UPDATED: Imprisoned WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange has been awarded Consortium News’ 2020 Gary Webb Freedom of the Press Award for courage in the face of an unprecedented attack on press freedom.
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
Julian Assange, the imprisoned and maligned publisher of WikiLeaks, has been awarded the 2020 Gary Webb Freedom of the Press Award by the board of the Consortium for Independent Journalism, publishers of Consortium News.
Assange is incarcerated in a maximum security prison in London awaiting a hearing later this month on an extradition request by the United States. He has been charged 0n 17 counts under the U.S. Espionage Act of possessing and publishing classified material that revealed prima facie evidence of U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For practicing the highest order of journalism–revealing crimes of the state–Assange faces 175 years in a U.S. prison–a life sentence for the 48-year old Australian.
Assange, whose life has been endangered in harsh prison conditions, has become an international symbol of the threat to press freedom. He is the first journalist to be charged under the Espionage Act for possession and dissemination of state secrets.
Robert Parry, the late founder and editor of Consortium News, was a staunch defender of Assange’s rights. In 2010, he wrote: “Though American journalists may understandably want to find some protective cover by pretending that Julian Assange is not like us, the reality is – whether we like it or not – we are all Julian Assange.”
The award is named after journalist Gary Webb whose life was cut short after the mainstream press vilified him for accurate reports about a CIA operation that flooded urban areas of the U.S. with cocaine from Nicaragua.
Journalist and filmmaker John Pilger, a member of the Consortium News board, said: “Having been close to Julian Assange through much of his struggle against corrupt power, I had no hesitation in voting for him for the Gary Webb prize. While Gary was a tragedy at the end, Julian must be a triumph.”
A History of Scoops
Assange launched WikiLeaks in Dec. 2006. Among its first revelations were files alleging corruption by former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi; the U.S. Army manual for soldiers at Guantanamo Bay and registers of U.S. military equipment in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In January 2008, WikiLeaks released “United Nations Confidential Reports” that “expose matters from allegations of hundreds of European peace-keepers sexually abusing refugee girls to generals in Peru using Swiss bank accounts to engage in multi-million dollar frauds against the UN.”
WikiLeaks‘ first major release came on April 5, 2010 with the publication of the Collateral Murder video, providing evidence of a U.S. war crime in Iraq. It was leaked by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who was arrested and charged on May 26, 2010 under the Espionage Act.
With Manning in jail, WikiLeaks published more of her leaked material. The Afghan War Diaries were released on July 25, 2010, which revealed the suppression of civilian casualty figures, the existence of an elite U.S.-led death squad and the covert role of Pakistan in the conflict. Assange partnered with The New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian in publishing the Afghan leaks.
On Nov. 28, 2010, the first of Manning’s U.S. Diplomatic Cables were released. They helped spark a revolt in Tunisia that spread into the so-called Arab Spring, revealed Saudi intentions towards Iran and exposed spying on the UN secretary general and other diplomats.
WikiLeaks in 2011 pioneered an anonymous online “drop box” for whistleblowers to deposit documents without their identities being known, even to WikiLeaks. The organization carefully authenticates every document it receives and has a perfect record of accuracy. Major news organizations like The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and CNN have copied WikiLeaks in creating their own anonymous drop boxes.
In 2016, WikiLeaks published leaked emails from the Democratic National Convention and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta that exposed DNC efforts to derail the primary candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Hillary Clinton’s role in the destruction of Libya and a pay-to-play scheme at the Clinton Foundation.
During the Trump administration, WikiLeaks published in March 2017 secret CIA documents that exposed “the entire hacking capacity of the CIA,” which the agency had lost control of. WikiLeaks avoided “the distribution of ‘armed’ cyberweapons.” But the documents it published revealed how the agency can remotely gain control of a citizen’s television set and showed that the CIA can plant doctored fingerprints into a cyber-attack to falsely blame an adversary. The Vault 7 release led then CIA Director Mike Pompeo to label WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service.”
Over the past decade, WikiLeaks publications have spurred countless news reports and academic papers around the world, and have been used in numerous court cases promoting human rights.
