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Last Friday’s decision by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel to authorise the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States is both deeply shameful and unsurprising. Her action paves the way for Assange to be tried under the 1917 Espionage Act, introduced by the US government shortly after entering World War I, with a sentence of 175 years if found guilty. In essence, the US wishes to set a legal precedent for the prosecution of any publisher or journalist, anywhere in the world, who reports the truth about the US.
Despite all the warnings from human rights groups, advocates of press freedom, Nils Melzer (then UN Special Rapporteur on Torture), doctors, lawyers and many other people around the world, it has long been clear that Washington is determined to punish Assange and make an example of him as a warning to others. As always, US allies will go along with what the Mafia Godfather wants.
US political journalist Glenn Greenwald noted that Patel’s act ‘further highlights the utter sham of American and British sermons about freedom, democracy and a free press.’ Assange is being persecuted relentlessly because he and WikiLeaks have arguably done more than anyone else to expose the vast extent of the crimes of US empire.
‘Free speech and press freedoms do not exist in reality in the U.S. or the UK. They are merely rhetorical instruments to propagandize their domestic population and justify and ennoble the various wars and other forms of subversion they constantly wage in other countries in the name of upholding values they themselves do not support. The Julian Assange persecution is a great personal tragedy, a political travesty and a grave danger to basic civic freedoms. But it is also a bright and enduring monument to the fraud and deceit that lies at the heart of these two governments’ depictions of who and what they are.’
Dissident Australian journalist Caitlin Johnstone made a similar point, that Assange’s ‘refusal to bow down and submit’ has:
‘exposed the lie that the so-called free democracies of the western world support the free press and defend human rights. The US, UK and Australia are colluding to extradite a journalist for exposing the truth even as they claim to oppose tyranny and autocracy, even as they claim to support world press freedoms, and even as they loudly decry the dangers of government-sponsored disinformation.’
Peter Oborne, an all-too-rare example of a journalist speaking out on behalf of Assange, called Patel’s decision a ‘catastrophic blow’ to press freedom. But, he said, it was a blow that had been carried out with:
‘the silent assent of much of the mainstream press. Too many British newspapers and broadcasters have treated the Assange case as a dirty family secret. They have failed to grasp that the Assange hearing leading up to the Patel decision is the most important case involving free speech this century.’
Not only was there ‘silent assent’, but much of the media actually cheered and applauded Assange’s arrest in the Ecuadorian Embassy in April 2019 ‘with undisguised glee’, as Alan MacLeod wrote at the time:
‘The Daily Mail’s front-page headline (4/12/19) read, “That’ll Wipe the Smile Off His Face,” and devoted four pages to the “downfall of a narcissist” who was removed from “inside his fetid lair” to finally “face justice.” The Daily Mirror (4/11/19) described him as “an unwanted guest who abused his hospitality,” while the Times of London (4/12/19) claimed “no one should feel sorry” for the “overdue eviction.”
‘The Mirror (4/13/19) also published an opinion piece from Labour member of Parliament Jess Phillips that began by stating, “Finally Julian Assange, everyone’s least favourite squatter, has been kicked out of the Ecuadorian embassy.” She described the 47-year-old Australian as a “grumpy, stroppy teenager.”’
Oborne also noted that Patel’s decision:
‘turns investigative journalism into a criminal act, and licenses the United States to mercilessly hunt down offenders wherever they can be found, bring them to justice and punish them with maximum severity.’
Andrew Neil, the right-wing journalist and broadcaster, reflexively listed Assange’s supposed faults (‘reckless’, ‘stupid’, ‘narcissist’) in a Daily Mail opinion piece. But he still made clear his opposition to Assange’s extradition:
‘It is thanks to Assange that we know many appalling things that America would prefer we didn’t know. He does not deserve to spend the rest of his life in some high-tech American hellhole for doing what should come naturally to all good journalists — exposing what powerful people don’t want to be exposed.’
