IT IS just three days since the Prime Minister proclaimed his commitment to freedom of the press in response to an Extinction Rebellion action.
After XR blockaded newspaper printing plants, disrupting distribution of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun and Times newspapers, Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail and the Barclay Brothers’ Telegraph, Boris Johnson declared that the “free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account” and that it was “completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way.”
The hypocrisy is breathtaking. For the hearing on extraditing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange represents the most serious threat to free and independent journalism we face in Britain.
Britain’s government could easily put a stop to this process. Indeed, over 150 lawyers wrote to Johnson less than a month ago, warning him that by allowing it to proceed authorities are breaching British and international law.
And as the National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet warns, “media freedom the world over will take a significant backward step” if Assange is handed to the US authorities to be tried for publishing classified material.
The material in question — particularly the now infamous Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, which exposed US war crimes including the deliberate killing of civilians in both countries — was unquestionably in the public interest, shining a light on the horrific reality of the wars begun by the George W Bush administration and its ally, Britain, under Tony Blair.
The shocking video entitled Collateral Murder, in which US servicemen laugh and joke as they mow down civilians from a helicopter, is merely the most notorious of thousands of files that have only seen the light of day because of the courage of whistleblower Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks.
That makes the persecution of Manning a disgrace: Manning’s original 35-year sentence may have been commuted after seven years, but the further year spent behind bars from 2019-20 for refusing to testify against Assange shows Washington’s hunger for revenge is unabated.
Even so, the bid to imprison Assange for publishing the material takes the assault on free expression into new territory. Manning was a US soldier who passed classified files to a journalist: most states regard this as a crime.
But for a journalist to be prosecuted for publishing such material — indeed, the US indictment of Assange accuses him of encouraging the material to be leaked (as any journalist would a whistleblower with access to explosive documents), and also of trying to hide the identity of the person who leaked it to him (so he is being prosecuted for protecting his source — a duty of any responsible journalist).
The case smacks strongly of imperial arrogance on the part of the United States: Assange is not a US citizen, nor were the activities he is accused of carried out in the United States, and they are not crimes in this country.
Yet our government is happy to hand him over — to face a potential 175-year sentence, quite possibly to be served in solitary confinement — because the material he published has caused grave embarrassment to the US government.
Washington’s aim is clear: to so terrify those who would expose war crimes by its armed forces that nobody will dare to do so again.
British authorities, who are also deeply implicated in the appalling carnage unleashed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other countries, as well as in the US’s “extraordinary rendition” and torture programme, may share that motive. Or they may simply be following orders in the same craven spirit that took us into Iraq in the first place.
Yet for the rest of us, stopping Assange’s extradition is of the utmost importance. Socialists and anti-imperialists must recognise the huge public service done by Wikileaks. But all who support a free press must defend the right of journalists to publish such material.
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