The founding director of WikiLeaks and many whistleblowers and journalists are sacrificing so much to expose the crimes of capitalism and government colluders. We owe it to them — and our own future — to keep them going.
Watch the Belmarsh Tribunal, held Oct. 22, 2021 in Great Britain, with international speakers including many British parliamentarians and U.S. whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg, Annie Machon, and Edward Snowden. Its judgment will be issued the week of Oct. 25. The U.K. High Court will hear the U.S. government’s case for extradition of Julian Assange on Oct. 27 and 28, 2021.
The monthlong extradition show trial of Wikileaks founding editor Julian Assange in London’s Central Criminal Court ended in December 2020, and a few weeks later the judge wrapped it up with a big surprise. She ruled that Assange could not be extradited to the United States, where the government wants to charge him for espionage and for hacking government computers.
Defenders of freedom, truth, and justice might have breathed a sigh of relief at that. However, the ruling was made not for the cause of justice but for reasons of Assange’s health, which was then and still is deteriorating, as should be expected given the brutal treatment to which he has been subjected.
The whole circus — from which even Amnesty International’s expert fair trial monitor was banned — should have been front-page, top-of-the-hour news daily. Yet it was barely mentioned in U.S. news outlets. Subsequent strenuous efforts by the United States to appeal the ruling and force the extradition of this Australian journalist, who was forced into solitary exile long before Covid sent the rest of us into isolation, have received little mainstream U.S. news coverage as well.
Thus even ecosocialists might be forgiven for not knowing, or forgetting, what precipitated this unprecedented, eleven-year (so far) assault by the U.S. government on a non-U.S. journalist for doing his job: speaking and writing truth about power. Prosecutors claim that Assange plotted with U.S. defense analyst Chelsea Manning to leak more than 250,000 documents and diplomatic cables about the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq in 2010 and 2011, many of which contain evidence of war crimes and human rights abuses. They want him to stand trial for one charge of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and seventeen charges under the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917, a rather incomprehensible law that was enacted to squelch widespread opposition to World War I by making it a crime to disclose government wrongdoing, especially that which government wanted to hide.
The Espionage Act was used the year after its passage to accuse and convict socialists Charles T. Schenck and Elizabeth Baer for circulating a flyer opposing the military draft. Its sibling Sedition Act of 1918, which was in effect only three years, was also used against socialists, most notably against former and future presidential candidate Eugene Debs in a ruling that has come to be regarded as a low point for free speech in the United States. Although the U.S. government tried unsuccessfully in 1971 to use the act to block the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers that had been leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, the law has never until now been used in prosecution of a journalist or news media outlet.
A detailed timeline of the assault on Assange can be read elsewhere. The quick synopsis is this: Soon after he broke the first few batches of leaked documents — including “Collateral Damage,” a shocking 39-minute video of a 2007 U.S. military attack on civilians in Baghdad in which the murderers of 18 people, including two journalists, are heard laughing at their victims — the government of Sweden issued an international warrant for his arrest on charges of sexual misconduct; those charges would be fully and finally dropped in 2019. After losing his court battle against extradition, Assange sought asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, which he received in August 2012. He remained there until 11 April 2019, when the Ecuadorian government unexpectedly turned him over to British authorities. He has been held in Belmarsh maximum-security prison in London ever since, even after the failure of the U.S. extradition request. He has been treated abominably and reportedly has been in frail mental and physical health during that time. The Biden administration is following its predecessors’ attempts to extradite and prosecute him further.
Most disturbing of all have been recent revelations by Yahoo News that the CIA and Trump administration plotted to kidnap and probably assassinate Assange at the same time they spied on WikiLeaks associates, stole their devices, and sowed mistrust among them; that’s how frightened these powerful operators were that the truth of their war crimes would be revealed.
Media outlets have neglected the story at their peril, because it’s really they that are on trial and will be next in the line of fire. Mainstream, corporate-run media, including social media, from which the majority of people in the United States still get “news” about things that matter in their lives, and independent outlets: If Assange’s battle is lost, they all stand to lose their cherished assumed immunity from prosecution for revealing government secrets.
This comes at a time when journalists and news organizations worldwide are under attack by governments considered democracies as well as those recognized as authoritarian. The year 2020 broke a new record, with 274 journalists in jail in relation to their work as of December 1, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In collapsing Afghanistan, junta-controlled Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Turkey, Russia, Ethiopia, China, El Salvador, France, El Salvador, Kazakhstan, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bulgaria, Israel, and the United States of America … journalists have been assaulted by government and private forces.
