“Assange’s arrest is an attack on free speech and dissent”

Journalists and intellectuals across the world have risen in support of Julian Assange, terming his arrest a strike at the very heart of journalism and part of a campaign to silence those who would raise their voices against power

April 16, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Activists from across the world have begun campaigns for the release of Julian Assange.

Various organizations, journalists, authors, activists, and other individuals have condemned the arrest of Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London on April 11. These voices from across the world noted that his detention and the nature of the charges against him is an attack on press freedom and investigative journalism that exposed the secrets of the powerful.

While the UK government has charged Assange with jumping bail, the US has filed an extradition request on the basis of an indictment under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The extradition hearing will be held on May 2.

Assange has been charged with being part of a conspiracy to break into a computer belonging to the US government. The case has to do with the communication between Assange and Chelsea Manning regarding information revealed by the latter on US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ‘conspiracy’ in the indictment refers to attempts by Assange and Manning to protect her identity as a source, and Assange’s encouraging Manning to find out more information on US atrocities in these countries.

Highlighting this fact, a statement by prominent Indian journalists and intellectuals noted that the arrest of Assange was an attack on the very heart of journalism. “Helping sources protect themselves is an ethical imperative for all journalists. It is also important to recall that the information Chelsea Manning provided exposed war crimes by US military personnel in Iraq; the best-known of these is the video Collateral Murder published by Wikileaks in 2007,” said the statement. It is signed by N Ram, former editor-in-chief of The Hindu group; Arundhati Roy, author and Booker Prize winner; P Sainath, editor-in-chief of People’s Archive of Rural India; Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal and writer; Indira Jaising, former additional solicitor general of India; and Romila Thapar, historian and writer.

The statement added, “If the US had charged Assange and Wikileaks for publishing classified material, the legal case would have been no different from charging The New York Times with publishing the Pentagon Papers. So “conspiracy” and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act had to be used to criminalize conversations and information transmission between a whistleblower and a journalist. Charging Assange with conspiracy bypasses the protection of law that exists for the press internationally — including the First Amendment in the US.”

Renowned journalist and film-maker John Pilger commented upon Assange’s arrest, saying, “The glimpse of Julian Assange being dragged from the Ecuadorean embassy in London is an emblem of the times. Might against right. Muscle against the law. Indecency against courage. Six policemen manhandled a sick journalist, his eyes wincing against his first natural light in almost seven years.”

Earlier, Noam Chomsky talked about how global powers came together to silence Assange and stop his work that was successful in throwing light on some of the most well-hidden mass crimes committed by governments in power. “[T]he Assange arrest is scandalous in several respects. One of them is just the effort of governments—and it’s not just the U.S. government. The British are cooperating. Ecuador, of course, is now cooperating. Sweden, before, had cooperated. The efforts to silence a journalist who was producing materials that people in power didn’t want the rascal multitude to know about … WikiLeaks was producing things that people ought to know about those in power. People in power don’t like that, so therefore we have to silence it.”

Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who exposed the Pentagon Papers, talked about the kind of precedent set by Assange’s arrest. “This is the first indictment of a journalist and editor or publisher, Julian Assange. And if it’s successful it will not be the last. This is clearly is a part of President Trump’s war on the press, what he calls the enemy of the state.”

The statement by the Indian journalists also focused on the contributions of Assange, “ The journalism WikiLeaks and its Editor-in-Chief stand for is a journalism of outrage — outrage against the injustices and atrocities that take place round the world — but always with an eye to factuality, substantiation, and precision.”

This is why it became important for those in power to silence him. Drawing parallels with history, Chomsky said, “Some of you may recall when Mussolini’s fascist government put Antonio Gramsci in jail. The prosecutor said, “We have to silence this voice for 20 years. Can’t let it speak.” That’s Assange. That’s Lula. There are other cases. That’s one scandal,” said Chomsky.

All these prominent writers and intellectuals called for people to rise in support of Assange.

“We demand that Assange be set free immediately. We call upon journalists and readers everywhere to raise our voices against the persecution of free, independent, and fearless journalism,” concluded the statement by the Indian journalists.

“It’s a day for journalists in general, especially, and everybody who values a free press, and not only in this country, to join ranks here now to expose and resist the wrongful–and in this country unconstitutional–abuse of our laws to silence journalists,” said Ellsberg.