WikiLeaks and Whistleblowers: Attacks on Press Freedom

27/05/2019

Julian Assange has now been charged under the US’ Espionage Act, potentially facing over 170 years in prison and being the first person to be charged under this Act for merely publishing material leaked to WikiLeaks. A number of whistleblowers have faced this charge, from Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers) to Daniel Hale (who revealed the assassination and drone programs implemented by Obama). But where is the media outrage? The public interest?

“How can you measure the jeopardy that I’m in, whether it’s 10 years, 20 years, 115 years—rather ludicrous amounts like that—to the penalty that has been paid already by 50,000 American families here and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese families.” – Daniel Ellsberg

“This is a precedent-setting moment, not just legally, but morally, because this is not the end. This is the beginning. And they will eventually come for other news organizations, or they will scare media outlets from doing high-stakes national security reporting.” – Jeremy Scahill

“For the first time in the history of [the United States], the government has brought criminal charges under the Espionage Act against a publisher for the publication of truthful information.” – ACLU

“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.” – Noam Chomsky

Say what you will about Julian Assange, and argue all you like about whether or not he qualifies as a ‘journalist’ or not (coincidentally, an argument mostly undertaken by other journalists from mainstream outlets). What is irrefutable is that the charges now laid before him are incredibly dangerous, although not unexpected. From a piece I wrote in November last year:

“It’s still unclear what the US would charge him with, but one can’t help but think that if he ended up being dragged there that he would be hidden from public view. Some regard that as conspiracy, but history tells us it’s quite possible.”

Not only do we now know what Assange is now being charged with, I was right – it is no conspiracy to believe that the head of WikiLeaks may end up locked away from the public eye. I even got the dragging part right; how predictable their methods are. That the Australian government has stayed silent throughout this whole unlawful affair is a disgrace.

But as Jeremy Scahill explains in an interview with Democracy Now!, this crackdown on whistleblowers, started by Obama and viciously continued by Trump’s administration, is an attack on the press. Trump and other officials have stated numerous times that the press is the enemy of the people, and, despite glowing reviews after the 2016 election, have since turned against WikiLeaks – Trump even claimed he did know much about them and that he never had.

The most startling thing about this blatant attack on the press is that the mainstream press themselves do very little to combat it, and almost straight out refuse to see it as a true assault; Scahill compared the coverage of CNN’s reporter Jim Acosta losing his press pass to that of whistleblower cases like Reality Winner or Chelsea Manning.

Mainstream press coverage demonising Assange and WikiLeaks plays right into the hands of the Trump administration and any other government willing to intimidate the media. Like it or not, WikiLeaks has released an abundance of truthful and damning documents that reveal things that those in power would rather not have seen by the public. I’ve spoken on this before, stating that it is within the public interest to know what our government is doing, especially when it is unlawful or covering up war crimes.

But if WikiLeaks publishes information that it receives and can be punished for that, how long until the Intercept (which Scahill co-founded) is targeted for publishing information about the assassination and drone programs leaked by Hale? How long until the Guardian is targeted for their work with Edward Snowden? Or any media outlet that reported on the trove of documents leaked by Manning? The precedent is being set and history will not look kindly on the media’s timidity and indifference.

Instead of lambasting Assange, the media should be hailing him as a hero. Instead of briefly covering news relating to Manning, Reality Winner, etc. these outlets should be championing for their release, lest they be the next charged for daring to report on international affairs. Here in Australia, the media remains eerily quiet regarding the case of Witness K. This could be due to the fact that there is immense secrecy surrounding the case, masquerading as national security but hiding Australia’s wannabe imperialist policies towards Timor-Leste.

But even without much information at hand, where is the outrage? It’s all well and good to criticise the government from a distance, but there should be stringent demands for the Witness K case to be made public and for the government to drop charges against them and their lawyer. What was leaked by him showed a continuation of Australia’s deceitful and dominant approach towards the fledgling country to our north-west, which started with our happy relations with an Indonesian dictator (Suharto) and fossil fuel companies while the old East Timor lost a third of its population in a brutal invasion, backed by the US of course.

Australia’s silent role in those atrocities is little known, and we should be doing much more to help Timor-Leste receive the justice they deserve. Instead, our government is holding secret legal proceedings against the unnamed source that revealed our own espionage during negotiations for a maritime border treaty and a split of the resources in those waters. Most of said resources, according to international law, rightfully belong to Timor-Leste; hence why their struggle has been so bitterly, and wrongly, contested by their neighbours.

Take a step back from the war on the press, though, and there are many who say the whistleblowers do, in fact, deserve the punishments they get as a result of their actions. This is particularly focussed on in the case of Chelsea Manning, who broke her oath of service as a member of the US Army. To those people I say who cares? The real moral and ethical benefits of leaking the information in question far outweigh the artificial ones written in contracts and oaths by man.

I defend that statement (in relation to breaking oaths of service in armies) by saying that loyalty to humanity should always come before loyalty to an institution, and that the human should always act before the soldier. If your actions, or silence on the actions of others, equate to war crimes, then no amount of loyalty or number of oaths can redeem the humanity you cast aside in that moment. Too many civilians and innocents have suffered and died, as Ellsberg has said, to justify it in any way.

Whistleblowers are the true heroes of our age, those who cast a light on the bastardry that thrives in pitch black darkness. They should be recognised as such, and their freedom should be the constant call of any media outlet worth the label of news source.

I’ll end this with a, quite possibly contrived and cheesy, variation of a well-known quote:

First they went for the whistleblowers, and I did not speak out because I was not a whistleblower. Then they came for WikiLeaks, and I did not speak out because I was not part of WikiLeaks. Then they came for the other media outlets, and there was no one to speak for them.

The warnings are here. Heed them.

 

Previous piece: Like Clockwork – May Resigns

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