If ‘journalism’ meant what it is supposed to mean– acting as the proverbial ‘fourth estate’ to challenge power and to keep the public informed – then Julian Assange and WikiLeaks would be universally lauded as paragons. So would Chelsea Manning, the brave former US Army whistleblower who passed on to WikiLeaks more than 700,000 confidential US State Department and Pentagon documents, videos and diplomatic cables about the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most infamous example was ‘Collateral Murder’, a video clip filmed from a US helicopter gunship, showing the indiscriminate killing of a dozen or more Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists, in 2007. Shockwaves reverberated around the world, to the deep embarrassment of the US government and military. Today, Manning is incarcerated in a Virginia jail, and Assange is locked up in the high-security HM Prison Belmarsh.
In 2013, Manning was given a 35-year prison sentence for daring to reveal brutal US abuses of power. This was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2017, two days before he left office, and Manning was able to go free. However, last month she was called to testify against WikiLeaks before a secret grand jury in Virginia. Recognising that this had clearly been set as a trap to incriminate both her and Assange, she refused to answer questions:
‘I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to, particularly one that has been used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech.’
And now Assange, after almost seven years of political asylum in cramped quarters in Ecuador’s embassy in London, and in fading health, has been literally dragged out of what should have been a safe refuge, contrary to international law, and placed at the mercy of UK and US power.
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Sean Love, a medical doctor who examined Assange while he was in the embassy, was clear that the WikiLeaks co-founder had suffered badly while in asylum, and would carry that suffering with him for the rest of his life:
‘Assange does not leave behind the physical and psychological sequelae of his confinement at the embassy. The harms follow him; they are irreparable. The inhumanity of his treatment and the flagrant denials of his universal rights by Ecuador and the UK are unconscionable.’
He also countered the scurrilous propaganda that Assange had behaved badly while in the embassy:
‘Never did I witness Assange having poor hygiene or discourteous behavior toward embassy staff. His suffering was readily apparent, yet he was always pleasant, professional; admirable characteristics under extreme and punitive circumstances.’
Fidel Narvaez, former consul at the Ecuador embassy from the first day Assange arrived, on 19 June 2012, until 15 July 2018, said that the claims smearing Assange’s behaviour in the embassy were ‘absolutely false, or distorted, or exaggerated’. Narvaez added that:
‘whenever I was in the room with Julian, there was always an attitude of respect, of mutal respect, always, from all the diplomatic and administrative staff towards Julian and from Julian towards them… I challenge any member of the embassy staff to cite an occasion when Julian ever – ever! – treated them with a lack of respect.’
Narvaez says the atmosphere may well have changed after he left when, he believes, Moreno’s regime tried to make life ‘unbearable’ for Assange in the embassy.
Prime Minister Theresa May boasted of Assange’s arrest to Parliament:
‘This goes to show that in the United Kingdom, no one is above the law.’
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt opined:
‘Julian Assange is no hero’.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin on Thursday celebrated Assange’s arrest, arguing that it’s ‘great for the American people’:
‘We’re going to extradite him. It will be really good to get him back on United States soil. So now he’s our property and we can get the facts and truth from him.’
But Rafael Correa, the former president of Ecuador who had granted Assange asylum in 2012, was scathing about the man who had succeeded him in 2017:
‘The greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history, Lenin Moreno, allowed the British police to enter our embassy in London to arrest Assange. Moreno is a corrupt man, but what he has done is a crime that humanity will never forget.’
Journalist John Pilger had strong words:
‘The action of the British police in literally dragging Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy and the smashing of international law by the Ecuadorean regime in permitting this barbarity are crimes against the most basic natural justice. This is a warning to all journalists.’
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Former CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden warned:
‘Assange’s critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom.’
In an interview on Democracy Now!, Noam Chomsky called Assange’s arrest ‘scandalous in several respects’ and expanded:
‘One of them is just the effort of governments—and it’s not just the U.S. government. The British are cooperating. Ecuador, of course, is now cooperating. Sweden, before, had cooperated. The efforts to silence a journalist who was producing materials that people in power didn’t want the rascal multitude to know about […] that’s basically what happened. WikiLeaks was producing things that people ought to know about those in power. People in power don’t like that, so therefore we have to silence it. OK? This is the kind of thing, the kind of scandal, that takes place, unfortunately, over and over.’
