Kevin Howley: Assange and the global assault on press freedom

On 4 January 2021, British district court judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected the US government’s request to extradite WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, to face trumped up charges of computer piracy and espionage. 

For Assange and his supporters—human rights lawyers, investigative reporters, documentary filmmakers, among others—the welcome news is tempered by the realisation that Baraitser’s decision rested solely on her determination that Assange’s ‘recurrent depressive disorder’ could not withstand the harsh conditions of the US prison system: a stinging indictment of crime and punishment in the land of the free.

Conveniently, Baraitser’s ruling made no reference to the inhumane conditions Assange endured during his incarceration, since April 2019, in HM Prison Belmarsh—commonly described as the UK’s Guantanamo; let alone his seven years of asylum in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, where British authorities routinely denied him access to medical care, and American operatives spied on the WikiLeaks publisher, his family, and visitors, including members of Assange’s legal team. 

It remains to be seen if, in the waning days of the Trump administration, the US government’s appeal will succeed. In the meantime, what’s most disturbing is Judge Baraitser’s concurrence with the US government’s substantive claims: that Assange violated the Espionage Act of 1917—an antiquated law that was weaponised during the Obama era to intimidate, and sometimes incarcerate, national security reporters and their sources. 

The irony that Barack Obama, a self-proclaimed constitutional scholar, picked up where his predecessor, George W. Bush, left off—widening the US targeted killing program and doubling down on the Bush-era assault on national security reporting—hasn’t been lost on anyone, save perhaps the US press corps. 

Indeed, the same news organisations that received accolades for reporting based on material supplied by WikiLeaks were instrumental in smearing Julian Assange’s reputation and undermining his legitimacy. More recently, the media blackout during Assange’s protracted extradition hearing—and its dire implications for press freedom—is nothing short of willful ignorance in the face of an existential threat. A threat that grows increasingly commonplace in authoritarian regimes and so-called democratic societies alike. 

Consider the backstory to the release, in November 2020, of the long-awaited (and heavily redacted) Brereton Report into alleged war crimes committed by elite units of the Australian Defense Force (ADF) operating in Afghanistan. Shocking accounts of Australian soldiers abusing prisoners and killing civilians reverberated across the globe. Here in the United States, news outlets offered dramatic accounts of the atrocities: a rare instance when American news workers uttered the phrase ‘war crimes’ to describe allied action in the decades-long, US-led war on terror. But the upshot for Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, the national security reporters who broke the story of ADF war crimes, barely registered with their counterparts stateside. 

Flashback to June 2019. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the offices of the ABC following the broadcast of a series of investigative reports, The Afghan Files, based on leaked government documents alleging Special Forces units committed war crimes. The AFP warrant named the two reporters and ABC news director Gaven Morris. (Two months earlier the AFP requested Oakes and Clark’s fingerprints as part of its investigation.) Following an hours-long search of ABC’s Sydney headquarters, federal police confiscated two USB drives containing well over 100 files. 

Purposefully designed to intimidate investigative reporters, this shocking episode and its deeply unsettling aftermath—an Australian court dismissed ABC’s legal challenge to the search—signal an escalation of press intimidation and ruthless intolerance for critical reporting of national security regimes with expansive powers and limited accountability.

Kevin Howley is Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University. He is the author and editor of several books including, most recently, Drones: Media Discourse & The Public Imagination(2018). This essay stems from recent work published in the Journal for Discourse Studies.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email