A month after the Afghan War Diaries were published two women went to the police in Sweden to ask if Assange could be tested for sexually transmitted disease after having unprotected relations with both of them. One of the women later texted that she had been “railroaded” by police into making a formal complaint about rape and refused to sign her statement. The next day Sweden’s chief prosecutor dismissed the allegations. She said: “I don’t think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape.”
After Swedish authorities told him he was free to go, Assange returned to London when an extradition request was issued by a prosecutor, not a judge, and he was arrested in December 2010. This came after Swedish police had altered the statement of one of the women who had refused to sign it, in a way that permitted the case to be re-opened, according to a UN special rapporteur’s investigation. Nils Melzer, the rapporteur on torture, said:
“I speak fluent Swedish and was thus able to read all of the original documents. I could hardly believe my eyes: According to the testimony of the woman in question, a rape had never even taken place at all. And not only that: The woman’s testimony was later changed by the Stockholm police without her involvement in order to somehow make it sound like a possible rape. I have all the documents in my possession, the emails, the text messages.”
While still in the police station, she wrote a text message to a friend saying that she didn’t want to incriminate Assange, that she just wanted him to take an HIV test, but the police were apparently interested in «getting their hands on him.» The police wrote down her statement and immediately informed public prosecutors. … two hours later, a headline appeared on the front page of Expressen, a Swedish tabloid, saying that Julian Assange was suspected of having committed two rapes.”
After he exhausted his appeals in British courts to fight extradition to Sweden, Assange sought and received political asylum from the government of Ecuador in its London embassy on June 19, 2012. Assange and his lawyers said at the time they feared onward extradition from Sweden to the U.S. to face charges for publishing classified material.
The former foreign minister of Ecuador on why his country gave Assange asylum:
Assange continued running WikiLeaks from inside the embassy. Despite needing medical care, British authorities said he would be arrested if he left the embassy and re-entered British territory. In February 2016 a UN panel ruled that Assange was being “arbitrarily detained” in the embassy.
A change in government in Ecuador in May 2017 led to the eventual revocation of Assange’s asylum without due process and in likely violation of Ecuadorian national law and the 1954 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees. The convention stipulates that no asylee can be expelled to a territory “where his life or freedom would be threatened.”
Assange was eventually dragged out of the embassy by British police on April 11, 2019. His fears of extradition to the U.S. were realized when the U.S. indicted him on 17 charges under the Espionage Act and one charge of computer intrusion.
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Imprisoned in the high security Belmarsh Prison with terrorists and other violent criminals, Assange has had restricted access to visitors, including with his lawyers. Nils Melzer, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, visited Assange in his cell and reported that he was suffering from psychological torture.
Assange faces an extradition hearing at Woolwich Crown Court that begins the week of Feb. 24 and will continue in May. (Consortium News will be in London to provide extensive coverage in print and video.)
In a normal case, Assange’s indictment would be thrown out after it was revealed that the prosecuting government was spying on Assange’s privileged conversations with his attorneys in the Ecuador Embassy.
Both U.S. indictments against Assange spell out the exact work of investigative reporting. The indictment on intrusion alleges that Assange helped Manning gain access to a government computer, which the indictment acknowledges Manning had security clearances to legally access.
What the indictment alleges is that Assange egged Manning on for more information and tried to help her, unsuccessfully, to sign in under an administrative user name to help her do what every reporter must do, hide their sources’ identity. The second indictment likewise accused Assange of practicing journalism by encouraging his source to provide classified documents.
In his 2010 article Parry said in his investigative reporting he did the exact things Assange had done, even encouraging his sources to commit a crime if it could prevent a larger crime from occurring. He wrote:
“The process for reporters obtaining classified information about crimes of state most often involves a journalist persuading some government official to break the law either by turning over classified documents or at least by talking about the secret information. There is almost always some level of ‘conspiracy’ between reporter and source. … In most cases, I played some role – either large or small – in locating the classified information or convincing some government official to divulge some secrets. More often than not, I was the instigator of these ‘conspiracies.’”
At the time Parry wrote his article, the Obama administration had empaneled a grand jury to consider charging Assange under the Espionage Act for publishing leaked secrets, which Parry defended as the core work of investigative journalism. Ultimately, then Attorney General Eric Holder decided against indictment, because of what the administration called its “New York Times problem.”
