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For the United States government, World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to further project an image of the U.S. as a supposed champion of journalism and human rights. But that projection is muddied greatly by the prosecution against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
An event was hosted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the UN headquarters in New York. It marked the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day.
Dr. Agnès Callamard, the secretary general for Amnesty International, called attention to the double standard of so-called democratic countries while discussing challenges to protecting press freedom.
“It is not just what is happening in Iran or in Russia that should worry us, although it should worry us a lot. It is also what is happening here [in the U.S.],” Callamard said. “Who is imprisoning Julian Assange? Who is creating more laws to curtail the freedom to protest? All of those indicators and trends are occurring within the so-called democracies of the world.”
Callamard added, “Sadly, the playbook of autocracy, of control over conscience, of control over speech, has been well-learned by our so-called democratic leaders.”
President Joe Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have wielded the playbook of autocracy through deliberate acts of omission—by consistently dodging any attempts by reporters or civil society leaders to hold them accountable for pursuing the Assange case.
At the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 29, Biden highlighted Russia’s detention of Evan Gershkovich and the abduction of Austin Tice in Syria over a decade ago.
Then Biden proclaimed, “Tonight, our message is this: Journalism is not a crime.”
However, that message seems fraudulent as the U.S. government remains committed to prosecuting Assange and keeps him in jail.
Assange has been a target of surveillance and subject to some form of arbitrary detention for more than a decade. The journalism he oversaw as WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, which involved publishing classified documents from the U.S. government, effectively made him a target.
Last year, Blinken uttered the following on World Press Freedom Day:
When individual journalists are threatened, when they’re attacked, when they’re imprisoned, the chilling effects reach far beyond their targets. Some in the media start to self-censor. Others flee. Some stop reporting altogether. And when repressive governments come after journalists, human rights defenders, labor leaders, others in civil society are usually not far behind.
A similar statement about the climate of fear fueled by prosecuting Assange has been made by Rebecca Vincent, the director of operations and international campaigns for Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
“If the U.S. government is successful in securing Assange’s extradition and prosecuting him for his contributions to public interest reporting, the same precedent could be applied to any journalist anywhere,” Vincent contended. “The possible implications of this case simply cannot be understated; it is the very future of journalism and press freedom that is at stake.”
This year, Blinken will participate in a “moderated conversation on the state of press freedom worldwide” with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
After Assange’s arrest on April 11, 2019, Ignatius argued the U.S. Justice Department had “drawn its indictment carefully enough that the issue [was] theft of secrets, rather than their publication.” The Washington Post Editorial Board has maintained that WikiLeaks “differs from journalism.” So Blinken will likely be permitted to advance a litany of double standards without being called on it.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) marked World Press Freedom Day by promoting “Reporters Shield.” Under the new program, certain journalists and media organizations can apply to become "members" that are eligible to receive funds to help combat legal threats aimed at silencing them (Note: USAID has in the past been used by the CIA as a front for operations.)
According to USAID Director Samantha Power, who spoke at the UNESCO meeting, independent journalists around the world increasingly face lawfare from “corrupt leaders,” who are intent to drive them out of business.
“Repressive or corrupt elites have tried to silence opposition by killing journalists. Now they are trying to kill journalism,” Power stated.
Power was thinking of journalists in countries like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, but the reality is that Assange and WikiLeaks might benefit from such a program.
The CIA mounted a disruption campaign against WikiLeaks to make it difficult for the media organization to function. Officials reportedly discussed kidnapping or poisoning Assange while he was living under political asylum in the Ecuador embassy, and Mike Pompeo, when he was secretary of state, pressured Ecuador to toss Assange out of the embassy so the US could get their hands on him.
Later in the meeting, Committee to Protect Journalists Jodie Ginsberg pointed out that if we really want to keep journalism safe then all governments must cease lawfare that involves targeting journalists with a “wide variety of spurious charges.”
“One thing that the United States could concretely do is drop the charges against Julian Assange,” Ginsberg declared. She noted if Assange was brought to trial it would "effectively criminalize journalists everywhere.”
Hitting Assange with Espionage Act charges and jailing him for the past four years has forced WikiLeaks to focus on freeing their founder. The organization has little to no funds to support the publication of new leaks, not to mention their reputation has been tarnished by smear campaigns engaged in by current and former U.S. intelligence officials. And it has also become harder to maintain the invaluable archive of documents on the WikiLeaks website.
U.S. officials could abandon this case on World Press Freedom Day, but they will not because officials have entrenched themselves in the spiteful position that Assange is not a journalist. They see no conflict between their calls to free imprisoned journalists and their own autocratic conduct.