Persecuting Assange Is A Blow To Reporting And Human Rights Advocacy
Above photo: Chip Gibbons.
CounterSpin interview with Chip Gibbons on Assange extradition.
Janine Jackson interviewed Defending Rights & Dissent’s Chip Gibbons about Julian Assange’s extradition hearing for the October 9, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: If it were not for a tiny handful of journalists—ShadowProof’s Kevin Gosztola preeminent among them—Americans might be utterly unaware that a London magistrate, for the last month, has been considering nothing less than whether journalists have a right to publish information the US government doesn’t want them to. Not whether outlets can leak classified information, but whether they can publish that information on, as in the case of Wikileaks, US war crimes and torture and assorted malfeasance to do with, for instance, the war on Afghanistan, which just entered its 19th year, with zero US corporate media interest.
Assange’s case, the unprecedented use of the Espionage Act to go after a journalist, has dire implications for all reporters. But this country’s elite press corps have evidently decided they can simply whistle past it, perhaps hoping that if and when the state comes after them, they’ll make a more sympathetic victim.
Chip Gibbons: Always a pleasure to be on CounterSpin.
JJ: I wondered, first, given the absence of US news media attention, if you could tell us just what’s happening? I mean, it’s a hearing for Julian Assange’s extradition, but in the very informative webinar that Defending Rights & Dissent did last night with Kevin Gosztola of ShadowProof, who’s pretty much single-handedly reporting on this, he called it a “trial.” So it feels like things are shifting around, just in terms of what this means, and so, if it’s not too crazy a question: What’s going on?
Assange is not a US person; he’s an Australian national. He was inside the Ecuadorian embassy for a number of years, as Ecuador had granted him asylum, and the UK had refused to basically recognize that and let him leave the country, so he was de facto imprisoned inside the embassy. And after the indictment the US issued, the new government of Ecuador—which is much less sympathetic to Assange than the previous Correa government—let the US come in the embassy and seize him.
And the US is seeking Assange’s extradition to the US from the UK. I guess it’s, probably, technically a hearing, but Kevin’s point was that it’s more like what we would think of as a trial, in that there’s different witnesses, there’s expert testimony, there’s different legal arguments at stake.
The defense, the witness portion of it, has closed; it ended last week. And there’s going to be closing arguments submitted in writing, and then the judge will render a decision, and that decision will be appealable by either side. So regardless of the outcome, we can expect appeals. So it does very closely mirror what we would think of more like a trial than a hearing in the US court context.
It’s important to really understand what’s at stake with Assange’s extradition. He is the first person ever indicted by the US government under the Espionage Act for publishing truthful information.
The US government has considered indicting journalists before: They considered indicting Seymour Hersh, a very famous investigative reporter. They considered indicting James Bamford, because he had the audacity to try to write a book on the National Security Agency. But they’ve never done that.
And Obama’s administration looked at the idea of indicting Assange and said, “No, this would violate the First Amendment, and it would open the door to all kinds of other bad things.” But the Trump administration clearly doesn’t have those qualms.
And it’s worth pointing out that Assange’s indictment follows an unprecedented period, initiated by the Obama administration, of indicting whistleblowers or journalists’ sources under the Espionage Act. So we’ve seen Chelsea Manning indicted, we’ve seen Edward Snowden indicted under the Espionage Act, but to indict the journalists, though, is a real new step, and not for the best.
JJ: And that’s what I wanted to just to underscore, or ask you to: We do have rules around journalists being provided materials that might be hacked, or that might be illegally obtained, or that might be leaked. Journalists have a right—I mean, through this murkiness—journalists have a right to publish information, even if that information is illegally obtained. Is that not true?
CG: That’s what the Supreme Court has said in the past; that is the precedent, and I believe that is what prevented the Obama administration from moving against Assange. It is very interesting to see how this plays out in a US court in the current environment. If whoever—Trump or Biden, whoever is president, when this finally comes to the US—actually pursues this, and they actually are allowing the persecution of journalists, that’s going to be a really dark, dark assault on free expression rights.
And it’s worth remembering—and Julian Assange is clearly very reviled in the corporate media and the political establishment right now—but the information he leaked came from Chelsea Manning, it dealt with US war crimes; and he worked with the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Al Jazeera, to publish this information. So if he can go to jail for publishing this, why can’t the New York Times? And is that a door anyone wants to open? There is a big press freedom angle here.
