– by Geoff Olson –
I was recently commissioned to write an article on arts and technology for a Canadian literary journal. It ballooned into a 5,000 word piece that ranged from the problems of social media platforms to the perils of artificial intelligence.
The editor, who I will call Byron, liked the essay and had some edits in mind. He asked if I “would seriously mind” removing one sentence. It was embedded in a paragraph on surveillance capitalism. This was it: “In the words of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the Internet is the ‘biggest spy machine the world has ever seen.’”
I’d already made some changes at his request, and was prepared to nix the line. But when Byron attached the payment schedule for reaching agreement on the sentence, I balked. It felt coercive.
So I turned the question back on Byron. Would he seriously mind if I left in the quote? Whatever anyone thinks of Assange, he remains an acknowledged expert on digital secrecy and transparency. “Yes. I do mind. I think you diminish your own writing by doing so and thus diminish my publication,” he responded.
As far he was concerned I may as well have written “as Hitler once said…” My resistance to dropping the sentence infuriated him, and the insults began to fly through my inbox. “You should really get some help rebalancing the old noggin,” Byron wrote.
I later offered to alter the wording of the sentence to “Wikileaks founder and former hacker Julian Assange…” No go. The debate astounded me. “In my four decades working in the media, I’ve never come across an instance of a public figure being off-limits for quotation,” I told him. “Oh, wow,” he responded. “One might suppose that we live in extraordinary times. Who knew?”
Go ahead and remove the quote if you have to, I wrote. You’re the editor. My one request was that he take responsibility for the redaction with a note at the bottom of the article. I would not self-censor on his behalf, and dangling a cheque in front of me wasn’t going to change that.
Byron suggested this for the note: “Julian Assange is a figure of great controversy. The editors had asked Mr. Olson not to include the comment or quote as it did not, in the opinion of the editors, further the article in any substantial way. Nor do the editors approve of supporting the celebrity culture around the figure, nor the actions of Mr. Assange that they consider irresponsible, misogynist, ego-driven and counter productive to a progressive agenda. Mr. Olson refused our request.”
The reason I’m sharing this editorial tempest in a teapot is that, in a small way, it weirdly mirrors the AngloAmerican press’s handling of the Assange affair.
Byron insisted the Wikileaks founder is a “misogynist” and “celebrity hound who helped get Donald Trump elected.” In the first instance, he was referencing the international arrest warrant issued by Sweden in 2010 following accusations of sexual misconduct by Assange. A Stockholm prosecutor initiated the investigation and the chief prosecutor threw it out a day later, after finding no evidence of criminality. Another prosecutor reinstated investigation in the fall of 2010. The warrant was not signed on the basis that he was charged with any offence, but that he was wanted for questioning. As a result, Assange sought political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012, fearing that once he was under Sweden’s jurisdiction Sweden would extradite him to the US.
The rape meme has been a central plank in the public demonization of Assange. So where does this game of whack-a-molestor stand now? On November 19, Sweden finally threw out the arrest warrant – a MacGuffin no longer needed to move along the plot of extraditing Assange to the US.
So to emphasize, there are no rape charges against Assange in Sweden. There are espionage charges against Assange in the US. As for the claim that he helped get Trump elected, we’ll return to that later.
Some background here. In 2006 a blonde-dyed Australian national and former hacker launched a web-based initiative at global transparency: a publishing platform that allowed whistleblowers across the world to safely and anonymously expose criminality and corruption. Wikileaks first commanded global pubic attention in 2010 with its release of leaked State Department cables, Guantanamo secrets, the Afghan War Diaries and the Iraq War Logs “collateral murder video,” which revealed a 2007 U.S. air strike in Baghdad against Iraqi civilians. Gun camera footage captured the slaughter of eight men including two war correspondents from Reuters. (“Light ‘em up,” says one of the laughing voices in the video, which spread like global wildfire on broadcasts, broadsheets and blogs.)
After Wikileaks made publishing arrangements with The Guardian and The New York Times, both publications began to mine a rich vein of news gold for many weeks. Assange won the 2011 Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism, with the judges congratulating him on giving “the public more scoops than most journalists can imagine.” Yet within a short time, the reporting shifted from the content of Wikileaks revelations to the character of the organization’s founder, including tabloid-like speculations on his hygiene by the NYT’s chief editor.
In August 2012, Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patiño announced that his country was granting political asylum to Assange because of the danger presented by the United States’ secret investigation against him. For 5 years, there were no complaints from Ecuador about Assange. The clock only began to tick in May of 2017, after the leftist Ecuadorian government of President Rafael Correa fell to a regime friendlier to Washington.
Dragged from the embassy by British police in April, Assange is now being held in near-isolation in Belmarsh maximum-security prison. If extradited to the US, he will be charged with 18 counts under the 1917 US espionage act for publishing US war crimes. He faces 175 years in prison if convicted.
Assange reportedly had difficulty getting his words out in an October court appearance. “I can’t think properly,” the 48 year-old activist said as he fought back tears. Some observers believe he was being drugged.
