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The persecution of Julian Assange and its implications for Canadian press freedom

Human Rights

Wikileaks founder and publisher Julian Assange leaving the Royal Court of Justice in London, England on July 13, 2011. Photo from Flickr.

The case to extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the United States seems to have little to do with Canadians at first glance, however, the truth is that this unprecedented challenge to press and democratic freedom concerns all of us.

The pursuit to imprison Assange started a decade ago when he published hundreds of thousands of classified documents belonging to the US government, detailing flagrant abuse and atrocities committed abroad by the United States, its military, its corporations, and their allies overseas (Canada included).

The response to the exposé of these numerous crimes by the US shows just how far a hegemonic superpower will go to hide them. It is a case that is remarkable not only for what it implies for freedom of the press in Canada and other countries, but for what it reveals about the extraterritorial power and reach of US imperialism. Above and beyond Assange himself, this case holds severe implications for all those engaged in questioning America’s hegemony and the structures it has created.

The case against Julian Assange

Assange’s trial has already commenced in London, where he is now being held in solitary confinement at a maximum security prison. He is currently fighting an extradition request from the US for publishing documents leaked by whistleblower Chelsea Manning. The Swedish preliminary investigation into alleged sexual misconduct has now officially been dropped (for the third time), meaning that Assange is being held exclusively in relation to the publication of US government documents.

The initial proceedings have demonstrated that the rule of law is dispensable when dealing with the Wikileaks founder. Having already been labeled a narcissist by the first presiding judge and denied bail pre-emptively by another, Assange’s fate now rests in the hands of the British legal system which has thus far rejected claims by the United Nations and others who have denounced the disproportionality and cruelty of his treatment.

Niels Melzer, the UN special rapporteur for torture, has repeatedly stated that Assange is exhibiting the symptoms of prolongued exposure to psychological torture and has called on the UK to cease its arbitrary detention and punitive measures. Assange’s father, John Shipton, has warned that his son may die in prison due to the extremely repressive conditions he faces.

For the crime of exposing war crimes, Assange is currently being held in a small jail cell for 23 hours a day, without access to the materials necessary to prepare his case. It is clear that if he is extradited to the US, he will likely never again emerge from prison, as he faces a severe sentence of 175 years for the simple offence of revealing the truth. Through this prosecution, the US authorities are sending a clear message against those who would dare pull on the thin curtain that covers their corruption.

Democratic and press freedoms

As Julian Assange is being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917, his case holds significant implications for the publishing activities of all journalists, especially those who investigate governments, foreign policy and war. Passed in the context of America’s entry into the First World War and modelled on the UK’s Official Secrets Act, the Espionage Act criminalizes those who supposedly undermine US military interests. This law has historically been used to crush and silence dissent and to impede press freedoms - as was the case of famed American socialist and union leader Eugene Debs who dared to denounce US involvement in the First World War. The US responded to this criticism by imprisoning Debs for a decade.

Assange is being punished for publishing true information which is undeniably in the public interest. This, in principle, is the mandate of news publishers who should act so as to hold the powerful to account. What Wikileaks did in publishing the Iraq War Logs, Afghan War Diaries and Cablegate was no different than what the Washington Post did when publishing the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. Furthermore, the documents published by Wikileaks were also featured by the Guardian, the New York Times and other mass media outlets. Still, despite the concerted effort among many to reveal the truth, Assange alone is being persecuted.

The use of the Espionage Act to indict Julian Assange constitutes a turning point in the war against the freedom of the press. If publishers can be prosecuted for publishing verified information, then the ability to accurately report on national security, foreign policy and war with a critical lens will be effectively prohibited.

With the Assange case, it appears this danger within US jurisdiction now extends to foreigners working beyond America’s borders. Assange is an Australian citizen, has never held US citizenship, and has only published his information abroad. All journalists who publish information that the US may consider to be damaging to its imperial interests are clearly at risk of political imprisonment. In the era of the Trump presidency, one can imagine the seriousness of this threat for all those who dare speak the truth about the superpower’s abuses.

The threat posed to press freedom also effectively undermines all other democratic rights. The inability to understand how one’s government is operating within the world or how it is interacting with the world’s most powerful players prevents real democratic engagement. Citizens who are not informed cannot act effectively. A society without a free press and freedom of expression is not a democratic society. Through Espionage Act and its prosecution of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, Bill Binney, Reality Winner and others, the US has revealed itself to be closer to an autocratic police state than to the democracy it purports itself to be.

What about Canada?

If the US Department of Justice can go after an Australian citizen so ruthlessly, we can assume they would do the same to any Canadian publisher or journalist that also chose to reveal more uncomfortable truths about American Empire. Canada’s national security establishment is profoundly tied to that of the US and is thus heavily impacted by how the superpower conducts itself within the world. In fact, a leaked US diplomatic memo from 2017 reveals that the current Trudeau administration is pursuing an ‘America First’ policy. Ben Norton, an American investigative journalist with the Greyzone Project wrote that “The memo offers the most concrete evidence to date that the United States sees Ottawa as an imperial subject and considers Canadian foreign policy as subordinate to its own.” This means that access to information about US dealings is also undeniably in the public interest of Canadians. This memo makes explicit the ways in which our foreign policy is vassalized by the United States.

As the future is marked by uncertainties linked to an increasing and unsustainable disparity of wealth, the rise of racist nationalism, and a warming climate, conflict and war are increasingly concerning. Moreover, considering the volatility of the current American administration, it is easy to imagine that Canada may soon find itself wrapped up in another illegal US-led military intervention in another country. It is, therefore, essential that our press and our reporters be able to publish and analyze objects of US foreign policy.

Already, we see that the Assange case is having larger repercussions - in July 2019, the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC, was raided by federal agents in relation to the publication of stories on Australian involvement in the Afghan war. This explicit act of intimidation directed towards journalists demonstrates the increasingly fierce measures being taken by those who seek to censor the press.

In the current climate, it is far from inconceivable that such an attack on the press could take place in Canada and gravely undermine our ability to hold our government to account. For this reason, the Canadian press must join with others in firmly condemning the prosecution of the Wikileaks founder and demand that Assange be freed. Failure to do so not only endangers their ability to do their jobs but also threatens the very foundation of our democracy. This fight concerns all of us - accordingly we need to pay attention and understand what is at stake.

Elizabeth Leier is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her interests include international politics, foreign policy and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter.


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