‘Journalists should never have to face intimidation for doing their jobs’ – tweeted UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt last week, a day before his country granted a US request to extradite former Wikileaks editor Julian Assange to the United States to face charges relating to the leaking of government documents. But Hunt was not referring to Assange in his tweet. In fact the UK foreign minister even condemned the UN Special Rapporteur last month for interfering in the business of the British courts, when he commented that Assange should not be extradited. Jeremy Hunt was referring to the case of Ivan Golunov, the Russian journalist who was arrested on 7th June with charges of possessing illegal drugs; charges that were subsequently dropped due to a lack of evidence. The case caused such a public outcry in Russia, where it was widely believed the charges were false, that undoubtedly impacted on the decision to end Golunov’s detention.
The same however cannot be said of former publisher Julian Assange. Despite the fact we are supposedly living in a liberal democracy, Assange, who is now being held in a maximum security prison in the UK where he is sitting out a 50-week prison sentence for skipping bail, has received mainly condemnation as opposed to support, from politicians and journalists alike. Even from media outlets such as the Guardian newspaper, which traditionally would support liberal causes, has jumped on board the anti-Assange band wagon, labelling him as an ‘unattractive character’, and concluding he should be sent to Sweden to stand trial for rape charges. At this point I am reminded of the words of former UK ambassador Craig Murray who stated that of all the charges to lay at Assange’s feet, the CIA chose rape, as it is the one charge which could effectively undermine left-wing liberal support for him. Indeed rather than painting Assange as a political dissident, he has been branded over the years more like a runaway rapist by left-wing and right-wing media alike. This is despite a proposal by his legal team that he travel to Sweden to face the charges, in exchange for an assurance that they would not extradite him to the US. Sweden, of course, was unwilling to give such a promise.
Thanks to the complicity of the current Ecuadorian and British governments in US plans to force Assange to stand trial, Assange is now to be extradited for his supposed role in the leaking of state documents. Documents, it is worth reminding the reader, that were supplied to Assange by US soldier Chelsea Manning and which exposed the dastardly nature of the US war in Iraq, and its indiscriminate killing of Iraqi civilians. Other important files revealed the slaughter of hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan, and the corruption at the heart of western-backed Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali; evidence which undoubtedly escalated his downfall. But far from being held up as a beacon of free speech amongst his fellow journalists for exposing the truth about state-sponsored crimes, the former Wikileaks editor has already been ‘sentenced’ by those who once would expect to defend him, and the cause of journalistic freedom. With the exception of the eminent writers such as John Pilger, who said Assange’s case is mainly about ‘shutting down dissent and investigative journalism’ and Christopher Hedges who claims it could set a ‘terrifying legal precedent’, Assange has been accused of hiding from the truth and told he should have faced up to the charges long ago.
On the other hand, the same western media which derides Assange carries the torch for Russian journalists such as Ivan Golunov who are equally held up to be victims of freedom of speech. We are repeatedly learning about apparent breaches of journalistic freedoms in Russia, and yet the most stark attack on our democracy to date – the persecution of Julian Assange - is packaged to the public in such a way that we are also persuaded to denounce this ‘traitor’ who ‘hid from justice’ in the Ecuadorian embassy. The hypocrisy could not be more blatant. Notably, even several Russian newspapers came out with the slogan ‘We are Golunov’ on their front pages in support of the Russian activist, something which no doubt sent a strong message to the organs of state and which, it must be admitted, UK establishment newspapers would never do for Assange.
We have therefore approached a 1984 moment in the Anglophone world where we must ask ourselves if freedom of speech still exists, and possibly, if it ever did exist, or was it just an illusion of a well-oiled western propaganda machine. The case of Julian Assange, in the context of a society all to ready to highlight press freedom issues abroad, has really brought home the hypocrisy of western policies. How can we continue to lecture other nations on freedom and democracy if we do not implement it faithfully ourselves? And furthermore, which direction are we heading in? Through our pursuit of liberal values and democracy, have we now become more authoritarian than the states we are accusing of muffling the press? Assange is a turning point for us in history, and a much-needed wake-up call.