But the few editorials that appeared in the British ‘mainstream’, while meekly and belatedly opposing extradition, were much less damning in their comments. According to our searches of the Lexis-Nexis newspaper database, the first edition of the Independent’s editorial was titled, ‘It’s time to release Assange – he has suffered enough’. By the time the editorial appeared online, the title had been watered down to:
‘Justice for Julian Assange should be tempered with mercy’
And an extra line had been added:
‘The WikiLeaks founder is no hero but nor should he be a martyr’
The paper’s praise for the vital work of Assange and Wikileaks was begrudging and limited, with the usual ‘mainstream’ caveats and distortions mixed in (see Johnstone’s powerful demolition of the multiple smears against Assange):
‘We were resolutely unsympathetic to Mr Assange’s claim to have been unfairly treated by the British and Swedish criminal justice systems. We urged him to face justice over the allegations of rape in Sweden, and considered his self-imprisonment in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to be a form of punishment for his refusal to do so.’
The Guardian, which had benefited enormously from Assange’s ground-breaking work – with many of its journalists publishing numerous snide articles and disparaging remarks about him – described Patel’s decision, with pathetic understatement, as ‘a bad day for journalism’. Of course, there was no mention in the editorial of the Guardian’s own shameful role in helping to create the conditions for Assange’s persecution; not least their fake front-page ‘news’ story in November 2018 claiming that Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, supposedly held secret talks with Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
‘How Far Have We Sunk?’
As Nils Melzer packed up and moved on from his term as the UN Special Prosecutor on Torture, on the day that Patel announced Assange’s extradition, he said:
‘How far have we sunk if we prosecute people who expose war crimes for exposing war crimes?
‘How far have we sunk when we no longer prosecute our own war criminals because we identify more with them than we identify with the people that actually exposed these crimes?
‘What does that tell about us and about our governments?
‘How far have we sunk when telling the truth becomes a crime?’
The questions were left hanging in the air. But anyone with basic standards of ethics and wisdom knows that a society which has sunk this low is being governed by so-called ‘leaders’ who:
- are lacking in ethics and wisdom;
- are driven by concerns shaped by power and profit;
- will attempt to crush anyone who dares to expose their crimes;
- spout deceptive rhetoric – faithfully amplified and propagated by state-corporate media – proclaiming the West’s supposed virtues and respect for ‘freedom’, ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’.
The persecution of Julian Assange has brought all this to the fore.
Yes, there are tiny windows in the ‘MSM’ for eloquent expressions of the truth; such as Peter Oborne’s Guardian opinion piece cited above. But the general drift of the ‘Overton Window’ – the ‘acceptable’, tightly limited range of news and debate – has shifted towards the hard right, with journalists and commentators squeezed out for being deemed ‘toxic’, ‘radioactive’ or otherwise ‘dangerous’.
Thus, in 2018, John Pilger, one of the finest journalists who has ever appeared in the British media, observed that:
‘My written journalism is no longer welcome in the Guardian which, three years ago, got rid of people like me in pretty much a purge of those who really were saying what the Guardian no longer says any more.’
The Guardian is a prime stoker of revitalised Cold War rhetoric about the ‘threat’ of Russia and China, mirroring what is prevalent across the whole ‘spectrum’ of ‘mainstream’ news. Indeed, as revealed by Declassified UK, an independent investigative news website, the UK’s leading liberal newspaper has essentially been ‘neutralised’ by the UK security services. Mark Curtis, editor and co-founder of Declassified UK, observed that the paper’s:
‘limited coverage of British foreign and security policies gives a misleading picture of what the UK does in the world. The paper is in reality a defender of Anglo-American power and a key ideological pillar of the British establishment.’
Selective Moral Outrage
In a recent interview, David Barsamian asked Noam Chomsky:
‘In the media, and among the political class in the United States, and probably in Europe, there’s much moral outrage about Russian barbarity, war crimes, and atrocities. No doubt they are occurring as they do in every war. Don’t you find that moral outrage a bit selective though?’
‘The moral outrage is quite in place. There should be moral outrage. But you go to the Global South, they just can’t believe what they’re seeing. They condemn the war, of course. It’s a deplorable crime of aggression. Then they look at the West and say: What are you guys talking about? This is what you do to us all the time.’
