As WikiLeaks founder and Australian citizen Julian Assange has nearly exhausted his appeals to British courts against a US extradition order, Australia has ramped up its advocacy on his behalf. Six Australian MPs held a press conference outside the US Department of Justice on September 20 to urge the Biden administration to halt its pursuit of Assange (Consortium News, 9/20/23).
They came representing an impressive national consensus: Almost 80% of Australian citizens, and a cross-party coalition in Australia’s Parliament, support the campaign to free Assange (Sydney Morning Herald, 5/12/23). Opposition leader Peter Dutton joined Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in urging Assange’s release.
The day before, an open letter to the Biden administration signed by 64 Australian parliamentarians appeared as a full-page ad in the Washington Post. It called the prosecution of Assange “a political decision” and warned that, if Assange is extradited, “there will be a sharp and sustained outcry” from Australians.
Given what is at stake for freedom of the press in the Assange case, and the intensified pressure from Australia—a country being wooed to actively enlist in the US campaign against China by spending $368 billion on nuclear submarines and supersonic missiles (Sydney Morning Herald, 8/10/23)—we ought to expect coverage from the Washington Post, New York Times and major broadcast networks. But coverage of the press conference was virtually absent from US corporate media.
The US has been seeking to extradite Assange from Britain on charges relating to the leaking of hundreds of thousands of documents to international media in 2010 and 2011, many of which detailed US atrocities carried out in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and other human rights violations, such as the torture of detainees at Guantánamo Bay (Abby Martin, 3/10/23).
In 2019, President Donald Trump’s administration brought Espionage Act charges against Assange for obtaining and publishing leaked documents, a dramatic new attack on press freedom (FAIR.org, 8/13/22). Assange could face 175 years in a supermax prison if convicted under the Espionage Act, “a relic of the First World War” meant for spies (American Constitution Society, 9/10/21), and not intended to criminalize leaks to or publications by the press. The Biden administration has rolled back much of the legal mechanism used by Trump to attack journalists, but President Joe Biden has reaffirmed the call to extradite Assange.
Assange also coordinated with international news outlets to publish other material known as Cablegate about the “inner-workings of bargaining, diplomacy and threat-making around the world” (Intercept, 8/14/23). Indeed, the New York Times (e.g., 11/28/10) published many articles based on the WikiLeaks documents, which had been sent to Assange by US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
US officials have repeatedly justified their case by charging that Assange put lives at risk; to date, no evidence has surfaced that any individuals were harmed by the leaks (BBC, 12/1/10; Chelsea Manning, Readme.txt, 2022). As the Columbia Journalism Review (12/23/20) admonished, don’t let the Justice Department’s
misdirection around “blown informants” fool you—this case is nothing less than the first time in American history that the US government has sought to prosecute the act of publishing state secrets, something that national security reporters do with some regularity.
In failing health after suffering a stroke, Assange has been held in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison since he was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy in April 2019. He had sought asylum at the embassy in London in 2012 to avoid being sent to Sweden for questioning over sexual assault allegations, because Sweden would not provide assurances it would protect him from extradition to the US. Sweden dropped charges against Assange in November 2019 (BBC, 11/19/19), after he was in British custody.
The Australian diplomatic mission coincided with the convening of the UN General Assembly in New York City, where President Lula da Silva of Brazil condemned the prosecution of Assange, offering yet another opportunity for US corporate media to cover the strong international opposition to Assange’s treatment.
A video (9/19/23) of Lula speaking at the opening of the UN General Assembly was widely circulated on social media. “Preserving press freedom is essential,” Lula declared. “A journalist like Julian Assange cannot be punished for informing society in a transparent and legitimate way.”
Former British ambassador Craig Murray commented about Lula’s reception at the UN (Twitter, 9/17/23):
It is really not normal for the hall at the UN General Assembly to break into this kind of spontaneous applause. The US has been losing the room internationally for a decade. The appalling treatment of Julian is a focus for that.
US media absence
Over a week later, Business Insider (10/1/23) ran a long piece that featured an interview with Gabriel Shipton, Assange’s half-brother. It pointed out that Assange had become an obstacle to US plans to involve Australia in its aggression toward China, quoting the PM. But the piece also hashed through a number of long-debunked claims, including one that reminded readers that Mike Pompeo once called Assange “a fugitive Russian asset” (FAIR.org, 12/03/18; Scheerpost 2/25/23), and another that repeated US assertions that WikiLeaks releases would put the US at risk.
The New York Times has been conspicuously absent from the coverage of Assange. Though the Times signed a joint open letter (11/28/22) with four other international newspapers that had worked with Assange and WikiLeaks, appealing to the DoJ to drop its charges, the paper has remained almost entirely silent on both Assange and the issues raised by his continued prosecution since then.
As FAIR pointed out, during the Assange extradition hearing in London, the Times
There were no editorials on what the case meant for journalism. FAIR contributor Alan MacLeod noted that the Times seemed to distance itself from Assange and WikiLeaks, and its own reporting on the Cablegate scandal, coverage that boosted the papers’ international reputation.
Other opportunities for coverage have been missed by the Times. For instance, Rep. Rashida Tlaib wrote a letter (4/11/23), signed by six other members of the Progressive Caucus, calling for the DoJ to drop the charges against Assange. Tlaib cited support from the ACLU, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Defending Rights & Dissent and Human Rights Watch, and many others, stating that his prosecution “could effectively criminalize” many “common journalistic practices.” The letter was covered by The Nation (4/14/23), the Intercept (3/30/23), Fox News (4/1/23), The Hill (4/11/23) and Politico (4/11/23), but the Times and other major newspapers were conspicuously silent.
When Assange lost his most recent appeal against extradition in June, a few outlets reported the news online (e.g., AP, 6/9/23; CNN, 6/9/23), but not a single US newspaper report could be found in the Nexis news database. (Newsweek‘s headline framed the news as a “headache for Biden”—6/8/23—rather than a blow for press freedom.) The Times only vaguely referred to the news (Assange “keeps losing appeals”) two weeks later in a feature (6/18/23) on the late whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who had criticized Biden’s decision not to drop the case against Assange.
The world is watching
A huge collective breath is being held as the world watches to see what will happen to Assange, the most famous publisher on the globe. Will he be returned to his country and his family by Christmas, as the Australian MPs have requested? Or will Britain and the US continue to slowly execute him?
Assange’s case is expected to be discussed during Prime Minister Albanese’s current visit to the US, which includes a state dinner hosted by Biden on October 25. MP Monique Ryan, part of the pro-Assange delegation, told news outlets: “Our prime minister needs to see this as a test case for standing up to the US government. There are concerns among Australians about the AUKUS agreement, and whether we have any agency” (Business Insider, 10/1/23).
As Common Dreams (9/19/23) quoted from the delegation’s letter:
We believe the right and best course of action would be for the United States’ Department of Justice to cease its pursuit and prosecution of Julian Assange…. It is well and truly time for this matter to end, and for Julian Assange to return home.