Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks an internet based journalistic enterprise, is a hairsbreadth away from being deported from Great Britain and extradited to the United States. In the U.S. he faces charges under the seldom used Espionage Act of 1917. If convicted in the U.S., he faces what is effectively a life sentence.
Assange is accused of aiding the release of classified U.S. military information. This information was obtained by then U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Assange maintains that all he did was publish the information. Manning was convicted of the release of this information and served 4 years, her sentence being commuted by then President Obama and released from prison in 2017.
The information in question was detailed information about the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This information contradicted official U.S. statements about the conduct of the war as well as estimates of civilian deaths that were at odds with official claims. In short, what this information did was embarrass and humiliate the U.S. government and give the public some insight into the actual conduct of wars fought in their name. Of course this was intolerable to the authorities.
The legal theory that the U.S. is basing it prosecution is that Assange conspired with Manning to obtain the material in question. That is, he was not simply acting as a journalist, in the way the New York Times was in publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 (which embarrassed the U.S. government over Vietnam War policy). The U.S. government had to take this position as the courts have long protected the right of journalists to publish information that they obtained from sources. Concurrently with this charge of conspiring with Chelsea Manning the U.S. government has taken the position that WikiLeaks is not a true journalistic organization but an advocacy and perhaps antagonistic entity, thus not deserving of First Amendment protections. Needless to say there are legal experts who are troubled by this to say the least.
It Is About Free Speech
The notion that WikiLeaks is not a “real” journalistic enterprise is specious at best. They routinely and have from their inception published information that is relevant to public policy and is of interest to many news consumers. The government has a legal claim to prosecute those who release classified information (we will set aside whether such a large amount of classification is healthy for a free society). However, the facts in this case do not bear out the government’s claim that Assange “conspired”. It is beyond the scope of a single post to dive deep into this issue, but the evidence is out there, and the government’s case is lacking. In any event, one does not have to be excessively jaded to see that the government’s position is all too typical of an institution that does not want embarrassing truths to be released into the wild.
In protecting the right of Assange and WikiLeaks to publish information that they obtained without committing a crime itself is paramount to protecting the right to free speech. If this prosecution is allowed to proceed, then there will be little to stand in the way of the U.S. government chilling the environment against any news organization with the temerity to embarrass the government. Bringing forth true facts about government policy and illuminating the public about the activities of their government is critical to the health of any free society. Embarrassment of the authorities is not and should not be treated as a crime. Just the opposite; it should be treated as necessary to protecting our liberties.
Given how large and powerful the government has become it should not surprise anyone that they would try to squelch free speech and to maintain a large reservoir of secrets. They have been doing this all throughout time. It is a thin thread upon which to hang the freedom of society, but transparency may be all we have left. It would certainly seem that transparency is a necessary, if not sufficient condition for maintaining a free society. The framers of the constitution understood this, which is why they gave us the First Amendment.
House Prophets and Whores
If the free flow of information is so critical to the health of a free society, then where is our extant media in all of this? The main organs of today’s media are firmly in the camp of the government. Corporate media has made its decision and it is on the side of government repression of information. This stunning editorial in the Washington Post sums up much of the corporate media’s attitude. They explicitly call for Assange to be prosecuted and “held accountable”. Longtime journalist Glenn Greenwald has written extensively about the corporate media’s dereliction of duty regarding this issue. Here is a good summary of what he has to say about this.
Part of the position taken by the mainstream media is that Assange is not a “real” journalist. Underlying that claim is the specious notion that journalists are a class of people. Journalism is an activity. An activity that can be performed by anyone, anywhere, at any time. That is clearly a threat to the business model and lived reality of corporate media.
The dark reality about most of the corporate media is that they are essentially public relations arms of the U.S. government. Corporate media is, for all intents and purposes, the government. They have every reason to kowtow to the government. They depend for their livelihoods upon the government. This is literally true when you consider the power that the FCC has over broadcasters. Also the government exercises a great deal of regulatory authority over cable providers as well as over the air media. The government presence in controlling the internet also gives them considerable influence over streaming media.
On top of this regulatory and statutory control the corporate media relies on the government for access; interviews and “background”, etc. It takes considerable effort to uncover information the government wants kept secret, so we should not underestimate sheer laziness as a factor in all of this. Nor should we underestimate professional jealousy toward “upstarts” like WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.
The fact is that an increasingly large number of consumers understand how the media slants toward pro-government policy. To get accurate, if embarrassing information, millions are turning to newer forms of media; sites like substack, callin, rumble and other arenas to get their information. All while cable and mainstream media ratings are cratering, CNN+ anyone? This new emerging media represents a real competitive threat to the corporate media and like any other entrenched industry they will use the government to shut down competition. Like any form of economic regulation used for purposes of unrighteous enrichment, this will diminish everyone’s liberty. Of greater concern, however, is the prominent place the free flow of information has in protecting our freedom. This incestuous relationship poses a much greater threat to society than say a tariff on imported steel.
Where From Here?
First, recognize that what happens to Julian Assange matters to all of us. Allowing the government to proceed without protest will only embolden these parasites to steal more freedom from us by allowing them to continue to operate in the dark. As in all things related to the government, the problem starts with how powerful that government is. Reduce the power of the government to the level of your local weed control board (too much government, I know!), then much of this issue goes away. A government too weak to do much damage can stay in the dark, what would the difference be at that point?
Additionally, limiting the government would automatically enhance the free market for journalism and information. This would free the emerging media platforms to continue to develop in ways that are meaningful to their customers. This would also force the mainstream media outlets to adapt or die as media providers. This is as it should be in a free, dynamic society. If there is a market for what they produce, fine. If not, that is fine too. This would instantly create a diverse media ecosystem that would strengthen society and make us all better informed.
It starts with caring about the rights of others, even if you see no immediate connection to yourself. As people of faith, we are called to look at the other, the stranger among us, and to stand up for them and their rights and dignities. As a people of faith we need not fear diversity, Jesus didn’t. So, stand up for Julian Assange. Do it because it is the right thing to do. If you can’t see your way clear to do it for that reason, then do it because it may be your right of free expression they’re coming for next.
Praise Be to God