[Pnews] Assange Wins. The Cost: The Crushing of Press Freedom

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jan 4 15:50:54 EST 2021

Wins. The Cost: The Crushing of Press Freedom
by Jonathan Cook <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/jonathan-cook/> -
January 4, 2021

Still from “Risk.”

The unexpected decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser to deny a US demand to
extradite Julian Assange, foiling efforts to send him to a US super-max
jail for the rest of his life, is a welcome legal victory, but one swamped
by larger lessons that should disturb us deeply.

Those who campaigned so vigorously to keep Assange’s case in the spotlight,
even as the US and UK corporate media worked so strenuously to keep it in
are the heroes of the day. They made the price too steep for Baraitser or
the British establishment to agree to lock Assange away indefinitely in the
US for exposing its war crimes and its crimes against humanity in Iraq and

But we must not downplay the price being demanded of us for this victory.

*A moment of celebration*

We have contributed collectively in our various small ways to win back for
Assange some degree of freedom, and hopefully a reprieve from what could be
a death sentence as his health continues to deteriorate in an overcrowded
Belmarsh high-security prison in London that has become a breeding ground
for Covid-19.

For this we should allow ourselves a moment of celebration. But Assange is
not out of the woods yet. The US has said it will appeal the decision. And
it is not yet clear whether Assange will remain jailed in the UK – possibly
in Belmarsh – while many months of further legal argument about his future
take place.

The US and British establishments do not care where Assange is imprisoned –
be it Sweden, the UK or the US. What has been most important to them is
that he continues to be locked out of sight in a cell *somewhere*, where
his physical and mental fortitude can be destroyed and where he is
effectively silenced, encouraging others to draw the lesson that there is
too high a price to pay for dissent.

The personal battle for Assange won’t be over till he is properly free. And
even then he will be lucky if the last decade of various forms of
incarceration and torture he has been subjected to do not leave him
permanently traumatised, emotionally and mentally damaged, a pale shadow of
the unapologetic, vigorous transparency champion he was before his ordeal

That alone will be a victory for the British and US establishments who were
so embarrassed by, and fearful of, Wikileaks’ revelations of their crimes.

*Rejected on a technicality*

But aside from what is a potential personal victory for Assange, assuming
he doesn’t lose on appeal, we should be deeply worried by the legal
arguments Baraitser advanced in denying extradition.

The US demand for extradition was rejected on what was effectively a
technicality. The US mass incarceration system is so obviously barbaric and
depraved that, it was shown conclusively by experts at the hearings back in
September, Assange would be at grave risk of committing suicide should he
become another victim of its super-max jails.

One should not also discard another of the British establishment’s likely
considerations: that in a few days Donald Trump will be gone from the White
House and a new US administration will take his place.

There is no reason to be sentimental about president-elect Joe Biden. He is
a big fan of mass incarceration too, and he will be no more of a friend to
dissident media, whistleblowers and journalism that challenges the national
security state than was his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. Which is
no friend at all.

But Biden probably doesn’t need the Assange case hanging over his head,
becoming a rallying cry against him, an uncomfortable residue of the Trump
administration’s authoritarian instincts that his own officials would be
forced to defend.

It would be nice to imagine that the British legal, judicial and political
establishments grew a backbone in ruling against extradition. The far more
likely truth is that they sounded out the incoming Biden team and received
permission to forgo an immediate ruling in favour of extradition – on a

Keep an eye on whether the new Biden administration decides to drop the
appeal case. More likely his officials will let it rumble on, largely below
the media’s radar, for many months more.

*Journalism as espionage*

Significantly, Judge Baraitser backed all the Trump administration’s main
legal arguments for extradition, even though they were comprehensively
demolished by Assange’s lawyers.

Baraitser accepted the US government’s dangerous new definition of
investigative journalism as “espionage”, and implied that Assange had also
broken Britain’s draconian Official Secrets Act in exposing government war

She agreed that the 2007 Extradition Treaty applies in Assange’s case,
ignoring the treaty’s actual words that exempt political cases like his.
She thereby opened the door for other journalists to be seized in their
home countries and renditioned to the US.

Baraitser accepted that protecting sources in the digital age – as Assange
did for whistleblower Chelsea Manning, an essential obligation on
journalists in a free society – now amounts to criminal “hacking”. She
trashed free speech and press freedom rights, saying they did not provide
“unfettered discretion by Mr Assange to decide what he’s going to publish”.

She appeared to approve of the ample evidence showing that the US spied on
Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy, both in violation of international
law and his client-lawyer privilege – a breach of his most fundamental
legal rights that alone should have halted proceedings.

Baraitser argued that Assange would receive a fair trial in the US, even
though it was almost certain to take place in the eastern district of
Virginia, where the major US security and intelligence services are
headquartered. Any jury there would be dominated by US security personnel
and their families, who would have no sympathy for Assange.

So as we celebrate this ruling for Assange, we must also loudly denounce it
as an attack on press freedom, as an attack on our hard-won collective
freedoms, and as an attack on our efforts to hold the US and UK
establishments accountable for riding roughshod over the values, principles
and laws they themselves profess to uphold.

Even as we are offered with one hand a small prize in Assange’s current
legal victory, the establishment’s other hand seizes much more from us.

*Vilification continues*

There is a final lesson from the Assange ruling. The last decade has been
about discrediting, disgracing and demonising Assange. This ruling should
very much be seen as a continuation of that process.

Baraitser has denied extradition *only* on the grounds of Assange’s mental
health and his autism, and the fact that he is a suicide risk. In other
words, the principled arguments for freeing Assange have been decisively

If he regains his freedom, it will be *solely* because he has been
characterised as mentally unsound. That will be used to discredit not just
Assange, but the cause for which he fought, the Wikileaks organisation he
helped to found, and all wider dissidence from establishment narratives.
This idea will settle into popular public discourse unless we challenge
such a presentation at every turn.

Assange’s battle to defend our freedoms, to defend those in far-off lands
whom we bomb at will in the promotion of the selfish interests of a western
elite, was not autistic or evidence of mental illness. His struggle to make
our societies fairer, to hold the powerful to account for their actions,
was not evidence of dysfunction. It is a duty we all share to make our
politics less corrupt, our legal systems more transparent, our media less

Unless far more of us fight for these values – for real sanity, not the
perverse, unsustainable, suicidal interests of our leaders – we are doomed.
Assange showed us how we can free ourselves and our societies. It is
incumbent on the rest of us to continue his fight.
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