‘The other scandal is just the extraterritorial reach of the United States, which is shocking. I mean, why should the United States—why should any—no other state could possibly do it. But why should the United States have the power to control what others are doing elsewhere in the world? I mean, it’s an outlandish situation. It goes on all the time. We never even notice it. At least there’s no comment on it.’
Assault On Press Freedom
Initial news reports had stated that Assange had been arrested merely on alleged breach of bail conditions. A terse update from the London Metropolitan police confirmed the real agenda: namely that the US is seeking his extradition. WikiLeaks expanded:
‘Assange has been arrested in relation to a US extradition request for “conspiracy with Chelsea Manning” for publishing Iraq War Logs, Cablegate, Afghan War Logs, precisely the persecution for which he was granted asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention in 2012.’
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald and co-author Micah Lee warned that the US government’s indictment of Julian Assange ‘poses grave threats to press freedom’. They explain:
‘The U.S. government has been determined to indict Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since at least 2010, when the group published hundreds of thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables revealing numerous war crimes and other acts of corruption by the U.S., the U.K., and other governments around the world. To achieve that goal, the Obama DOJ [Department of Justice] empaneled a grand jury in 2011 and conducted a sweeping investigation into WikiLeaks, Assange, and Manning.
‘But in 2013, the Obama DOJ concluded that it could not prosecute Assange in connection with the publication of those documents because there was no way to distinguish what WikiLeaks did from what the New York Times, The Guardian, and numerous media outlets around the world routinely do: namely, work with sources to publish classified documents.’
However, the new indictment under Trump attempts to dissociate Assange and WikiLeaks from journalism. Greenwald and Lee observed that:
‘The indictment tries to cast itself as charging Assange not with journalistic activities but with criminal hacking. But it is a thinly disguised pretext for prosecuting Assange for publishing the U.S. government’s secret documents while pretending to make it about something else.’
For those scoffing in the corporate media and elsewhere that Assange is ‘not a journalist’, Greenwald has a pertinent observation:
‘When you see professional media figures decreeing “Julian Assange is not a journalist,” compare how much corruption & criminality by the world’s most powerful factions they’ve exposed in their work to how much Assange has exposed. That contrast will tell you all you need to know.’
Historian and foreign policy analyst Mark Curtis commented succinctly of the BBC’s continuing love affair with war criminal Tony Blair:
‘Committing crimes overseas gets you to the BBC; revealing them gets you to Belmarsh.’
Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War, told The Real News Network:
‘It’s a very serious assault on the First Amendment. A clear attempt to rescind the freedom of the press, essentially. […] This is the first indictment of a journalist and editor or publisher, Julian Assange. And if it’s successful it will not be the last. This is clearly a part of President Trump’s war on the press, what he calls the enemy of the state. And if he succeeds in putting Julian Assange in prison, where I think he’ll be for life, if he goes there at all, probably the first charge against him is only a few years. But that’s probably just the first of many.’
Chris Hedges, formerly a reporter with the New York Times, gave an ominous warning:
‘The arrest [on April 11] of Julian Assange eviscerates all pretense of the rule of law and the rights of a free press. The illegalities, embraced by the Ecuadorian, British and U.S. governments, in the seizure of Assange are ominous. They presage a world where the internal workings, abuses, corruption, lies and crimes, especially war crimes, carried out by corporate states and the global ruling elite will be masked from the public. They presage a world where those with the courage and integrity to expose the misuse of power will be hunted down, tortured, subjected to sham trials and given lifetime prison terms in solitary confinement. They presage an Orwellian dystopia where news is replaced with propaganda, trivia and entertainment. The arrest of Assange, I fear, marks the official beginning of the corporate totalitarianism that will define our lives.’
Former UK ambassador Craig Murray made a telling point:
‘If a Russian opposition politician were dragged out by armed police, and within three hours had been convicted on a political charge by a patently biased judge with no jury, with a lengthy jail sentence to follow, can you imagine the Western media reaction to that kind of kangaroo court? Yet that is exactly what just happened in London.’
Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook observed:
‘For seven years, from the moment Julian Assange first sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, they have been telling us we were wrong, that we were paranoid conspiracy theorists. We were told there was no real threat of Assange’s extradition to the United States, that it was all in our fevered imaginations.’
They were wrong. As Assange relayed to the public via his lawyer last week:
‘I told you so.’
