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Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance writer based in Dublin.
Follow her on Twitter @DanielleRyanJ
Published time: 10 Jun, 2019
Journalists silent on Assange’s plight are complicit in his torture and imprisonment
When Julian Assange was dragged from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and arrested by police doing the bidding of the US government, most Western journalists sneered, sniggered, and lined up to publicly wash their hands of him.
Op-eds and think pieces declaring that Assange was “not a journalist” came in thick and fast. Smug hacks belittled his appearance on Twitter. They eagerly shared salacious rumors about his personal habits. Many bought the line that it was his alleged “misbehavior” which prompted Quito to suddenly expel him after seven years — and they defended the Trump administration when it levelled a charge of conspiracy to hack a government computer, arguing that it really wasn’t such a big deal. He wasn’t in their club, so there was little need to defend him.
This nonchalant response to the arrest of perhaps the most consequential journalist and whistleblower of our time was exactly the one British and US authorities relied upon — and they were not disappointed. The indifference of the media on both sides of the Atlantic to Assange’s plight was like a flashing green light for authorities to step things up, which of course they did, announcing 17 new charges in May.
It was at this point that mainstream journalists suddenly began to perk up. Now, since the new charges related to the actual publication of classified material, this was all beginning to look a little bit sketchy. If Assange could be persecuted for publishing classified documents, why couldn’t a journalist from the New York Times? And, so came the tepid defenses of Assange, offered up out of pure self-interest. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Fox News and a whole host of others suddenly felt compelled to take a stand. Even fervent Assange hater Rachel Maddow defended “the WikiLeaks guy” on MSNBC.
It’s a pity they hadn’t been awoken to this threat against journalism during the seven years that Assange languished in the Ecuadorian Embassy fearing US charges and possible extradition — but they were too busy trashing his character, spreading lies about WikiLeaks being a Russian intelligence operation and arguing that it was merely“pride”keeping him from walking out the door. In other words, for seven years, they were complicit in Assange’s imprisonment and torture inside the embassy — and only when it appeared that his fate could possibly be intertwined with theirs did they finally open their eyes.
Many who reluctantly oppose the latest charges, still pepper their feeble and dispassionate defenses with narcissistic disclaimers about how they don’t like Assange personally, despite the fact that while his life is at stake for the crime of exposing US government crimes, his character traits should be entirely irrelevant.
These cowardly journalists, suddenly cognizant of the threat to their profession, shouldn’t expect praise and congratulations for doing the bare minimum to defend a man who UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer said exhibits serious signs of psychological torture due to his long-term arbitrary confinement, systematic judicial persecution, harassment and “deliberate collective ridicule, insults and humiliation.” Asked if he feared Assange could die in prison, Melzer said there is a “very real” fear of that happening.
Doctors who visited Assange in the London embassy in 2018 implored authorities to allow him to be taken to hospital for proper care. Where was the media then? In 2016, a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for his release and argued that the UK and Sweden — where Assange faces dubious rape charges — should compensate him for “deprivation of liberty.” Where were they then? When Assange was finally arrested, his legal asylum violated, and taken to a maximum security prison instead of hospital, where were they then?
Any mildly compassionate human can imagine what seven years inside a confined space, closely monitored and without access to proper medical treatment, sunlight and fresh air would do to them, both mentally and physically. Yet, seeing him dragged through the embassy’s doors in April, visibly frail and unwell, journalists made jokes on Twitter about the toll the ordeal had taken on him.
There are still many in the media; pundits, analysts, some who call themselves journalists, who refuse to defend him at all — and each one of them is complicit in his continued persecution.
One way you can tell for sure just how insincere Western journalists are when it comes to their concerns for a free press, is to examine the instant outpouring of sympathy and outrage for arrested Russian journalist Ivan Golunov last week. The fact of the matter is that going to bat for a Russian journalist makes them feel good, but defending the man Hillary Clinton blames for her loss to Donald Trump and who has exposed and embarrassed the US empire which they continually protect, is too much for them to handle.
Now that Assange is within the US government’s reach, those of us concerned by his plight worry that nothing can be done to save him from extradition and life in prison, or worse. His supporters will continue to protest and hold vigils. Independent and alternative media will continue to highlight the many injustices surrounding his case — but the reality is, none of it may make any difference at all.
The one thing, however, that could possibly affect Assange’s fate is consistent pressure from large influential outlets and prominent journalists. If the British government faced widespread outrage — from both the media and the public — over their treatment of him, he may stand a better chance, or he may not, but it’s a dereliction of duty to not even try.