News Media Who Ignore The Assange Trial Are Admitting They Don’t Care About Journalism

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Image by Garry Knight.

The Sydney Morning Herald just published an article titled “Julian Assange interrupts extradition hearing again” about the WikiLeaks founder’s correct interjection that he never put anyone’s lives in danger with the publication of the Manning leaks a decade ago.

It’s actually a rather shocking smear piece for the SMH, who has been one of the better Australian publications at giving Assange a fair hearing over the years. The article’s author Latika Bourke spends an inordinate amount of time waxing on about Assange’s naughty “outburst” and how he was reprimanded for it by the judge, telling readers that the prosecution “separates Assange from the press which also published information revealed by WikiLeaks but without naming journalists, human rights advocates and dissidents who were informing on their governments and repressive regimes”, and bringing up Osama bin Laden’s possession of WikiLeaks documents apropos of precisely nothing.

At no time does Bourke (who has been a regular smearer of Assange) bother to provide the reader with any of the readily available information showing that Assange never caused anyone harm and was not responsible for the unredacted documents being made public. She weaves a narrative about Assange being badly behaved in the courtroom, insinuates that the accusations he objected to could be true to the furthest extent possible without actually making a claim that would need to be retracted, and gets out.

And unfortunately this drivel is more or less typical of the coverage Assange’s historic, world-shaping extradition trial has been receiving from the mass media since it resumed this month. To the extent that they report on the trial at all, mainstream news outlets have mostly limited their coverage to trivialities like trouble with courtroom audio equipment or postponement due to a coronavirus scare. No mainstream outlet has been covering this immensely important trial in-depth to anywhere near the extent that former UK ambassador Craig Murray has been doing every night, or explaining to their audience the significance of a precedent which will allow journalists all over the world to be extradited and jailed for exposing embarrassing truths about the US government.

This dereliction of journalistic responsibility was damning enough back when the prosecution was trying to argue that Assange doesn’t have First Amendment protections because he was engaged in espionage and not journalistic behavior. But now that the prosecution has pivoted to arguing that it doesn’t matter that Assange is a journalist because the US government is allowed to imprison people for journalism, this dereliction of duty has become far more pronounced.

Murray writes the following in his latest update:

The prosecution’s line represented a radical departure from their earlier approach which was to claim that Julian Assange is not a journalist and to try and distinguish between his behaviour and that of newspapers. In the first three days of evidence, legal experts had stated that this gloss on the prosecution did not stand up to investigation of the actual charges in the indictment. Experts in journalism also testified that Assange’s relationship with Manning was not materially different from cultivation and encouragement by other journalists of official sources to leak.

By general consent, those first evidence days had gone badly for the prosecution. There was then a timeout for (ahem) suspected Covid among the prosecution team. The approach has now changed and on Tuesday a radically more aggressive approach was adopted by the prosecution asserting the right to prosecute all journalists and all media who publish classified information under the Espionage Act (1917).

The purpose of the earlier approach was plainly to reduce media support for Assange by differentiating him from other journalists. It had become obvious such an approach ran a real risk of failure, if it could be proved that Assange is a journalist, which line was going well for the defence. So now we have “any journalist can be prosecuted for publishing classified information” as the US government line. I strongly suspect that they have decided they do not have to mitigate against media reaction, as the media is paying no attention to this hearing anyway.

Murray’s subsequent breakdown of the prosecution’s arguments makes it clear that he was not over-selling this change in strategy. His notes on attorney for the prosecution James Lewis’ arguments contain lines as blatant as “There are Supreme Court judgements that make it clear that at times the government’s interest in national security must override the First Amendment” and “serial, continuing disclosure of secrets which harm the national interest cannot be justified. It therefore follows that journalists can be prosecuted” in arguing against witness testimony that Assange’s publishing behavior should be protected by the First Amendment.

“The United States Supreme Court has never held that a journalist cannot be prosecuted for publishing national defence information,” Murray reports Lewis argued.

So that’s the precedent the prosecution is setting now. No longer “We can extradite and imprison Assange because he isn’t a journalist”, but “We can extradite and imprison Assange because we’re allowed to extradite and imprison journalists.”

The argument that Assange isn’t a journalist has always been transparently false, whether made in the courtroom or in the court of public opinion. Publishing important information so that the public can understand what’s going on in their world is exactly the thing that journalism is. All WikiLeaks publications have included extensive written analyses of their contents, and its staff have received many esteemed awards for journalism.

But the fact that the prosecution is no longer even attempting to argue against the journalistic nature of the actions they are attempting to criminalize means they have ceased trying to pretend that they are not waging a war against worldwide press freedoms. Which means that all journalists and news media outlets have lost their last excuse for not condemning Assange’s persecution with great force and urgency.

Now that it is out in the open that the US government plans to prosecute any journalist anywhere in the world who it deems to have committed “disclosure of secrets which harm the national interest” (which in Assange’s case means exposing US war crimes), anyone on earth who actually plans on doing real journalism which holds real power to account is at risk. If someone isn’t using whatever platform they can to denounce Assange’s persecution, they are showing the world that they have no interest in ever doing real journalism which holds real power to account.

News reporters and news outlets are showing us what they are right at this moment. If they are not speaking out for Assange’s freedom right now they are telling you that his persecution poses no threat to them. They are telling you that they never plan on doing anything that might hold power to account with the light of truth. They are telling you that they will side with power every time. They are telling you they are propagandists.

The prosecution’s new line of argumentation should have drawn massive headlines from all the major news outlets who’ve been bloviating about the dangers posed by Trump’s war on the press with flamboyant preening and self-aggrandizement. Instead they are silent, because they do not care.

To quote Maya Angelou, when someone shows you who they are, believe them.

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