The unjust persecution of Julian Assange (and the knock-on effects the media will feel) should be the point we’re discussing – not your personal opinion of him.
By the time I publish this we’ll be at or around the 64-hour mark since WikiLeaks announced that two high-level Ecuadorian government insiders had told them that Julian Assange faces eviction from the Ecuadorian embassy within days, which seems to have been further confirmed by the Foreign Minister of Ecuador now tweeting that states have the right to revoke political asylum at any time. Activists are mobilising, around-the-clock presence has been set up outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and a #Unity4J emergency broadcast is currently underway full of many respected dissident voices coming together in defence of the legendary leak publisher.
And, as we should all have come to expect by now, the establishment has been going out of its way to inform us all that this is a good thing and no cause for alarm. Whenever you voice concerns about the persecution of Julian Assange on any public forum, you will be met by those calling Assange a stinky Nazi rapist Putin puppet Trump supporter who deserves to be in prison forever.
What’s striking about these responses, which by now are as familiar to me as the keyboard I type these words on, is how extremely emotional they always are. If you talk about economic policy or foreign policy, for example, you might get a few angry troglodytes who take internet arguments far too seriously, but you’ll also typically get people calmly explaining why they believe you’re wrong and laying out ostensibly fact-based arguments for why this is so.
This is literally never the case with people who want to see Assange imprisoned, in my extensive experience. There’s never, ever any calm, fact-based rationale for why the benefits of prosecuting and imprisoning him for his publications outweigh the risks and costs of doing so. It’s always vitriolic, hyperbolic, frequently profanity-riddled arguments from pure emotion, usually something to the effect of “He collaborated with Russia/helped Trump win the election, therefore and I want him punished because I hate him.” Which is just another way of saying, “I want Assange imprisoned because of the way my feelings feel.”
The completely baseless claim that Assange is “not a journalist” is used in an attempt to defuse the argument that his prosecution by the US government could lead to the same fate for any news media outlet which publishes leaks on the US government anywhere in the world. If he’s not a journalist, then his prosecution sets no precedent for real journalists.
This argument, if you can call it that, is fallacious for a number of reasons. For starters, as The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald explained last year, there’s not any legal distinction in the US Constitution between news media outlets like the New York Times and an outlet which solely focuses on publishing leaks. If you set the precedent with any publisher, you’re necessarily setting it for all of them. Greenwald writes the following:
To begin with, the press freedom guarantee of the First Amendment isn’t confined to “legitimate news outlets” — whatever that might mean. The First Amendment isn’t available only to a certain class of people licensed as “journalists.” It protects not a privileged group of people called “professional journalists” but rather an activity: namely, using the press (which at the time of the First Amendment’s enactment meant the literal printing press) to inform the public about what the government was doing. Everyone is entitled to that constitutional protection equally: there is no cogent way to justify why the Guardian, ex-DOJ-officials-turned-bloggers, or Marcy Wheeler are free to publish classified information but Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are not.
Now, aside from the established fact that the US government’s agenda to prosecute Assange has nothing to do with the 2016 election but with the exposure of US war crimes six years earlier, this is also a completely fallacious argument from top to bottom. Claiming that something ought to happen because of how your feelings feel is very obviously a logical fallacy, but this kind of argument comprises the entirety of support for Assange’s imprisonment that Assange defenders encounter on a regular basis.
I believe this happens because the smear campaign that has been used by the western political/media class to manufacture support for Assange’s silencing and imprisonment has its foundation not in fact, but in emotion. Smear campaigns are by their nature emotional at their core, because they are intended to elicit public disgust, disdain and hatred for their target. That’s why you’ll see so many mainstream news media articles claiming that Assange smells bad, for example, despite that having nothing whatsoever to do with the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Assange’s work. The goal is not to present a factual case for why it would be more helpful than harmful to prosecute the WikiLeaks founder, the goal is to make people feel disgust for him, and, by extension, disgust for his work as well.
Another reason the Assange smears focus on emotion rather than facts is that the facts are very contrary to the interests of the smear merchants. The facts are that prosecuting Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for exposing US war crimes, as the Trump administration is attempting to do, would strike a devastating blow to press freedoms around the world. This is because there are no legal distinctions in place separating an outlet like WikiLeaks from outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Guardian, meaning that a precedent would be set allowing for the prosecution of those outlets on the same grounds, who also publish anonymous government leaks. Which is why the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian have all warned sternly of this precedent, which has also been recognised by the Obama administration.
We all need the ability to hold power to account, and the prosecution of Assange will necessarily cripple our ability to do that. This is a fact. Regardless of how your feelings feel.