In 2020 in the United States, an unprecedented 100 journalists were criminally charged or arrested and 300 were assaulted (mostly by police forces). As of October 24, 2021, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reports that even under a less openly hostile national administration, 55 journalists have been arrested or detained and 134 assaulted.
In July 2021 a multi-newsmedia collaborative revealed that governments hacked the devices of at least 180 journalists as well as attorneys, politicians, and activists in 20 countries, using the malicious Pegasus privacy-invasive spyware made by the Israeli firm NSO Group. Two months later the Apple smartphone empire announced that its users needed to update their devices to fix a covert Pegasus spyware invasion. This spurred a flurry of worry among media outlets, exposing as it did how vulnerable we all are to surveillance by corporations as well as governments.
As Amnesty International’s media manager for Europe, Turkey, and the Balkans, Stefan Simanowitz, wrote in Newsweek (9/19/20), “The U.S. government’s unrelenting pursuit of Julian Assange for having published disclosed documents is nothing short of a full-scale assault on the right to freedom of expression. . . . The U.S. Justice Department is not only charging a publisher who has a non-disclosure obligation but a publisher who is not a U.S. citizen and not in America. The U.S. government is behaving as if they have jurisdiction all over the world to pursue any person who receives and publishes information of government wrongdoing.”
Journalism was already in an alarmingly precarious state, with reporters worldwide being harassed, prosecuted, persecuted, and assassinated. Yet without journalism we’d have no chance of ever achieving a stable, equitable, just nation, period. Even the Janus-faced Nobel Peace Prize judges recognized the importance of independent journalism in 2021, awarding the coveted title to journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov of Russia (but did not bother to mention either the long-imprisoned Assange or the two honorees’ close ties to the U.S. government and Ressa’s outright hostility toward Assange and Wikileaks).
Environmentalists — Indeed, All Leftists — Are Targets
As the Assange case illustrates, journalism, like environmentalism and other “left” activism, is under vicious attack. Assange is being charged for engaging in journalism with the preposterous claim that he conspired with whistleblowers to obtain classified information — information that’s been critical to our understanding of just how corrupt and violent our military is, with much of it tied to private mercenary armies and military contractors that are surveilling, torturing, and killing civilians around the globe.
The Department of Justice is increasingly using the 1917 Espionage Act against journalists and whistleblowers alike, to the point that Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, now age 90, disclosed a 1958 report on U.S. plans for nuclear weapons use that remains “Top Secret” (by contrast, the papers Assange published were classified “Secret”) and is asking the U.S. government to prosecute him under the act.
Meanwhile, water and land defenders across the USA and other countries have been bullied, harassed, abused, tortured, arrested, and murdered as they struggle to keep corporations from poisoning their communities. Indigenous-led People vs. Fossil Fuels Mobilization saw 655 people arrested in Washington, DC during the week of October 11, 2021, while appealing to President Joe Biden to stop approving new fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency, and to Congress to mandate a phase-out of all fossil fuel projects.
It’s not just police and government military who are attacking environmental defenders. The Line 3 tar sands pipeline run by Enbridge, a Canadian corporation, violates the treaty rights of the Anishinaabe people in Northern Minnesota and threatens their water supply and wild rice beds. Thousands of people have converged to peacefully protest this pipeline, and hundreds have been arrested and attacked. The U.S. and Canadian governments have been funding and equipping the police to continue their brutality against peaceful defenders — which they wield 3.5 times as frequently as they do against peaceful rightwing protesters.
This is nothing new. Similar tactics have been employed in India, where two companies’ “goons” attacked protesters of a coal-fired power station and a mine; in Ireland, where Shell waged a war against a community of peaceful protesters against a pipeline and refinery, and the Bolivian rainforest, where Chevron is persecuting not only the indigenous peoples whose water they contaminated but also the Harvard-educated New York attorney, Steven Donziger, who won a settlement against the company on their behalf.
Let’s note here that none of these persecuted individuals and groups publicly identify as socialists, a moniker that has become less stigmatized thanks to the popularity of self-described “democratic socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders and socialist public figures including U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashiada Tlaig, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman. But it does not stretch credibility to imagine that if they did, the official crackdown might be even more harsh.
