Washington DC — (Scheerpost) —The persecution of Julian Assange, along with the climate of fear, wholesale government surveillance and use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers, has emasculated investigative journalism. The press has not only failed to mount a sustained campaign to support Julian, whose extradition appears imminent but no longer attempts to shine a light into the inner workings of power. This failure is not only inexcusable but ominous.
The U.S. government, especially the military and agencies such as the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and Homeland Security, have no intention of stopping with Julian, who faces 170 years in prison if found guilty of violating 17 counts of the Espionage Act. They are cementing into place mechanisms of draconian state censorship, some features of which were exposed by Matt Taibbi in the Twitter Files, to construct a dystopian corporate totalitarianism.
The U.S. and the U.K. brazenly violated a series of judicial norms and diplomatic protocols to keep Julian trapped for seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy after he had been granted political asylum by Ecuador. The CIA, through the Spanish security firm UC Global, made recordings of Julian’s meetings with his attorneys, which alone should invalidate the extradition case. Julian has been held for more than four years in the notorious Belmarsh high-security prison since the British Metropolitan Police dragged him out of the embassy on April 11, 2019. The embassy is supposed to be the sovereign territory of Ecuador. Julian has not been sentenced in this case for a crime. He is charged under the Espionage Act, although he is not a U.S. citizen and WikiLeaks is not a U.S.-based publication. The U.K. courts, which have engaged in what can only be described as a show trial, appear ready to turn him over to the U.S. once his final appeal, as we expect, is rejected. This could happen in a matter of days or weeks.
On Wednesday night at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Stella Assange, an attorney who is married to Julian; Matt Kennard, co-founder and chief investigator of Declassified UK, and I examined the collapse of the press, especially with regard to Julian’s case. You can watch our discussion here.
“I feel like I’m living in 1984,” Matt said. “This is a journalist who revealed more crimes of the world’s superpower than anyone in history. He’s sitting in a maximum-security prison in London. The state that wants to bring him over to that country to put him in prison for the rest of his life is on record as spying on his privileged conversations with his lawyers. They’re on record plotting to assassinate him. Any of those things, if you told someone from a different time ‘Yeah this is what happened and he was sent anyway and not only that, but the media didn’t cover it at all.’ It’s really scary. If they can do that to Assange, if civil society can drop the ball and the media can drop the ball, they can do that to any of us.”
When Julian and WikiLeaks released the secret diplomatic cables and Iraq War logs, which exposed numerous U.S. war crimes, including torture and the murder of civilians, corruption, diplomatic scandals, lies and spying by the U.S. government, the commercial media had no choice but to report the information. Julian and WikiLeaks shamed them into doing their job. But, even as they worked with Julian, organizations such as The New York Times and The Guardian were determined to destroy him. He threatened their journalistic model and exposed their accommodation with the centers of power.
“They hated him,” Matt said of the mainstream media reporters and editors. “They went to war with him immediately after those releases. I was working for The Financial Times in Washington in late 2010 when those releases happened. The reaction of the office at The Financial Times was one of the major reasons I got disillusioned with the mainstream media.”
Julian went from being a journalistic colleague to a pariah as soon as the information he provided to these news organizations was published. He endured, in the words of Nils Melzer, at the time the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, “a relentless and unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation.” These attacks included “collective ridicule, insults and humiliation, to open instigation of violence and even repeated calls for his assassination.”
Julian was branded a hacker, although all the information he published was leaked to him by others. He was smeared as a sexual predator and a Russian spy, called a narcissist and accused of being unhygienic and slovenly. The ceaseless character assassination, amplified by a hostile media, saw him abandoned by many who had regarded him a hero.
“Once he had been dehumanized through isolation, ridicule and shame, just like the witches we used to burn at the stake, it was easy to deprive him of his most fundamental rights without provoking public outrage worldwide,” Melzer concluded.
The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais and Der Spiegel, all of which published WikiLeaks documents provided by Julian, published a joint open letter on Nov. 28, 2022 calling on the U.S. government “to end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets.”
But the demonization of Julian, which these publications helped to foster, had already been accomplished.
“It was pretty much an immediate shift,” Stella recalled. “While the media partners knew that Julian still had explosive material that still had to be released, they were partners. As soon as they had what they thought they wanted from him, they turned around and attacked him. You have to put yourself in the moment where the press was in 2010 when these stories broke. They were struggling for a financial model to survive. They hadn’t really adapted to the age of the internet. You had Julian coming in with a completely new model of journalism.”
There followed a WikiLeaks-isation of U.S. media outlets such as The New York Times, which adopted the innovations pioneered by WikiLeaks, including providing secure channels for whistleblowers to leak documents.
“Julian was a superstar,” Stella said. “He came from outside the ‘old boys’ network. He talked about how these revelations should lead to reform and how the Collateral Murder video reveals that this is a war crime.”
Julian was outraged when he saw the heavy redactions of the information he exposed in newspapers such as The Guardian. He criticized these publications for self-censoring to placate their advertisers and the powerful.
He exposed these news organizations, as Stella said, “for their own hypocrisy, for their own poor journalism.”
“I find it very ironic that you have all this talk of misinformation, that’s just cover for censorship,” Stella said. “There are all these new organizations that are subsidized to find misinformation. It’s just a means to control the narrative. If this whole disinformation age really took truth seriously, then all of these disinformation organizations would hold WikiLeaks up as the example, right? Julian’s model of journalism was what he called scientific journalism. It should be verifiable. You can write up an analysis of a news item, but you have to show what you’re basing it on. The cables are the perfect example of this. You write up an analysis of something that happened and you reference the cables and whatever else you’re basing your news story on.”
