt seem to have the balls to intervene on Julian's behalf.
francis Armstrong | 26 October 2019

Well said. The absence of support for Assange in the mainstream media is worrying, and at odds with their current campaign.
Denis Fitzgerald | 26 October 2019

There is no stretch of our imagination that calls our numpties who run papers ''journalism'', they are all right wing liberal party nutters who pander only to racists, bigots and other losers to get clicks. We need freedom from them which is why vast numbers of us read Information Clearing house articles, haunt Counterpunch and other indie sites and ignore our own pay walled rubbish. They don't care about Assange, their jealousy of his astounding body of published works annoys the hell out of them.
Marilyn | 27 October 2019


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