'Canadian mainstream press have undermined the public’s right to know while ignoring the significance of WikiLeaks releases themselves. That needs to change’
After 10 years of restricted freedom, political exile and incarceration, Julian Assange finally came face-to-face with his accusers at the Old Bailey Criminal Court in London. For three weeks in September, a team of English lawyers argued on behalf of their client, the U.S. Department of Justice, that the beleaguered WikiLeaks founder and publisher should be handed over to a U.S. national security court to face 17 counts under the 1917 Espionage Act.
If convicted by the District Court of Eastern Virginia, where the indictments originated, Assange will spend the rest of his life in an American supermax facility for having published evidence of United States war crimes, torture and a host of other government wrongdoing.
“The decade-long saga that brought us to this point should appall anyone who cares about our increasingly fragile freedoms,” blogged former Guardian reporter and Martha Gellhorn prize winner Jonathan Cook on the eve of Assange’s extradition hearings.
“Right now, every journalist in the world ought to be up in arms, protesting at the abuses Assange is suffering, and has suffered, and the fate he will endure if extradition is approved.”
If you go by years of Canadian reporting on Assange and WikiLeaks, Canadian journalists don’t share Cook’s sentiment. When asked in the summer if advocacy group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has plans to advocate for Assange’s freedom, CJFE president Philip Tunley responded, “I am not seeing any consensus at CJFE to weigh in on behalf of Mr. Assange, though some clearly still support him and wish him well.”
The premise that it takes an informed citizenry to run a true democracy is being seriously subverted by the Canadian fourth estate itself. By distracting attention away from the press freedom principles of Assange’s extradition case and obsessing over his character, Canadian mainstream press have undermined the public’s right to know while ignoring the significance of WikiLeaks releases themselves. That needs to change.
As a Canadian freelancer, enduring 10 years of biased and inaccurate reporting in the Canadian press about Assange has been a source of dismay and frustration. Petitioning and complaining to senior editors and broadcast gatekeepers was clearly naïve given the paucity of responses.
One response that did come back signposted a troubling predicament in Canadian Assange and WikiLeaks coverage.
CBC had posted a Thomson Reuters story in August about a U.S. Senate Committee report that claimed WikiLeaks worked with Russian Intelligence to release the Democratic National Committee emails in 2016.
When I suggested in my complaint that the report provides no evidence for this classic claim against WikiLeaks and that repeating official unsubstantiated narratives does not make them true, CBC director of journalistic standards Paul Hambleton emailed back:
“I fully understand that you may hold a different view than that of the Senate committee.
It is not the CBC’s obligation to determine what is ‘truth’ (a truly dangerous notion for any broadcaster), but only to present differing views fairly and accurately affording Canadians the opportunity and the information they need to make up their own minds about the nature or quality of the views expressed.”
I argued back: “The predicament here is that journalism is not principally about ‘the nature or quality of views.’ Journalism is foremost about presenting facts, checked and verified.”
What’s seriously worrying in the Assange and WikiLeaks coverage I complained about to CBC and other news outlets is that for the public, the repetition of established narratives — including unsubstantiated claims and assertions —eventually becomes a substitute for fact or truth.
I haven’t heard back from Mr. Hambleton.
When I wasn’t writing complaint emails to news outlets, I was busy pitching Assange stories and opinion pieces of my own. Except for two queries, most were politely (but outright) rejected, citing issues with space and timing.
Canadaland published one submission that called out Canadian Assange coverage for ignoring the United States’ attempt to criminalize whistleblower journalism.
The National Observer posted my opinion letter after negotiating with the editor who asserted one of the classic positions held by many in the legacy press. “Assange is a programmer and a hacker, but never worked as a journalist. You’re framing the issue as a journalism freedom issue. For me this is still a problem in your framing.”
The problem with my “framing” was resolved when I pointed out that Assange and WikiLeaks won a string of journalism awards over the years including the 2011 Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism awarded annually to a journalist “whose work has penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth that exposes establishment propaganda, or ‘official drivel’, as Martha Gellhorn called it.”
We find ourselves in a time when unauthorized ideas are no longer guaranteed to make it into the mainstream, even when those ideas have been fact-checked and proven to be true.
The crisis in Canadian journalism isn’t underfunding and it isn’t the concentration of media ownership. The plight of Canadian journalism, if reportage on Assange is the yardstick, are the signposts that fearless independent reporting that holds governments and institutions to account has all but vanished from the mainstream, which is where most Canadians get their news.
In 2010, WikiLeaks released 750,000 pages of the Manning leaks, “the largest leak of classified documents in U.S history” declared the Pentagon – State Department cables, Guantanamo secrets, Afghan war diaries and Iraq war logs which included collateral murder, the helicopter gunsight video that shows unprovoked slayings of civilians by U.S. troops in the streets of Baghdad.
Australian journalist John Pilger said Assange and WikiLeaks were in the crosshairs of United States authorities years before the publicity around the war logs releases made WikiLeaks a household name.
“The aim was to silence and criminalize WikiLeaks and its editor and publisher. It was as if they planned a war on a single human being and on the very principle of freedom of speech,” Pilger told a crowd of Assange supporters in front of the Old Bailey.
Pilger described in detail the campaign to discredit Assange led by the Cyber Counter-Intelligence Assessments Branch of the U.S. Defense Department after a 2007 WikiLeaks post of a U.S. Army manual of standard operating procedures for soldiers overseeing al-Qaida suspects held in Guantanamo military prison.
Pilger refers to the extradition hearings as “the final act to bury Julian Assange. It’s not due process, it’s due revenge.”