UN special rapporteur Nils Melzer deemed Assange’s treatment in Belmarsh as “psychological torture.” Late this November, more than 65 doctors from the UK, US, Australia, Germany, Italy and Sri Lanka issued an open letter calling for urgent action to protect the man’s life. As reported by the World Socialist Web Site, the doctors warned Britain’s Conservative Home Secretary Priti Patel that “Mr. Assange could die” because of years of detention in the Ecuadorian embassy and his incarceration in near-isolation at Belmarsh.
“He’s locked up 22 or 23 hours a day,” said his father, John Shipton, in a November interview in The Irish Examiner. “It’s a grade A maximum security prison. Because those in it are treated like terrorists, that’s what Julian is being subjected to.”
Not that you would have heard much of the above from the US/UK press. In August, when ex-Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters performed “Wish You were Here” at a rally for the Wikileaks founder outside the Home Office in London, it barely registered a blip in the media.
Two decades’ worth of corporate press commentary on Assange has made for a witches’ brew of well-sourced facts, anonymous smears, and outright fictions. In November of 2018, The Guardian reported that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort “held secret talks with Assange” at Ecuador’s embassy in London. Yet none of Manafort’s passports had stamps for the times in question, and his name never appeared in the embassy’s visitor manifest, according to The Washington Post. Regardless, the front-page report remains up on The Guardian’s website.
Even though big media outlets have trafficked in dubious info and sheer bunkum about Assange, a few of these have see the writing on the wall. Extradition to and trial in the US “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,” noted The New York Times before the press silence descended.
The founder of Wikileaks may be Byron’s blasphemer, but he’s not my saint. A number of former associates have described him as irascible and domineering. The belief that Assange helped get Trump elected is an understandable inference based on his own questionable decisions. Holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, he knew his prospects were dim if the hawkish Hillary Clinton won the presidential election in 2016. Trump was a more unknown quantity at the time. Through Twitter, Assange put feelers out in 2016 to Donald Trump Jr. When these communications were revealed, the publisher fell out of favour with a great many progressives. But the worst thing about this incident, along with the timing of the Hillary email leaks, is that that it seemingly repositioned Wikileaks from a transparency organization to a political front.
However, the idea that Trump owes his election victory to the publisher’s missteps is farcical. And with the post-Mueller collapse of the “Russiagate” narrative, the attempt to spot-weld Assange to Putin has evaporated.
Should Assange’s questionable moves, in 2016, retrospectively diminish Wikileaks’ prior revelations of offences by the Bush/Cheney regime, and its many exposures of financial and state crimes across the world? Assange has had a long history of demonstrably brave stands. “He had titanium balls,” one of his acquaintances told Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg of Assange’s refusal to bend to legal threats from the Church of Scientology, back when he was systems administrator at an Australian Internet service provider.
As far as character flaws go, it’s not the alleged abuse of either Internet privileges or his cat that landed the man in a Belmarsh prison cell, and put him in front of a judge for extradition. It’s not a rumoured habit of smearing feces in the Ecuadorian embassy that resulted in the manure heaped on him by the AngloAmerican press. It’s not his supposed misogyny that won bipartisan consensus on the planned extradition to the US. It’s not his documented dalliance with Donald Jr. that resulted in a charge of 175 years under the 1917 Espionage Act.
It’s Wikileaks’s exposure of US/UK war crimes that did all the above. As far as I know, no one has ever accused Assange or his team of releasing false documents or creating “fake news.” The problem for the state security apparatus, intelligence services and military-industrial-media complex is just the opposite: they preferred that the truths Wikileaks trafficked in be kept hidden. And it’s been known since the time of Caesar that the most effective way of kneecapping a movement is to decapitate its leader.
Up until the widespread silence on the Assange jailing – and the rallies in his support since – the stenographers to power have painted Assange as a smelly, cat-abusing, Putin-loving human hazard light. By design or default, this sends an unmistakeable message to would-be whistleblowers with funny ideas of exposing high-level criminality and corruption.
It’s been almost ten years since Wikileaks revealed the horrifying footage in the the “Collateral Murder” video. Those responsible and their commanders have never been identified, and as far as the public knows, have never been disciplined or brought to trial. Yet the man who helped bring this and other dark revelations to light is being held in near isolation, facing a life sentence or worse in the US.
So back to my debate with an editor over a single sentence in an essay for an artsy Canadian magazine. Byron offered me the option of a kill fee and I accepted (correct answer to his security question on the Interac payment: “Assange”). Rather than continue playing a losing game over a quote destined to be nixed or heavily qualified in print, I walked away. Had I chose to self-censor at the outset, I would have been playing along – in however small a way – in the wider game of silencing or demonizing the Wikileaks leader.
Byron isn’t wrong in his insistence that Julian Assange is a divisive character. But for me, the most worrisome aspect is this: the willingness of an editor to redact a public statement simply because he feels the source is no longer on Team Progressive. And ironically, a source who is an editor, publisher and activist identified with issues of press freedom.
In a final email to Byron I wrote, “I now consider our back-and-forth to be part of a larger story of Assange’s pending extradition, show trial, and the stifling of free speech by its so-called guardians … as a publisher and expert on digital secrecy and transparency, there is no more justification in redacting the words of Julian Assange from current discourse than there is justification in disappearing the man himself into the US prison-industrial complex.”
Geoff Olson is a Vancouver writer and political cartoonist.