I also want to talk about the facts, though: What did Julian Assange publish, and why did it matter? One of the witnesses that took the stand in his defense was Clive Stafford Smith, who’s one of the founders of Reprieve UK; he’s represented men detained at Guantánamo Bay and victims of US drone strikes, and he discussed how the information published by WikiLeaks, given by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, has aided their work, including getting a court ruling in Pakistan, saying that US drone strikes were illegal and constituted a war crime. And other people who have done advocacy or journalism around Guantánamo testified about how Wikileaks published the Guantánamo Bay files, which showed how the US government was holding people it didn’t suspect of any crimes.
Julian Assange is accused of publishing information about war crimes, about human rights abuses and about abuses of power, that have been tremendously important, not just for the public’s right to know, but also have made a real difference in advocacy around those issues. People were able to go and get justice for victims of rendition, or able to go and get court rulings in other countries about US drone strikes, because of this information being in the public domain. So attacking Assange, persecuting Assange, disappearing him into a supermax prison, this is a real blow to reporting and human rights advocacy.
And Assange isn’t even a US national, he’s an Australian citizen; he didn’t publish this information in this country. So, basically, the US is saying that if you exist anywhere in the world, and you’re a journalist, and you do what I would call journalism—exposing the crimes of the powerful; I know, a lot of journalists in this country don’t do that—but they can come and charge you with espionage, put you in solitary confinement, put you in a supermax prison?
We miss how high the stakes are in this country on this issue, but it’s not lost on the rest of the world. Look at who are Julian Assange’s supporters: He has on his defense team Baltasar Garzón, who’s the very famous Spanish ex-judge who indicted Pinochet; his main attorney, Jennifer Robinson, is a famed human rights attorney who, in addition to representing Assange, has used information released by WikiLeaks in her other human rights cases.
His international supporters include:
- Jeremy Corbyn, the member of the British Parliament;
- Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece;
- Lula, the former president of Brazil, who himself was a political prisoner;
- Rafael Correa, the former president of Ecuador, who granted him asylum and has now had to leave the country as a victim of lawfare, continues to support him—you oftentimes see in the media, he “wore out his welcome with Ecuador”; that’s not true, the Ecuadorian government officials who granted him asylum still support him;
- Jean-luc Mélenchon, the French left-wing insurgent candidate.
So if you look around the world, high-profile left-wing politicians, including current and former heads of state and internationally renowned human rights activists, support Assange, and that’s because they understand this is about exposing war crimes, this is about exposing human rights abuses. And I wish more people in the US would realize that’s what’s going on here.
JJ: Right. And, finally, the journalists who are holding their nose right now on covering it aren’t offering to give back the awards that they won based on reporting relying on WikiLeaks revelations. And James Risen had an op-ed in the New York Times a while back, in which he was talking about Glenn Greenwald, but also about Julian Assange, and he said that he thought that governments—he was talking about Bolsonaro in Brazil, as well as Donald Trump—that they’re trying out these anti-press measures and, he said, they “seem to have decided to experiment with such draconian anti-press tactics by trying them out first on aggressive and disagreeable figures.”
And what struck me about that is that I feel like that’s where the public comes in, frankly, because it’s really for us to decide, are we going to say, “Well, I don’t like Julian Assange, so I’m not going to care about this case”? It’s up to us to say we can separate principle from person if we need to, that we can see what’s at stake and that we won’t allow, in other words, media, which, in this case, there’s an explicit tactic of demonizing a person, so that you can be encouraged to think “Well, this has nothing to do with me, and Assange, if something bad happens to him, that doesn’t have anything to do with me.” And unfortunately, media are helping us make that disassociation from the person and the principle here.
CG: Yeah, the US media has done a really fantastic job of demonizing Julian Assange, which is not to say, there can never be any legitimate criticisms or differences of opinion with him. I know a lot of people, including many of his longtime supporters, were very displeased with some of the stuff he did or said during the 2016 election. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t give the US government the right to disappear and torture someone for the crime of exposing its own actual crimes.
Whether or not you agree with everything he’s ever said or done—and there’s no one on this planet who I agree with everything they’ve ever said and done, not even myself, for that matter, right?—he took real risk to bring truth. I believe he said something like, “If wars can be started based on lies, then peace can be brought based on truth.” That’s the motto he’s operating under, and we need people like Julian Assange, and WikiLeaks, to pursue the truth, to shine light on these abuses of power.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Chip Gibbons, policy director at Defending Rights & Dissent. They’re online at RightsAndDissent.org. Chip Gibbons, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
CG: Thank you for having me again.