8 September 2020 — Moon of Alabama
Today the London show trial over the extradition of Wikileaks editor Julian Assange to the U.S. has begun. U.S. prosecutors claim that Assange’s publishing of evidence of U.S. war crimes has violated the U.S. Espionage Act.
Why an Australian publisher who worked from Europe and evidently published truthful evidence of war crimes should by guilty under a political U.S. law is beyond me.
The trial in front of the British court is nominally public. But access to it has been severely restricted:
The public gallery of 80 has been reduced to 9 “due to Covid”. 5 seats are reserved for Julian’s family and friends, and I have one of these today, but not guaranteed beyond that. There are just 4 seats for the general public.
Journalists and NGO’s will be following the hearing online – but only “approved” journalists and NGO’s, selected by the Orwelian Ministry of Justice. I had dinner last night with Assange supporters from a number of registered NGO’s, not one of which had been “approved”. I had applied myself as a representative of Hope Over Fear, and was turned down. It is the same story for those who applied for online access as journalists. Only the officially “approved” will be allowed to watch.
This is supposed to be a public hearing, to which in normal times anybody should be able to walk in off the street into the large public gallery, and anyone with a press card into the press gallery. What is the justification for the political selection of those permitted to watch? An extraordinary online system has been set up, with the state favoured observers given online “rooms” in which only the identified individual will be allowed. Even with approved organisations, it is not the case that an organisation will have a login anyone can use, not even one at a time. Only specifically nominated individuals have to login before proceedings start, and if their connection breaks at any point they will not be readmitted that day.
Some 40 NGOs, including Amnesty International, had been told that they would have remote access to the trial but today the judge revoked that access without giving any reason.
With only a few selected and system conforming reporters allowed to watch the proceedings the public will get a very biased picture of the case and the trial:
Right now every journalist in the world ought to be up in arms, protesting at the abuses Assange is suffering, and has suffered, and the fate he will endure if extradition is approved. They should be protesting on front pages and in TV news shows against the endless and blatant abuses of legal process at Assange’s hearings in the British courts, including the gross conflict of interest of Lady Emma Arbuthnot, the judge overseeing his case.
Journalists do not need to care about Assange or like him. They have to speak out in protest because approval of his extradition will mark the official death of journalism.
It will mean that any journalist in the world who unearths embarrassing truths about the US, who discovers its darkest secrets, will need to keep quiet or risk being jailed for the rest of their lives.
That ought to terrify every journalist. But it has had no such effect.
The vast majority of western journalists, of course, never uncover one significant secret from the centres of power in their entire professional careers – even those ostensibly monitoring those power centres. These journalists repackage press releases and lobby briefings, they tap sources inside government who use them as a conduit to the large audiences they command, and they relay gossip and sniping from inside the corridors of power.
That is the reality of access journalism that constitutes 99 per cent of what we call political news.
The renewed but ‘politically correct’ reporting about Wikileaks’ founder and editor will also see the repeat of a number of false allegations that have been made against Assange.
Caitlin Johnstone has published a handy complete refutation of the 31 most often used smears against Assange. She also has good advice on how to defeat other arguments used against him.
Kevin Gosztola has talked with Barry Pollack, Julian Assange’s U.S. lawyer, who outlines the case the U.S. government is making:
The position the U.S. is taking is that they have jurisdiction all over the world and can pursue criminal charges against any journalist anywhere on the planet, whether they’re a U.S. citizen or not. But if they’re not a U.S. citizen, not only can the U.S. pursue charges against them but that person has no defense under the First Amendment. It remains to be seen whether a U.S. court would accept that position, but that certainly is the position that the government is taking.
In the cases that have been brought under the Espionage Act to date, efforts to build defenses around the First Amendment have been quite unsuccessful. The courts have not [generally allowed or supported defenses] based on the First Amendment. But those are cases where the defendant was a leaker, not a publisher.
This case is unique. The U.S. government has never tried to charge a journalist or a publisher under the Espionage Act.
The defense arguments against the extradition from Britain to the U.S. are as follows:
The defence team, headed by Edward Fitzgerald QC, argue that the extradition proceedings amounts to an abuse of process in three separate but overlapping categories:
- The request seeks extradition for what is a classic “political offence”. […]
- The prosecution is being pursued for ulterior political motives and not in good faith. […]
- The request fundamentally misrepresents the facts in order to bring this case within the bounds of an extradition crime; both by misrepresenting that Julian Assange materially assisted Chelsea Manning in accessing national security information; and then by misrepresenting that there was a reckless disclosure of the names of particular individuals. […]
There are additional arguments why the extradition request should be rejected by the British court. But it is not likely that the court will accept any of them. There is not much doubt about the likely outcome of the trial:
[J]udging from the first week of hearings in February at Woolwich Crown Court, all signs point to a decision already having been made to extradite Assange, and that the next three to four weeks will be simply justice going through the motions to make it appear that the WikiLeaks publisher is getting a fair trial.
After the current round of the extradition hearings it will still take some time until the British court system will come to a final decision:
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser is likely to take weeks or even months to consider her verdict, with the losing side likely to appeal.
It is a shame that first the Swedish and then the British justice system have let themselves become henchmen in a fundamentally unjust prosecution of a journalist who has brought more crimes to light than any other living person.