So, when the long-suffering people of the Global South encounter western news reports about Putin being the worst war criminal since Hitler:
‘They don’t know whether to crack up in laughter or ridicule. We have war criminals walking all over Washington. Actually, we know how to deal with our war criminals. In fact, it happened on the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. Remember, this was an entirely unprovoked invasion, strongly opposed by world opinion. There was an interview with the perpetrator, George W. Bush, who then went on to invade Iraq, a major war criminal, in the style section of the Washington Post — an interview with, as they described it, this lovable goofy grandpa who was playing with his grandchildren, making jokes, showing off the portraits he painted of famous people he’d met. Just a beautiful, friendly environment.’
In the UK, the war criminal Tony Blair – another key player in the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’ that led to at least 1.3 million deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – was recently ‘honoured’ by the Queen. He became ‘a member of the Order of the Garter, the most senior royal order of chivalry’. This archaic nonsense is yet another symptom of the deeply-embedded, medieval stratification of British society, and the baubles that are handed out to preserve ‘order’ and ‘tradition’. This is revealing of the sickness at the heart of our society.
Chomsky gave another example of how the West’s war criminals are lauded:
‘Take probably the major war criminal of the modern period, Henry Kissinger. We deal with him not only politely, but with great admiration. This is the man after all who transmitted the order to the Air Force, saying that there should be massive bombing of Cambodia — “anything that flies on anything that moves” was his phrase. I don’t know of a comparable example in the archival record of a call for mass genocide. And it was implemented with very intensive bombing of Cambodia.’
The ‘justification’ for the extreme violence meted out by the West towards the Middle East and the Global South is always couched in propaganda terms proclaiming the protection of ‘human rights’, ‘democracy’ and ‘global security’. But, noted Chomsky:
‘The security of the population is simply not a concern for policymakers. Security for the privileged, the rich, the corporate sector, arms manufacturers, yes, but not the rest of us. This doublethink is constant, sometimes conscious, sometimes not. It’s just what Orwell described, hyper-totalitarianism in a free society.’
‘Meanwhile, we pour taxpayer funds into the pockets of the fossil-fuel producers so that they can continue to destroy the world as quickly as possible. That’s what we’re witnessing with the vast expansion of both fossil-fuel production and military expenditures. There are people who are happy about this. Go to the executive offices of Lockheed Martin, ExxonMobil, they’re ecstatic. It’s a bonanza for them. They’re even being given credit for it. Now, they’re being lauded for saving civilization by destroying the possibility for life on Earth. Forget the Global South. If you imagine some extraterrestrials, if they existed, they’d think we were all totally insane. And they’d be right.’
The appalling treatment of Julian Assange, especially set beside the ‘honouring’ and eulogising of the West’s war criminals, is symptomatic of this insanity.
In a brave and eloquent interview, Stella Assange, Julian’s wife and mother of their two young children, declared that:
‘We’re going to fight.’
An appeal to Britain’s High Court will be lodged within 14 days of Patel’s decision by Assange’s lawyers. As Stella Assange noted, one of the many unjust aspects of the US case against her husband is that, under the Trump administration, the CIA had plotted to assassinate Assange:
‘Extradition to the country that has plotted his assassination is just – I have no words. Obviously, this shouldn’t be happening. It can never happen.’
‘That is just the tip of the iceberg of the criminal activity that has gone on, on behalf of those putting Julian in prison. For example, inside the [Ecuadorian] Embassy his legal meetings – his confidential privileged legal conversations with his lawyers – were being recorded and shipped to the United States.
‘All these elements have come out since Julian’s arrest and incarceration. And we now know so much about the abuse and outright criminality that has been going on against Julian. There’s no chance of a fair trial’.
‘And then you have the actual case. He’s charged under the Espionage Act. He faces 175 years. There is no public interest defence under the Espionage Act. It’s the first time it’s being repurposed; it’s being used against a publisher. It’s an Act that’s been repurposed in order to criminalise journalism, basically. And, of course, if you say that publishing information is a crime, then Julian’s guilty. He published information and he faces a lifetime in prison for it.’
In conclusion, she said:
‘The case is a complete aberration. That’s why you have all these major press freedom organisations and human rights organisations saying that this has to be dropped.’
We can take a significant step towards a saner society by shouting loudly for Julian Assange to be freed immediately. A good start would be to share widely this video from Double Down News in which Stella Assange describes the importance of the case and how we can all help.
Please also visit the Don’t Extradite Assange website to see what actions you can take now.