That was an acknowledgement that Assange was a journalist and that prosecuting him for doing what the Times and other big media also do would open them up to prosecution as well. The First Amendment prevailed until the Trump administration brushed aside the very same problem and charged Assange with espionage.
The 1917 Espionage Act, derived from the 1889 British Official Secrets Act, outlaws any unauthorized possession and/or dissemination of classified information. Journalists have for decades possessed and published state secrets without consequence. This is what makes Assange’s case an unprecedented assault on freedom of the press and the First Amendment.
Recognition of Threat to the Press
At the time of his arrest, even long time critics of Assange acknowledged the threat to press freedom it posed. In an editorial, The New York Times wrote:
“The new indictment … is a marked escalation in the effort to prosecute Mr. Assange, one that could have a chilling effect on American journalism as it has been practiced for generations. It is aimed straight at the heart of the First Amendment.”
“The new charges focus on receiving and publishing classified material from a government source. That is something journalists do all the time. … This is what the First Amendment is designed to protect: the ability of publishers to provide the public with the truth.”
The Times praised Assange’s work:
“Mr. Assange shared much of the material at issue with The New York Times and other news organizations. The resulting stories demonstrated why the protections afforded the press have served the American public so well; they shed important light on the American war effort in Iraq, revealing how the United States turned a blind eye to the torture of prisoners by Iraqi forces and how extensively Iran had meddled in the conflict.”
The New Yorker‘s Masha Gessen, wrote: “The use of the Espionage Act to prosecute Assange is an attack on the First Amendment. … It stands to reason that an Administration that considers the press an ‘enemy of the people’ would launch this attack. In attacking the media, it is attacking the public.”
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, the Democratic Party booster, who probably had more influence than any commentator in drumming up the Russiagate conspiracy theory and Assange’s alleged role in it, launched into an astounding defense of the imprisoned publisher. On her program she said:
“The Justice Department today, the Trump administration today, just put every journalistic institution in this country on Julian Assange’s side of the ledger. On his side of the fight. Which, I know, is unimaginable. But that is because the government is now trying to assert this brand new right to criminally prosecute people for publishing secret stuff, and newspapers and magazines and investigative journalists and all sorts of different entities publish secret stuff all the time. That is the bread and butter of what we do.”
Victim of Disinformation Campaign
Assange has been the victim of an effective, mass disinformation campaign, planned as long ago as March 8, 2008 when a secret, 32-page document from the Cyber Counterintelligence Assessment branch of the Pentagon described in detail the importance of destroying the “feeling of trust that is WikiLeaks’ center of gravity.”
The document said: “This would be achieved with threats of exposure and criminal prosecution and an unrelenting assault on reputation.”
“It was as if they planned a war on a single human being and on the very principle of freedom of speech,” Pilger said in 2018 (video above).
As a result, a number of falsehoods about Assange’s story are deeply entrenched in the media and the public, which are resistant to correction with facts.
1. Assange is not a journalist.
Most establishment journalists do not consider Assange to be one of them. First, he is completely a product of the Internet Age, a medium as revolutionary as the printing press, radio and television. His journalism is of a different type than traditional reporting.
Second, WikiLeaks publishes entire documents, rather than reporting extensively on them. In the past newspapers, such as The New York Times, published several pages in print editions of major documents, such as the top secret Pentagon Papers and today provide whole documents online.
Assange is not simply a clerk receiving documents and posting them online without studying any of them. He has engaged in their authentication and has a profound understanding of their contents and newsworthiness. Assange has given countless interviews and speeches, authored three books, edited and co-written two others, and written dozens of articles. Throughout he has displayed a deep understanding of geopolitics and the internal affairs of numerous nations.
Most importantly, Assange has had an adversarial relationship with power, something that is waning in establishment media. Because of that increasingly cozy relationship between journalism and power Assange has scooped major media, perhaps engendering a degree of professional jealousy. The U.S. government must insist he is not a journalist, making it easier to apply espionage charges to him.
