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Public Enemy Journalist Number One

Alison Broinowski

It’s been a long time since the Democratic National Committee (DNC) brought suit against Julian Assange for publishing its leaked emails in 2016. But on 29 July, a Federal Court in New York dismissed the case. The ruling upheld his status as a journalist and publisher and dismissed claims that WikiLeaks’ publication in 2016 of leaked Democratic emails was illegal. The New York Times and Washington Post buried this highly significant story (Oscar Grenfell, ‘Media silent on dismissal of DNC suit against Julian Assange'). It didn’t appear in the Australian media at all.

Journalism, as George Orwell recognised, is printing what someone in power doesn’t want published. That’s what most journalists used to do. Even if their words are no longer printed on a page, a few still do. Many now do not. Yet some in the media behave as if nothing in journalism has changed.

Hillary Clinton was an early enthusiast for internet freedom, which she declared would provide people with access to knowledge, and create ‘opportunities where none exist’. In 2016, WikiLeaks offered online access to Clinton’s emails and to the internal communications of the DNC, which led to the failure of her campaign. Internet freedom suddenly became less equal for some. Clinton hated Julian Assange, who had provided voters with opportunities and access to knowledge where none existed, just as she said. That made him ‘a traitor’. Candidate Trump loved WikiLeaks, but under President Trump, 18 charges of espionage were issued against Assange.

‘Now anyone can be a journalist’, the Guardian enthused in 2008 when Alan Rusbridger, its Editor in Chief, determined to embrace new technology, encouraged ‘citizen journalism’ (iReport: Now anyone can be a journalist | Technology | The Guardian). His views still resonated a year ago with college journalists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who were happy that ‘regardless of the outlet, the rise of technology in our society has allowed for voices of regular people to be heard by millions of people within seconds’. By then the Guardian and its American cousins had fallen out with their largest source of citizen journalism, ‘as most people eventually do with Assange’, Rusbridger recalled. But they understood the global consequences for their profession of using the US Espionage Act of 1917 to charge a foreign journalist anywhere, and warned against it.

If such concerns were aired at a Global Conference for Media Freedom in London on 10-11 July, they were not reported. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne was present, but she didn’t explain and wasn’t asked why she wasn’t a speaker and Australia wasn’t a sponsor, or why Australia has dropped from 19th to 21st in the world index of press freedom, and has more national security laws than any democratic nation. She merely restated the mantra that a ‘sensible balance’ has to be found between protecting our national interest and the public’s right to know’. She did not say what recent AFP raids on journalists’ offices, metadata, and travel records showed about that balance. She condemned murders of journalists by Saudi Arabia and Myanmar, but said nothing about Assange. Did she ask the British Foreign Secretary about him or visit nearby Belmarsh prison? We must assume not.

Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney addressed the conference. She had advised Assange in 2013 about acquiring Ecuadorian diplomatic status to gain immunity from prosecution (which Britain refused). She said the UK and Canada, as conference sponsors, should ensure that ‘more robust international mechanisms would exist next time a journalist was arbitrarily arrested or attacked’, but her passing reference to Assange was edited out of the online version. In her new role as the UK’s Special Envoy for Media Freedom, she listed recent attacks on journalists in Russia, China, Turkey, Pakistan, and the Philippines, adding that the decline in press freedom around the world ‘is not limited to non-democracies’: Australia should set an example and be ‘better than North Korea’. Clooney also criticised US president Donald Trump as ‘a leader who vilifies the media, making honest journalists all over the world more vulnerable to abuse’.

Silence prevailed among those present – who included formerly imprisoned Australian journalist Peter Greste – about the UK’s recent record on media freedom. Several D-Notices (now called Defence and Security Media Advisory: DSMA) issued in Britain this year have silenced journalists’ questions about the unsolved poisoning of Sergei Skripal and four others in Salisbury in 2018. The British authorities’ media releases were confused, contradictory, and unbelievable (see Rob Slane’s The Blogmire), and a ‘Panorama’ BBC documentary was no better. As for Julian Assange, ever since he fell out with the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post and others over redactions from the leaked US diplomatic cables – a mega-scoop which he got and they didn’t – the pile-on Anglo-media attacks on him personally have been unrelenting.

Australia’s dearth of public interest journalism was somewhat relieved by Nick Miller’s coverage for Fairfax of statements by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer (SMH, 28 July 2019), who visited Assange in Belmarsh in May, and whose concerns have been rejected by officials in Sweden and the US. Then came ABC ‘Four Corners’, with two episodes on 22 and 29 July about Assange’s prosecution, ‘Hero or Villain’ Part 1 and Part 2). For ‘balance’ Four Corners gives Assange’s enemies a lot of air-time for familiar allegations and smears like ‘vanity’ and ‘megalomania’. But the documentary recalls that only after the US papers ignored Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning did she seek out WikiLeaks; that two Guardian journalists revealed the very password for the cables database over which Assange is now facing prosecution; and that Australian ministers refused to seek assurances that he would not be extradited. 

Bracingly, Kristin Hrafnsson states that ‘national security’ is actually about protecting those in power from embarrassment. The WikiLeaks editor-in-chief reminds those who claim Assange endangered lives that the media had ten months to redact names. Moreover in 2013 the Pentagon conceded that no-one had been killed as a result of the leaked cables (Brigadier-General Robert Carr.) Hrafnsson points elsewhere to the hypocrisy of men who wage dirty wars and then turn on journalists for exposing their massacres. He and two colleagues are currently being investigated in Virginia for doing ‘what has to be done’. 

Governments whose abuse is revealed are making a ‘global pushback on free speech’, Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson told ABC RN, adding that she and Assange have received death threats. Although she met politicians in Canberra in late July, informing them about Assange’s situation, the Prime Minister made it known that he would not raise it with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Australian, 2 August 2019: 4). Citizens who are not journalists are in serious danger too from our government, as proceedings against David McBride, Witness K, and Bernard Collaery show. 

The media usually band together to defend journalistic freedom and the rights of whistleblowers. But many journalists deny that what Assange does is journalism and take no interest in what is happening to him in Belmarsh. Given the UK’s recent form, and what Assange can anticipate in the US, the public is entitled to know. If Australian journalists were doing their job they would pursue Assange’s case with at least as much enthusiasm as they and the government brought to those of Peter Greste jailed in Cairo, Hakeem al-Araibi arrested in Bangkok, and Alek Sigley detained in Pyongyang. 

Dr Alison Broinowski, AM is an Australian academic, journalist, author and former diplomat, as well as a former Senate candidate for the Wikileaks Party. She has written and edited fourteen books about the interface between Australia and Asia and Australia's role in world affairs.  

This article was commissioned with support from Copyright Agency's Cultural Fund.


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