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Assange – now a focus of press freedom

06 February, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Julian Assange. Photo: Cancillería del Ecuador

HAS the tide turned in the silent treatment once given by the mainstream media over the incarceration of Julian Assange? Is the voice for press freedom being heard at last?

First came an outspoken defence of Assange by Roy Greenslade, a radical voice in journalism, in Monday’s Guardian.

Then, to my surprise, I found myself in a packed hall at the Royal National hotel in Bloomsbury on Tuesday, as 500 boisterous protesters – a crowd gathered through social media, it seemed – clapped, shouted “bravo!” and gave a standing ovations to speaker after speaker who argued against the extradition charges which have led to Assange being locked up in the tough Belmarsh jail in south London, home to killers and terrorists.

He was sent there last autumn after being evicted from the Ecuadorian embassy where he had sought refuge after skipping bail several years ago.

The theme of the speeches was that all journalists would be at risk for publishing certain classified information if Assange is jailed. Press freedom itself was under fire.

Assange has been pursued for revealing, through Wikileaks, atrocities committed by the US in the Iraq war. One of the leaks was footage showing a helicopter gunning down civilians including two Reuters journalists. The leakages were published by the Guardian and New York Times.

I thought the organisers had booked too big a hall as my mind went back to last autumn and the dribble of support for Assange, then cold-shouldered by the media who had effectively ostracised him following a rape charge in Sweden – a charge now dropped. Surely, only one or two hundred will turn up, |I thought. But I was wrong.

Assange faces an extradition hearing on February 24 – to be held, extraordinarily enough, in the actual jail itself. If approved by the judge (there is no jury) he will be sent to the US where he faces 175 years in jail under a First World War Espionage Act.

In an emotionally charged meeting, the hearing was described by one speaker as a “blood sport” – after all, Assange is an Australian journalist, living in Britain, so what right has the US to call for his head? Isn’t he entitled to the protection by our government?

The array of speakers revealed the mounting support now gathering for Assange – Nils Melzer, international lawyer, and a member of the UN commission on torture; Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor of Wikileaks; Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s lawyer based at Doughty Chambers in Bloomsbury; Tim Dawson, president of the National Union of Journalists; Richard Burgon, contender in Labour’s election for a deputy leader; shadow chancellor John McDonnell and writer and campaigner Tariq Ali.

Kristinn Hrafnsson dismissed the argument that Assange wasn’t a journalist, emphasising how he had won journalistic prizes for his revelations.

Nils Melzer said he had held “neutral views” on Assange until he visited him holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy and found him “suffering from psychological torture”. His report from the UN commission on torture had been dismissed by Theresa May in a one-page reply six months after its submission. The government had simply indulged in “public relations”, he charged. Assange was being persecuted for “throwing a light” on crimes by the US government.

Worried about the lack of judicial fairness in Assange’s case, Richard Burgon said it wasn’t right he would only face a judge at Belmarsh and not a jury, and, if extradited, would then face a hearing in a court in Virginia where 80 per cent of the population work for the CIA or the Pentagon. “He would go from no jury to bent jury,” he warned.

John McDonnell accused the US of “scapegoating” Assange for his exposure of crimes in the Iraq war. He said he, and several other MPs, were trying to visit Assange in jail but had so far failed to be given permission by the Home Secretary.

Tariq Ali said “war itself” was the context of Assange’s case – if there were no wars none of it would happen. But persecution of whistle-blowers will not stop embarrassing leaks. There will always be someone whose conscience will push him or her to expose war crimes. So many lies had been told about Iraq this was bound to happen. If Assange is extradited to the US, he concluded it will be a “stain” on the whole legal system in this country.


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