His role as a journalist was affirmed by the numerous awards he has won, including:
The Economist’s New Media Award (2008); Amnesty International’s UK Media Award (2009); the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence award (2010); the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism (2011, which Parry won in 2017); the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism (2011, Australia’s Pulitzer Prize); the Voltaire Award for Free Speech (2011); the International Piero Passetti Journalism Prize of the National Union of Italian Journalists (2011); the Jose Couso Press Freedom Award (2011); the Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts (2013) and the Galizia Prize for Journalists, Whistleblowers & Defenders of the Right to Information (2019).
In 2010, the New York Daily News listed WikiLeaks first among websites “that could totally change the news.” No less of an authority than the founder of this site, one of America’s best investigative reporters, said, “Journalists are all Julian Assange.”
And Parry gave this warning to establishment journalists: “By shunning WikiLeaks as some deviant journalistic hybrid, mainstream U.S. news outlets may breathe easier now but may find themselves caught up in a new legal precedent that could be applied to them later.”
2. Assange was “charged” with rape. This might be the most frequent falsehood uttered about Assange, even mistakenly by Assange supporters. No rape or any other charges were ever filed by Swedish authorities. The case was dropped three times, but the “rape” smear persists. Stefania Maurizi, a reporter for La Repubblica in Italy, obtained documents that showed British authorities pressured the Swedish chief prosecutor not to come to London to interview him in the embassy so that he would be forced to leave—and be arrested.
In a report on the German ZDF TV network last week documents were produced by Melzer showing the rape allegations were “invented” by Swedish police. “Why would a person be subject to nine years of a preliminary investigation for rape without charges ever having been filed?” he recently told the Swiss newspaper Republik. “Just imagine being accused of rape for nine-and-a-half years by an entire state apparatus and by the media without ever being given the chance to defend yourself because no charges had ever been filed.”
Many persist in believing that Assange is a “coward” who fled to the Ecuadorian embassy to escape the rape “charges” when he voluntarily went to the police station in Sweden. His fear was being extradited to the U.S. via Sweden.
3. Assange was charged with endangering U.S. informants.
Much was made in the Espionage Act indictment of Assange allegedly revealing the names of U.S. informants and endangering their lives. At the top of the indictment are listed all the U.S. statutes prosecutors say Assange violated. Nowhere among them is revealing the identity of informants. That’s because, though it may be unethical, there is no law against it.
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In fact, as Australian mainstream journalist Mark Davis revealed in a talk, webcast by CN Live!, it was Assange and not his mainstream media partners who worked through the night to redact the names of many informants before the Afghan War Diaries were released in July, 2010.
Davis, who was in the “bunker” at The Guardian in London working on the documents, said it was only when two Guardian journalists in a book revealed the secret password to the entire trove of documents, endangering informants named in them, that Assange released the full archive to alert those in danger. The Guardian denies this saying WikiLeaks told them the password it used in its book would expire within hours. In any event, there is no evidence that any informant named has been harmed.
4. Assange hacked secret U.S. databases.
Assange was arrested at age 20 for hacking but was released on good behavior. Assange’s mother, Christine Assange, who was present at the hearing, said the judge stated Assange was only a “‘look- see’ hacker and did no damage.'” That means Assange made no modifications to the sites he accessed other than to leave a message that the site was insecure. Nonetheless, the label “hacker” has followed him ever since even though Assange is not being charged as a “hacker” but for helping Manning hide her identity while accessing video games and movies forbidden by the U.S. military to its soldiers, according to Assange’s lawyers during his February extradition hearing. Assange’s indictment says he was trying to hide Manning’s identity, which Parry said is standard journalistic practice.
5. Assange was charged with interfering with the 2016 U.S. election.
One of the most widely mistaken beliefs is that Assange interfered in the U.S. election with Russian help in order to get Donald Trump elected. All of the U.S. charges against Assange stem from 2010 and have nothing to do with the 2016 election, another misguided notion.
In the 2017 film Risk, by filmmaker Laura Poitras, Assange is filmed on the phone in early 2016 saying WikiLeaks had obtained emails on Hillary Clinton and “we hope to get something on Trump.” As Maurizi has written for Consortium News, WikiLeaks did obtain Trump documents but discovered they had already been published.
Hrafnsson accepting Gray Webb award on Assange’s behalf, London on Feb. 22 (Video-Cathy Vogan)
Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, told CN Live! that had WikiLeaks had damaging information on Trump, they certainly would have published it, especially before an election when voters need to be informed about the candidates.