‘This was never about Sweden or bail violations, or even about the discredited Russiagate narrative, as anyone who was paying the vaguest attention should have been able to work out. It was about the US Deep State doing everything in its power to crush Wikileaks and make an example of its founder.’
‘Still the media and political class is turning a blind eye. Where is the outrage at the lies we have been served up for these past seven years? Where is the contrition at having been gulled for so long? Where is the fury at the most basic press freedom – the right to publish – being trashed to silence Assange? Where is the willingness finally to speak up in Assange’s defence?
‘It’s not there. There will be no indignation at the BBC, or the Guardian, or CNN. Just curious, impassive – even gently mocking – reporting of Assange’s fate.’
We take a look at both BBC News and the Guardian later in this alert.
Ecuador Bends To Washington’s Will
Why did Ecuador rescind Assange’s political asylum? According to Fidel Narvaez, the former Ecuador consul to London, whom we quoted earlier:
‘[President Lenin] Moreno is using the Assange crisis as a smokescreen to cover up a major corruption scandal that both he and his family are involved in. He claimed that, as a credible pretext to extradite Assange, the government is selling the idea that Assange has hacked President Moreno’s phone, despite Assange’s lack of internet access and with no evidence to substantiate the allegations, and no verification of the claims carried out.’
The anonymous publication of the so-called ‘INA Papers’, implicating Moreno in corruption involving illicit payments to an offshore company, has been cynically exploited by Ecuador as a pretext to expel Assange from the embassy. As journalist Elizabeth Vos observed:
‘WikiLeaks had reported about the scandal allegedly involving Moreno and his family with INA Investments Corp, though WikiLeaks has not published any documents related to the case.’
Another salient factor is that, following his electoral victory in 2017, Moreno, who had once been Correa’s vice-president, turned his back on his campaign promises. This is far from unusual in politics, of course. But this was a spectacular turnaround. As independent journalist Joe Emersberger commented:
‘within three months of taking office, it was obvious that Moreno had been an impostor. He quickly devoted himself to stuffing the pockets and restoring the political dominance of the elites who hated Correa. Moreno has just signed a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which will further entrench his elite-friendly policies.’
‘Imagine Jeremy Corbyn, the day after he takes office in the UK, announcing that the Conservative Party manifesto is what he had really supported all his life. That would approximate what Moreno pulled off in Ecuador.’
In short, Moreno is keen to bend over backwards to please Washington. Last December, the New York Times reported that:
‘President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador and his aides sought to rid themselves of Mr. Assange in exchange for concessions like debt relief from the United States.’
Ecuador received $4.2 billion in a US-backed International Monetary Fund bailout on February 4. We are supposed to regard this as mere coincidence.
As recently as December 2018, UN human rights experts had repeated their call for Assange to be allowed to walk free. They noted that he feared arrest by British authorities if he left, followed by extradition to the US. The UK, said the UN experts, should abide by its international obligations and free the WikiLeaks founder. The UK government rejected the call. On Assange’s arrest, independent UN human rights experts warned again of the risk of ‘serious human rights violations’ to him. Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, tweeted that in ‘expelling Assange from the Embassy’ and allowing his arrest, Ecuador had placed him ‘one step closer to extradition’. She added that the UK had arbitrarily detained him, ‘possibly endangering his life’.
BBC And Guardian Fake News
The BBC was guilty of false framing throughout its coverage of Assange’s arrest on April 11. In particular, when Huw Edwards read from the BBC News at Ten script that night:
‘[Assange] took refuge originally to avoid extradition to Sweden over charges of sexual assault; charges that have since been dropped.’
There never were ‘charges’, as anyone familiar with the facts would be aware. A BBC News website article was later quietly updated, without any apology that we have seen, after we had challenged Nick Sutton, the editor of the website. As the Defend WikiLeaks website points out:
‘It is false and defamatory to suggest that Julian Assange is, or has ever been, charged with an offence by the United Kingdom or Sweden.’
‘It is false and defamatory to suggest that Julian Assange applied for political asylum over “sex allegations” or “extradition to Sweden” or to “avoid questioning”.’
It is a ‘key myth’, says the Defend WikiLeaks website:
‘Despite numerous false media reports, Julian’s concern was never to avoid extradition to Sweden, but to avoid extradition to the United States – where he would be imprisoned, and, as Ecuador noted in granting asylum, could even face the death penalty [our emphasis]. Julian would have accepted extradition to Sweden had the UK provided an assurance against onward extradition to the US.’
