Press wake in fright to Assange prosecution

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'Never before has the life of the WikiLeaks founder been so crucially in the hands of public opinion and the hands of one of the few powers whose mission is to reign [sic] in the worst instincts of our governments: the press.' — Stefania Maurizi, La Repubblica, Nov 26, 2018

The fourth estate has awoken in fright, with beads of sweat developing on writers, editors and subeditors. With the evidence of a cobbled prosecution case against Julian Assange irrefutable, the at times previously mute press has become concerned. To get at Assange, goes this fear, is not to punish a narcissist keen to make etches in history; it is, by its very spirit, to attack the entire vocation, cause, and role of journalism proper.

Julian Assange at the Embassy of Ecuador in May 2017 (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)There was a time when enthusiasm, notably from progressive causes, was warm for Assange. He won plaudits, such as the Amnesty International New Media Award in 2009. WikiLeaks was being cheered for exposing corruption and crime; forensic journalism was in vogue. But partnerships with established media outfits collapsed. Arrangements with the New York Times and Guardian soured. Questions were asked, and unconvincingly answered, that Assange had become a bedfellow of the Kremlin.

He became an ideal alibi for the Democrats sore at losing in 2016 to the Trump campaign, despite the possibility that the Democratic Party emails published by WikiLeaks might have stemmed from a party insider. In October, Assange, in an address via videolink to an International Bar Association conference in Sydney, suggested that 'the press is, in general, a toxic instrument'.

Matt Taibbi, writing for Rolling Stone, makes the vital point that a prosecution against Assange 'could give the Trump presidency broad new powers to put Trump's media "enemies" in jail, instead of just yanking a credential or two'. Despite being different in motive to other journalists, the principle remained: members of the press publish material that is often stolen, hacked or illegally obtained. 'A case that defined such behaviour as a criminal conspiracy would be devastating.'

US lawyer and civil liberties advocate Ben Wizner is similarly apocalyptic of an Assange prosecution. Such a process 'would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to the criminal investigations of other news organisations.' A reciprocal degrading of rights and liberties would take place: pursuing a foreign publisher for violating US secrecy provisions would also encourage prosecutions of US journalists 'who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public's interest'.

Edward Snowden has himself compressed the issue neatly in a tweet made this month. 'You can despise WikiLeaks and everything it stands for. You can think Assange an evil spirit reanimated by Putin himself, but you cannot support the prosecution of a publisher for publishing without narrowing the basic rights every newspaper relies upon.'

Interestingly enough, two other countries with links to Assange have shown less than lukewarm interest. The British press persists in being tepid ('Campaigner or attention seeker?' queried a BBC headline in July) and even hostile to suggestions that Assange remains arbitrarily detained; the Australian media remain indifferent, excepting such outlets as Sky News and Crikey.

 

"The point is not to like Assange or marshal hagiographies ... Few public interest tests could matter more."

 

The Australian government effort, Labor or LNP, has not been much better. Australia's current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is indifferent to Assange's plight, preferring the raw lewdness of degrading his supporter and advocate of some years, the former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson.

The exact details of the prosecution against Assange, the fact of which was accidentally revealed in an unrelated case in Virginia dealing with child endangerment, is also being kept under wraps in an effort to keep a veil on the process.

While it is unlikely to be related to the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III's investigation into the Russian connection in the 2016 US election, it is bound to involve such big ticket items as the exposure of CIA hacking tools in the #Vault7 release. To date, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed a motion in the Eastern District of Virginia to unseal the US government's criminal charges against Assange.

Prosecutors have not been impressed. The public, goes the main argument, have no right to know whether Assange has been actually charged, let alone the nature of the charges. 'Any contrary rule,' argues prosecutor Gordon Kromberg, 'would completely undermine the proper functioning of the criminal process at this stage: anyone could petition the court to require the government to confirm whether the time was right to flee or evade arrest.'