There is zero evidence that WikiLeaks had material on Trump and suppressed it, another widely believed falsehood. Assange favored neither candidate and before the election said the choice between the candidates was like choosing “cholera or gonorrhea.”
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report alleges that Assange communicated online with Russian GRU defense intelligence agents posing as “Guccifer 2.0” to obtain leaked Democratic Party emails. Even if it were true that Guccifer 2.0 was a cover for Russian intelligence, Mueller offers no evidence that Assange would be aware of that.
And even if it were the Russians who provided the material to Assange, the emails were accurate, meaning it is irrelevant who the source of the leak was. The Wall Street Journal‘s and other major media’s anonymous drop boxes prove that. They don’t need or want to know the source if newsworthy documents are authenticated.
If a foreign power inserted fabricated emails into a U.S. presidential campaign, that would be sabotage through disinformation. But that’s not what happened. The emails were information, not disinformation.
What Really Happened
The truth is that a vindictive U.S. government was exposed with clear evidence of committing war crimes, meddling in other nations’ internal affairs and spying on adversaries, allies and citizens alike and in response imprisoned and charged the journalist who revealed this wrongdoing. It is an attack on press freedom usually associated with the most aggressive totalitarian regimes, going to the core of how the West defines itself: as a democracy that upholds the right to criticize government or authoritarianism that crushes dissent.
“The really horrifying thing about this case is the lawlessness that has developed: The powerful can kill without fear of punishment and journalism is transformed into espionage,” said Melzer. “It is becoming a crime to tell the truth.”
Melzer told the Republik:
“Imagine a dark room. Suddenly, someone shines a light on the elephant in the room – on war criminals, on corruption. Assange is the man with the spotlight. The governments are briefly in shock, but then they turn the spotlight around with accusations of rape. It is a classic maneuver when it comes to manipulating public opinion. The elephant once again disappears into the darkness, behind the spotlight. And Assange becomes the focus of attention instead, and we start talking about whether Assange is skateboarding in the embassy or whether he is feeding his cat correctly. Suddenly, we all know that he is a rapist, a hacker, a spy and a narcissist. But the abuses and war crimes he uncovered fade into the darkness.”
A plaque in honor of Assange’s award, reads: “For bravery in the face of a grave threat to Freedom of the Press and for journalistic accomplishments in revealing crimes of the state.”
The Gary Webb Award is the third prize Assange has won while in prison, and the first from the United States. Recognition of the threat his case poses to press freedom grows.
Past winners of the Gary Webb Freedom of the Press Award are Sam Parry (2016), who created Consortium News’ website in 1995, and filmmaker Oliver Stone (2017).
History of the Award
About the origin of the award, Robert Parry wrote: The award is named in honor of investigative reporter Gary Webb who in 1996 courageously revived interest in one of the darkest scandals of the 1980s, the Reagan administration’s tolerance of cocaine trafficking by the CIA-organized Nicaraguan Contra rebels who were fighting to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
The Contra-Cocaine scandal was originally exposed by Associated Press reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger in 1985, but the major U.S. newspapers accepted the Reagan administration’s denials and treated the story as a “conspiracy theory.”
So, when Webb revived the story in 1996 for The San Jose Mercury News and described how some of the Contra cocaine fueled the spread of crack across urban America, the major newspapers again rallied to the defense of the Contras and the Reagan administration’s legacy.
The assault on Webb was led by The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times – and was so ferocious that Webb’s editors at the Mercury News sacrificed him to protect their own careers. Webb found himself cast out from the profession that he loved.
It didn’t even matter that an internal CIA investigation by Inspector General Frederick Hitz confirmed, in 1998, that the CIA was aware of the Contra cocaine trafficking but had put its goal of ousting the Sandinistas ahead of any responsibility to expose the Contra criminality.
Because of the false impression that Webb had manufactured a fake story, he remained unemployable in mainstream journalism. In 2004, with his life in tatters and his financial resources spent, Webb took his own life, a tragic casualty in the difficult fight for a truly free press in America, a press that doesn’t just rubber stamp government propaganda and accept official lies as truth.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Sunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe .
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