“This was a completely new model of journalism,” she continued. “It is one [that] journalists who understood themselves as gatekeepers hated. They didn’t like the WikiLeaks model. WikiLeaks was completely reader-funded. Its readers were global and responding enthusiastically. That’s why PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and Bank of America started the banking blockade in December 2010. This has become a standardized model of censorship to demonetize, to cut channels off from their readership and their supporters. The very first time this was done was in 2010 against WikiLeaks within two or three days of the U.S. State Department cables being published.”
While Visa cut off WikiLeaks, Stella noted, it continued to process donations to the Ku Klux Klan.
Julian’s “message was journalism can lead to reform, it can lead to justice, it can help victims, it can be used in court and it has been used in court in the European Court of Human Rights, even at the U.K. Supreme Court in the Chagos case here,” she said. “It has been used as evidence. This is a completely new approach to journalism. WikiLeaks is bigger than journalism because it’s authentic, official documents. It’s putting internal history into the public record at the disposal of the public and victims of state-sponsored crime. For the first time we were able to use these documents to seek justice, for example, in the case of the German citizen, Khalid El-Masri, who was abducted and tortured by the CIA. He was able to use WikiLeaks cables at the European Court of Human Rights when he sued Macedonia for the rendition. It was a completely new approach. It brought journalism to its maximum potential.”
The claims of objectivity and neutrality propagated by the mainstream media are a mechanism to prevent journalism from being used to challenge injustices or reform corrupt institutions.
“It’s completely alien, the idea that you might use journalism as a tool to better the world and inform people of what’s happening,” Matt said. “For them it’s a career. It’s a status symbol. I never had a crisis of conscience because I never wanted to be a journalist if I couldn’t do that.”
“For people who come out of university or journalism school, where do you go?” he asked. “People get mortgages. They have kids. They want to have a normal life…You enter the system. You slowly get all your rough edges shorn off. You become part of the uniformity of thought. I saw it explicitly at The Financial Times.”
“It’s a very insidious system,” Matt went on. “Journalists can say to themselves ‘I can write what I like,’ but obviously they can’t. I think it’s quite interesting starting Declassified with Mark Curtis in the sense that journalists don’t know how to react to us. We have a complete blackout in the mainstream media.”
“There has been something really sinister that has happened in the last twenty years, particularly at The Guardian,” he said. “The Guardian is just state-affiliated media. The early WikiLeaks releases in 2010 were done with The Guardian. I remember 2010 when those releases were happening with The Guardian and The New York Times. I’d read the same cables being covered in The Guardian and The New York Times and I’d always thought ‘Wow, we’re lucky to have The Guardian because The New York Times were taking a much more pro-U.S. pro-government position.’ That’s now flipped. I’d much prefer to read The New York Times covering this stuff. And I’m not saying it’s perfect. Neither of them were perfect, but there was a difference. I think what’s happened is clever state repression.”
The D-notice committee, he explained, is composed of journalists and state security officials in the U.K. who meet every six months. They discuss what journalists can and can’t publish. The committee sends out regular advisories.
The Guardian ignored advisories not to publish the revelations of illegal mass surveillance released by Edward Snowden. Finally, under intense pressure, including threats by the government to shut the paper down, The Guardian agreed to permit two Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) officials to oversee the destruction of the hard drives and memory devices that contained material provided by Snowden. The GCHQ officials on July 20, 2013 filmed three Guardian editors as they destroyed laptops with angle grinders and drills. The deputy editor of The Guardian, Paul Johnson — who was in the basement during the destruction of the laptops — was appointed to the D-notice committee. He served at the D-notice committee for four years. In his last committee meeting Johnson was thanked for “re-establishing links” between the committee and The Guardian. The paper’s adversarial reporting, by then, had been neutralized.
“The state realized after the war in Iraq that they needed to clamp down on the freedom in the British media,” Matt said. “The Daily Mirror under Piers Morgan…I don’t know if anyone remembers back in 2003, and I know he is a controversial character and he’s hated by a lot of people, including me, but he was editor at The Daily Mirror. It was a rare opening of what a mainstream tabloid newspaper can do if it’s doing proper journalism against the war, an illegal war. He had headlines made out of oil company logos. He did Bush and Blair with blood all over their hands, amazing stuff, every day for months. He had John Pilger on the front page, stuff you would never see now. There was a major street movement against the war. The state thought ‘Shit, this is not good, we’ve gotta clamp down.’”
This triggered the government campaign to neuter the press.
“I wouldn’t say we have a functioning media in terms of the newspapers,” he said.
“This is not just about Assange,” Matt continued. “This is about all of our futures, the future for our kids and our grandkids. The things we hold dear, democracy, freedom of speech, free press, they’re very, very fragile, much more fragile than we realize. That’s been exposed by Assange. If they get Assange, the levies will break. It’s not like they’re going to stop. That’s not how power works. They don’t pick off one person and say we’re going to hold off now. They’ll use those tools to go after anyone who wants to expose them.”
“If you’re working in an environment in London where there’s a journalist imprisoned for exposing war crimes, maybe not consciously but somewhere you [know you] shouldn’t do that,” Matt said. “You shouldn’t question power. You shouldn’t question people who are committing crimes secretly because you don’t know what’s going to happen…The U.K. government is trying to introduce laws which make it explicit that you can’t publish [their crimes]. They want to formalize what they’ve done to Assange and make it a crime to reveal war crimes and other things. When you have laws and a societal-wide psyche that you cannot question power, when they tell you what is in your interest, that’s fascism.”
Feature photo | Illustration by Mr. Fish
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.