UK Was Worried Assange Would Mar Its ‘Media Freedom’ Event

Worried about a backlash over Julian Assange during its lavish 2019 “Media Freedom” event, emails show the Foreign Office monitored activity online, developed “lines to take” and warned “we should be ready,” reports John McEvoy.

Amal Clooney and Jeremy Hunt at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London, 2019 (FCO)

By John McEvoy
Declassified U.K.

The U.K.’s treatment of Julian Assange posed a public relations problem for the Foreign Office’s media freedom campaign, files seen by Declassified U.K. show.

In July 2019, the U.K. co-hosted a Global Conference for Media Freedom, a first-of-its-kind event where 50 countries gathered to form a Media Freedom Coalition.

Costing £2.4 million, the event was hailed as “a major milestone” in the U.K. government’s “campaign to protect journalists doing their job.”

The conference was held just months after WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London. 

He was transferred to Belmarsh prison, “the closest comparison in the United Kingdom to Guantánamo,” as a U.K. parliamentary report has described it.

Addressing the media conference, then foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt declared: “If we act together, we can shine a spotlight on abuses and impose a diplomatic price on those who would harm journalists or lock them up for doing their jobs.”

‘We Should Be Ready’

The hosting of a media freedom event within miles of Belmarsh prison in southeast London was seen as a public relations problem. Internal Foreign Office emails show U.K. officials monitored online behaviour accordingly.

After Hunt announced plans for the conference in February 2019, one official complained about “a few individual crazy responses to the FS’ [Foreign Secretary’s] tweet.”

By June, officials were requesting “Lines to Take on how best to respond to questions we expect to be raised on this occasion about the U.K. handling of the case of Julian Assange.”

In particular, “Icelandic criticism of U.K. handling of [the] Assange case” was seen to be “affecting messaging on media freedom.” 

This email was likely related to former Icelandic Interior Minister Ögmundur Jónasson, who had asserted in June that the Assange case put “the British justice system…on trial.”

“Our current approach is
right and we shouldn’t engage”

On July 8, two days before the conference began, an unnamed official wrote about “a ramp up in activity by Assange campaigners.” 

One cause for concern was Assange’s mother Christine, who had “joined calls for a tweetstorm during the conference,” as well as “accounts [which] are small scale or are run by active trolls and provocateurs.”

The official outlined rules for engagement, noting “our current approach is right and we shouldn’t engage…However, we should be ready. I’m keen that we agree ahead of time how and when our approach would evolve.”

In an email with the subject line “Media Freedom Conference – online register of interest form”, one official even questioned: “what if someone like Assange applied to attend?”

The Foreign Office emails discussing Assange remain heavily redacted for reasons of “national security”.

‘No communications strategy
can make this go away’

According to a recent academic study, Julian Assange “was by far the most frequently discussed individual on Twitter” with regards to the Media Freedom Coalition.

“Numerous tweets highlighted the apparent irony that the U.K. was establishing and leading an international initiative on media freedom, while simultaneously undermining free media…in their handling of Assange”, the researchers found.

Since 2019, the U.K. has nonetheless continued to use the Global Conference for Media Freedom as a vehicle through which to claim it supports press freedom.

Rebecca Vincent, the Director of International Campaigns for Reporters Without Borders (RSF), commented:

“It is disappointing that rather than looking to address the very serious substantive concerns about the case of Julian Assange, the U.K. Foreign Office seems to have treated the matter as only a public relations inconvenience as it prepared to host the Global Media Freedom Conference and launch the Media Freedom Coalition. 

“But the truth is that no communications strategy can make this go away. As long as Assange remains detained in the U.K. and as long as the U.S. continues to seek his extradition and prosecution for publishing information in the public interest, this case will serve as a thorn in the sides of both governments and the Media Freedom Coalition itself.”

She added: “They should instead lead by example by dropping the charges, releasing Assange, and putting an end to his persecution once and for all.”

John McEvoy is an independent journalist who has written for International History Review, The Canary, Tribune Magazine, Jacobin, and Brasil Wire.

This article is from Declassified U.K., an investigative journalism organisation that covers the U.K.’s role in the world. Follow Declassified on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Sign up to receive Declassified’s monthly newsletter here.

8 comments for “UK Was Worried Assange Would Mar Its ‘Media Freedom’ Event

  1. Vera Gottlieb
    March 24, 2022 at 10:00

    The Asses of Evil – US/UK = two peas in a pod.

  2. March 24, 2022 at 03:51

    The Ministry of Truth.

  3. Jeff Harrison
    March 23, 2022 at 19:39

    Pfui. Britain doesn’t have media freedom – see Craig Murray, Julian Assange, et al.

  4. paul
    March 23, 2022 at 18:48

    Hypocrisy is a British speciality.
    Britain invented hypocrisy.
    If there were gold medals for hypocrisy, Britain would have a chest full of them.

  5. firstpersoninfinite
    March 23, 2022 at 15:38

    “Media Freedom Coalition” tells you all you need to know. Either the media has freedom or it doesn’t. It doesn’t need anyone advocating for freedom in media because it either exists already or it cannot exist under any possible circumstances. What the phrase really suggests is the desire to hold media accountable for any divergence from the narrative being pushed by the powerful. Didn’t US Secretary of State Blinken also suggest recently that the US Congress should pass hundred of millions of dollars in spending to promote “freedom of the press?” Once you’ve bought your ticket for that train, who do you think is the engineer? If the spectacle of believing in empty phrases like “Media Freedom Coalition” won’t squash debates the powerful don’t want to hear, sending a real journalist to Belmarsh prison is probably the spectacle they feel more comfortable with seeing. If that doesn’t get people in line, there are always gladiators and lions.

  6. FMJ
    March 23, 2022 at 15:34

    The rigged and corrupted system by the current criminal government of the U.K. continues apace. The depraved depts to which they continue to sink know no bounds it would appear. Julian Assange was married today, in prison. His only crime was to expose more western crimes against humanity, particularly the US and needless to say it’s lapdog the U.K..
    And yet in England the Tories are still polling at 35%. A disgrace and shameful that 35% of England’s voter’s approve of such a venal and cruel government.

  7. Lois Gagnon
    March 23, 2022 at 15:24

    The rot of latter stage Anglo/American empire has rotted the minds and souls of its practitioners. They must kill the source of truth before he has a chance to expose the public to how debased their rulers truly are.

  8. JonT
    March 23, 2022 at 10:03

    “…a major milestone” in the U.K. government’s “campaign to protect journalists doing their job…”

    I can almost hear the conversation in Downing Street…

    “What about Julian Assange?”


    “You know, that bloke in Belmarsh”

    “Oh no, he is not included, the Americans want him…”

    “Of course, silly me”.

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