According to independent observers, the structural inequalities of the extradition proceedings alone, as overseen by Westminster District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, provide plenty of cause to have the U.S. extradition request dismissed outright.
During his incarceration at maximum security Belmarsh facility, Assange had only restricted access to his legal team and was only permitted to hold on to case files for a limited time. In court Assange sat in the back of the room behind a glass partition and wasn’t permitted confidential communications with his lawyers.
Two protected defence witnesses, former employees of Spanish security firm UC Global, confirmed that they recorded conversations in the Ecuadorian embassy between Assange and his lawyers and gave the information to U.S. intelligence officials.
Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, also a witness for the defence, had his case thrown out for less, after president Richard Nixon operatives broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to steal mental health information that might discredit him.
Former UK diplomat and independent journalist Craig Murray, who reported in his daily blog from Courtroom 10 at the Central Criminal Court of England, wrote in his Day 6 report from the hearings: “What came over most strongly was the desire of both judge and prosecution to railroad through the extradition with as little of the case against it getting a public airing as possible.”
None of the abuses of process were reported by establishment reporters. The only Canadian report from inside the courtroom, by the Globe and Mail, validated Murray’s observations and helped ensure judge and prosecution had their way.
Globe and Mail Europe correspondent Paul Waldie concludes in his Sept. 16 report about Daniel Ellsberg’s testimony, “At one point he (Assange) started heckling Judge Vanessa Baraitser who threatened to kick him out.”
However, according to Court News UK reporter Charlie Jones, what actually happened was that when U.S. prosecutors objected to the live testimony of German-Lebanese citizen Khaled El-Masri — a survivor of CIA kidnapping, torture, and rendition —, Assange stood up and “heckled” from behind the glass partition at the back of the courtroom, saying “Madame, I will not accept you censoring a torture victim’s statement to this court.”
Waldie made no mention of defence witness El-Masri’s testimony, which confirmed what WikiLeaks’ publication of U.S. diplomatic cables had revealed in 2010, that significant U.S. pressure was brought on German authorities not to arrest and prosecute CIA actors.
Waldie also didn’t bring up that lawyers for the U.S. prosecution argued vehemently to keep all references to U.S. torture and wrong doing out of the proceeding’s transcripts.
Noam Chomsky was one of the defence witnesses whose full testimony Baraitser and the prosecution didn’t want to hear. His live testimony was replaced by a four-minute summary read into the court records.
An excerpt from Chomsky’s written submission: “In my view, Julian Assange, in courageously upholding political beliefs that most of us profess to share, has performed an enormous service to all the people in the world who treasure the values of freedom and democracy and who therefore demand the right to know what their elected representatives are doing. His actions in turn have led him to be pursued in a cruel and intolerable manner.”
Canadian coverage of Assange’s extradition consists almost entirely of the same Thomson-Reuters and Associated Press dispatches posted on various Canadian news sites. If you held them up against independent accounts, you’d think indie journos and wire service reporters attended different events.
Fidel Narváez, the Ecuadorian diplomat who granted Julian Assange political asylum, was one of only a handful of observers permitted into the courtroom. Narváez reports that on the first day, Baraitser cut access to the video stream in Courtroom 9 that had been previously authorized for nearly 40 human rights organizations and international observers, including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and PEN International.
“If the case in London were decided solely on justice, as it should in a state based on law, this battle would have been won by Assange,” writes Narváez in one of his daily dispatches.
Narváez and other independent observers suggest that what was adjudicated was not whether Assange should be extradited for violating the Espionage Act, but rather the criminality of the American state itself.
The chilling claim put forward by U.S. prosecutors that the United States has jurisdiction over any journalist, any publication, anywhere in the world to prosecute under the Espionage Act for publishing classified U.S. information hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Canadian Association of Journalists.
“I can assure you that I, as president, as well as the CAJ’s advocacy committee, are keeping a very close eye on the Assange case,” said Brent Jolly. “The CAJ still believes the United States should immediately drop its attempts to extradite Mr. Assange.”
“Encouraging sources to leak information that is in the public interest to the media is a basic practice of journalism which must be defended. Journalists and whistleblowers have a role to play in protecting citizens in a democracy,” Jolly’s predecessor, Karyn Pugliese, told me after Assange was arrested and imprisoned at Belmarsh in 2019.
The CAJ’s position has yet to translate into accurate and unbiased reporting on the Assange-WikiLeaks file by Canadian journalists and news organizations. However, coverage of domestic occurrences of the ‘Assange effect’ — attempts to criminalize journalism, such as Justin Brake’s and Karl Dockstader’s arrest for covering Indigenous land disputes — have been diligently reported.
“There is a vague but widely held notion among the Canadian press that Assange’s troubles are not terribly important and not particularly newsworthy,” Canadaland publisher Jesse Brown told me in October after the hearings. “To actually engage with the facts invariably means accepting that Julian Assange is being persecuted for telling the public things about the American government that they did not want known, and that means accepting that Julian Assange’s cause is every journalist’s cause.”
The hearings wrapped up three weeks of witness testimonies in September. Assange’s lawyers submitted their closing arguments to the court on Nov. 6 arguing that the request for Assange’s extradition is the result of U.S. President Donald Trump’s political agenda.
“It is politically motivated, it is an abuse of the process of this court, and it is a clear violation of the Anglo-U.S. treaty that governs this extradition.”
Prosecutors will submit their closing arguments on Nov. 20. Baraitser is expected to hand down her judgement on Jan. 4.