Let’s note here that none of these persecuted individuals and groups publicly identify as socialists, a moniker that has become less stigmatized thanks to the popularity of self-described “democratic socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders and socialist public figures including U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaig, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman. But it does not stretch credibility to imagine that if they did, the official crackdown might be even more harsh.
We wouldn’t know about any of these actions without strong independent journalists and media outlets, because there is virtually zero coverage in the corporate-controlled media, which collectively have become Wall Street’s right arm.
As the only profession directly mentioned in the U.S. constitution, journalism is the “fourth estate,” casting the “people’s eye” on the three government branches. In the 20th century, some independent journalists became known as purveyors of truth, exemplified perhaps best by the great muckracker I. F. “Izzy” Stone.
Stone famously said, “If you want to know about governments, all you have to know is two words: ‘Governments lie.’”
That’s why independent, adversarial-to-power journalism such as that exemplified by Assange and Wikileaks is so critical to a civil society — and why the profession is so undervalued.
What About “Fake News”?
It’s easy to identify as “fake news” the political hysteria masquerading as journalism at such party-tied outlets as Fox and Breitbart “news” networks. But spin is spewed even by purportedly “liberal” outlets. The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, TV networks, and cable TV outlets regularly regurgitate PR material direct from government or corporate sources.
Furthermore, many university programs barely distinguish between journalism and marketing, and indeed, many faculty members and deans didn’t know the difference between corporate and independent journalism when, at a professional conference, I asked them to explain it.
Yet journalism should be the exact opposite of marketing.
If, say, some extractive company tells you to sign a lease on your property for gas mining, and that your property will be “fully restored” after they’ve fracked it and poisoned your water source, you sure would want a journalist to have investigated and written about how that company really does business, before you sign.
And if your 10-year-old child has been prescribed a new drug to treat her asthma, you may want to read a medical journalist’s interpretation of the seven clinical trials of this drug that perhaps had mixed and sometimes life-threatening results among people under age 18.
The last president of the United States repeatedly ranted about news outlets that didn’t worship the ground he walks on, calling them “fake news” and vowing to prosecute. But his efforts to criminalize journalism that exposes government and corporate malfeasance weren’t new.
The “Crime” of Truth-Telling
Under Barack Obama the Department of Justice brought more cases against whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. Under his successor and now under Biden, DOJ has taken a big leap further, prosecuting journalists for . . . doing journalism.
Assange was charged because Wikileaks published evidence-rich, skin-crawling stories about U.S. military culpability in Iraqi and Afghan civilian deaths and in torture of detained people, secret surveillance programs against We the People, and scandals among higher-ups.
These stories exposed how our national leaders and their willing servants abuse and kill people. Our endless wars in this century have cost trillions of dollars, ended thousands of U.S. lives and at least a million other civilians’ lives, and forced tens of millions from their homes.
The wrong defendant has been wasting away for the past decade, accused of being a hacker, a spy, a “non-journalist,” a rapist, and a Russian operative, among other things. The charges on which he’s being prosecuted are entirely baseless.
The Real Culprits
The real offenders are the occupiers of the White House, their foot-soldiers, and the capitalist elite who control them. There hasn’t been a whisper of their war atrocities during the entire Assange ordeal. This man could be seen as a symbol of our national conscience, if we were to muster one.
There have been times in recent memory when the people of the USA collectively examined our policies and systems, found their flaws, and worked, at times even successfully, to remedy them — or discard them and start over, as we clearly need to do now.
It has become obvious to even dispassionate observers that capitalism has failed us on every level, from health care to food security, the annihilation of species, racism, poverty, voter suppression, water privatization, war “games,” sea level rise, and to the most existential threat of all: climate catastrophe.
For illuminations and explanations of our national and global problems, but also positive solutions, we need more unflinching journalists holding magnifying glasses to those in power and broadcasting new ideas from people of vision and shared commitment to nature, including ecosocialists. Because capitalism must die,, as the great illustrator/writer/activist Stephanie McMillan reminds us, we need to broadcast solutions being proposed and practiced by ecosocialists, as you can see at System Change Not Climate Change and other places where ecosocialist ideas are discussed.
I’d wager that most of us want to avoid more senseless wars, more “isms,” and more corporate poisoning, polluting, species annihilation, and climate-change hastening.
If this is so, we all must celebrate, not persecute, journalists whose ethics require them to reveal and resist government misconduct despite the dangers.
Maura Stephens is a journalist, educator, theatre artist, farmer, and activist. She is a member of the System Change Not Climate Change coordinating committee.