This is fanciful given Assange's limited mobility, ever at the mercy of the diplomatic to-and-fro of Ecuador, the United Kingdom and, it would have to be said, the United States. The point is not to like Assange or marshal hagiographies; this is not a battle on the popularity stakes or a matter of personality. For Walter Lippmann, writing in 1919, there could 'be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies'. Few public interest tests could matter more. 'Hate him or not,' Taibbi reminds us, 'the potential legal consequences are the same.'

 

 

Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

 

 

Main image: Julian Assange at the Embassy of Ecuador in May 2017 (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Julian Assange, Wikileaks

 

 

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Existing comments

Agreed Dr Binoy, yet for Trump's administration he's a very convenient scapegoat which will allow Trump to boast about what he is doing for US national security. And to take the heat off accusations levelled against Trump himself after revoking former CIA director Brennan's security clearance. Brennan accused Trump of committing treason by blindly accepting Putin's denials of electoral interference in 2016 and effectively aiding their enemies and lieing to the US electorate. That's the way Trump rolls so Assange's trial on charges of inter alia revealing US state secrets, could be a very welcome diversion for the current administration.
Frank Armstrong | 28 November 2018


Thanks for article. Any coverage of this case is welcome. Assange has always denied that he has any connections with Russia; and he has said he has no wish to seek refuge in Russia. Similarly, the Russian Govt has denied any previous contact with him - though it has indicated through spokesperson that any request for asylum he might make would be sympathetically considered. It is therefore a bit unclear what you mean by your sentence: ‘Questions were asked, and unconvincingly answered, that Assange had become a bedfellow of the Kremlin.’ Could you elaborate further on your intended meaning here? I do not see any evidence that Assange has become ‘a bedfellow of the Kremlin’. I can see why his enemies might want to claim falsely that he has, as part of their efforts to besmirch his reputation and turn liberal public opinion against him.
Tony Kevin | 29 November 2018


It's always interesting to note the background of those who support Assange's mission for "free speech". It's a pity journalists are not taught the vital importance of security, of safeguarding cooperation among allies for peace and defence. Julian Assange's actions are immature, attention-seeking and deserve incarceration much crueller than the luxury of being protected in an embassy.
Marjorie Edwards | 29 November 2018


Whatever happens to Julian Assange, the Russians must be laughing. The Russia-Trump dossier containing a lot of phoney salacious smears against Trump was sourced from Russian intelligence by former British spy, Christopher Steele, who helped compile the dossier. It turns out that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee paid for that dossier. James Comey’s FBI then used the phoney dossier to convince a judge to grant them a FISA warrant so they could spy on the Trump campaign. CIA director John Brennan said that the dossier formed the basis of the Muller investigation into possible Trump-Russia collusion. It was the Obama-appointed, pro-Soviet, Brennan who, at the height of the Cold War, voted for the American Communist Party’s presidential candidate. Last year, the Democratic House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff was fooled by a Russian prankster who claimed Putin had nude photos of Trump and Russian model Olga Buzova. Russian disinformation dates back to the brilliant Willi Munzenberg: “Munzenberg even had managed, quite on his own, to place an operative inside the Vatican. Trotsky understood that here was a young radical Lenin could use.” (“Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals”, by Stephen Koch)
Ross Howard | 29 November 2018


It took me a while to work out what Dr Kampmark was on about. It wasn't until I established that he had once been a Senate candidate for the Wikileaks Party that his article began to make sense.
Dr Michael FURTADO | 01 December 2018


A clarification: Russian disinformation clearly pre-dates Willi Munzenberg. For example, the Tsarist secret police, Okhrana, are believed to have authored the anti-Semitic fabrication, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. This fabrication is still widely circulated in the Middle East today. Munzenberg is regarded as the founder of the modern Front Organization (“Innocents Clubs” he called them). He set up hundreds of Front Organizations to suck in the gullible (“Innocents”) to help disseminate, and give credence to, his propaganda and disinformation.
Ross Howard | 03 December 2018


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