Defend WikiLeaks adds:
‘Despite false media reporting, Julian has also always been willing to present himself to the British police over the bail issue from 2012, again provided that the UK authorities give assurances that he would not be extradited to the US.
‘Neither the UK nor Swedish governments have ever provided such assurances against extradition.’
Such vital information was glaring by its absence from ‘mainstream’ reporting; not least in BBC News coverage.
The night of Assange’s arrest, BBC Newsnight presenter Katie Razzell began in standard ‘impartial’ manner in describing his status:
‘Out of his hiding place and under arrest.’
‘Hiding place’ is BBC newspeak for ‘political asylum’. The implication was that Julian Assange had hidden in an attempt to evade justice. This was fake news, repeated on the airwaves and across the BBC website.
One of the most notorious examples of Assange-related fake news was the front-page accusation in the Guardian last November that Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaigns manager, had met Assange in the embassy three times. No shred of evidence has ever been produced for this claim, which WikiLeaks and Manafort have both vehemently denied, and the story has been widely regarded as fake from virtually the hour of its publication. Luke Harding, the lead journalist on the story, and his editors Paul Johnson and Katharine Viner, have never apologised or retracted the story; nor have they responded to the many challenges about it. As we have previously noted, the Guardian has a disreputable record in publishing nasty, abusive and derogatory pieces about Assange.
A Guardian editorial on the eve of Assange’s expulsion at least stated that Assange should not be extradited to the US:
‘[He] has shone a light on things that should never have been hidden.’
However, John Pilger was scathing of the paper he called ‘Assange’s principal media tormentor [and] a collaborator with the secret state’, noting that its editorial had ‘scaled new weasel heights’. He continued:
‘The Guardian has exploited the work of Assange and WikiLeaks in what its previous editor called “the greatest scoop of the last 30 years.” The paper creamed off WikiLeaks’ revelations and claimed the accolades and riches that came with them.
‘With not a penny going to Julian Assange or to WikiLeaks, a hyped Guardian book led to a lucrative Hollywood movie. The book’s authors, Luke Harding and David Leigh, turned on their source, abused him and disclosed the secret password Assange had given the paper in confidence, which was designed to protect a digital file containing leaked US embassy cables.’
The editorial misled its readers on why Assange had sought refuge:
‘When he first entered the Ecuadorian embassy he was trying to avoid extradition to Sweden over allegations of rape and molestation. That was wrong.’
As we saw above, this is a grotesque twisting of the facts. Indeed, the Guardian editorial was steeped in sophistry:
‘the Assange case is a morally tangled web. He believes in publishing things that should not always be published – this has long been a difficult divide between the Guardian and him.’
Pilger demolished the Guardian’s obfuscation:
‘These “things” are the truth about the homicidal way America conducts its colonial wars, the lies of the British Foreign Office in its denial of rights to vulnerable people, such as the Chagos Islanders, the exposé of Hillary Clinton as a backer and beneficiary of jihadism in the Middle East, the detailed description of American ambassadors of how the governments in Syria and Venezuela might be overthrown, and much more. It is all available on the WikiLeaks site.’
On April 14, the Guardian website even ran an ‘exclusive’ that was essentially a disgraceful series of dishonest excuses by Ecuador president Lenin Moreno for kicking Julian Assange out of the London embassy. As Jonathan Cook rightly noted via Twitter:
‘Notice how the Guardian is now the go-to place for vassal state politicians – Ecuador’s Moreno, Venezuela’s Guaido – to convey propaganda on behalf of the US national security state. And the Guardian has the gall to call such stenography an “exclusive”‘
In an interview with Afshin Rattansi on RT’s Going Underground, Pilger pointed out that Assange and WikiLeaks had angered Washington by exposing US crimes and deceptions to the global public:
‘what we are in the midst of is the world’s greatest superpower struggling to maintain its dominance. Its information dominance, its technological dominance, its cultural dominance. And WikiLeaks has presented an extreme hurdle to this.’
‘We’ve handed a whole world of abandonment of basic democracy, which is based on dissent, on challenging, on holding power to account, on revelation, on the embarrassment of power. Not trivial embarrassment, the embarrassment of odd celebrity, but real embarrassment. And WikiLeaks provided that public service of journalism.’
In Part 2, we will examine corporate media coverage and Twitter responses from ‘mainstream’ commentators.
DC & DE
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