The Latin-American country of Ecuador is considering WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange’s request for asylum. On June 18, he entered the Ecuadorean embassy in the United Kingdom and formally requested that his home country, Australia, had abandoned him and he was now under threat of extradition to Sweden for questioning where he could be then extradited to the United States, be put on trial and possibly face the death penalty.
The coverage from media in the US, UK and Australia has been nothing but dismissive or outright sneering. Rather than admitting Assange is within his legal right to seek and apply for asylum from any country like Ecuador, media have focused on tangential issues. They’ve reported supporters that donated money to Assange’s bail fund could lose the money—£240,000 ($370,000)—because he violated his terms of bail when he failed to report to his “registered bail address near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, after 10pm on Monday.” They’ve suggested Ecuador is “anti-press” and so it is quite ironic that Assange would want asylum from the country’s government. They’ve said Ecuador President Rafael Correa and Julian Assange to deserve each other because they are “anti-American.” And they’ve rehashed a smear that he is doing this for attention and to create drama, which the public has heard in some variation since WikiLeaks began to publish the major caches of documents like the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs and the US State Embassy cables in 2010.
Bail Conditions Violated
With regards to the issue of Assange violating the terms of his bail, it is fine to report this so people understand the situation. The violation of his bail terms is why police are currently waiting outside of the embassy to arrest Assange when he emerges. It further complicates Assange’s request because, if Ecuador grants the request, the embassy then has to figure out how to get Assange on an airplane to Ecuador without police arresting him. However, one would think the media would actually know of an Assange supporter (perhaps even someone who was a high-profile supporter) who was upset with Assange’s decision to seek asylum if they were going to run headlines about how he has short changed his “famous mates.” One might think there should actually be supporters who feel betrayed by Assange’s decision to make this move if such an issue were to be raised, but no such supporters appear to exist. The best the media can come up with is this Twitter message from Jemima Khan, the former wife of cricketer and now prominent Pakistani politician Imran Khan: “Yes. I had expected him to face the allegations. I am as surprised as anyone by this.”
Correa, Enemy of the Press
On President Correa’s supposed chilling of press freedom and why Assange would choose this country, the media that raise this issue conveniently overlook the fact that, when Correa appeared on Assange’s show, “The World Tommorow,” Assange shared how he had been opposed to the way Correa’s regime had been imposing reforms on the country. Here’s Assange’s complete expression of what he thinks about Correa’s new media laws and then Correa’s full reply to the question posed by Assange:
President Correa, as you know for many years I have been fighting a fight for freedom of expression, for the right for people to communicate, for the right to publish true information. We are not an organisation that publishes opinion, so we are not in a fight about whether our opinions are true, we are in a fight about the right to publish true documents from big governments and big corporations. And we have fought against media laws that are bad, like in England there are big businessmen who are able to stop the truth from being published. There are secret gag orders on many President Correa, as you know for many years I have been fighting a fight for freedom of expression, for the right for people to communicate, for the right to publish true information. We are not an organisation that publishes opinion, so we are not in a fight about whether our opinions are true, we are in a fight about the right to publish true documents from big governments and big corporations. And we have fought against media laws that are bad, like in England there are big businessmen who are able to stop the truth from being published.
There are secret gag orders on many publications within England and in other countries, like the United States and Sweden, there is a lot of self censorship where journalists are scared to publish…scared to write about powerful people because they will be attacked. So, my initial instinct for these media changes in Ecuador was to be opposed, because I normally see governments trying to stop us from speaking. But then I… then I spoke at SIP – [Inter-American Press Society] – this media alliance and I was told beforehand ‘Oh, these SIP people, they are really… they are terrible, terrible people’, and I thought to myself ‘Well, I can speak with anyone, you know, I can find some… some part that we agree on – maybe we disagree on ten parts but maybe we agree on one, so I should speak’, but I was horrified that this SIP was some kind of caricature.
It was… you know, there was someone there from the Washington Post who was clearly very close to the State Department and this then opened my mind to understanding that actually that the media in Latin America, or some of the media in Latin America, really are a problem for democratic reforms in Latin America, and that… that it’s true, that it’s a fact, that there are these problems. So I want to hear more from you about this tension…
You yourself are a very good example of how the media and the press and these corporations like the SIP, which is no other than a council of the owners of newspapers in Latin America. About your WikiLeaks they’ve published many books. This one which is an Argent [Argentinian], you know, where he analyses country by country and against Ecuador shows how in a very open way the media did not publish the cables that were against us, for example, disputes about…among media groups, and then they agree not to publish things which are the dirty linen in public. I read the translation in Spanish that – from WikiLeaks -that Ecuadorian press never published. More worrying than the recurrent threat… to trials of journalists that at the time when the President Lucio Gutiérrez, a previous president, was the worrying effect of the private interests in the media showed in the dispute in TC Television, which was a group of banks, and Teleamazonas, which was another group of bankers, and the Embassy concludes in your WikiLeaks – in your information – the fact that the media feels free to criticise the government but not a fugitive banker, and the memo of the Embassy reveals a great deal as to where exactly power resides in Ecuador.
These are the messages that WikiLeaks made public and the media in Ecuador did not publish. So then, you can see the kind of things that we confront in Ecuador and in Latin America. We believe, dear Julian, the only limits to information and to the freedom of expression are those that exist in international treaties, in the international conventions of human rights, the honours and reputation of people, and the security of people and of the State. Everything else, the more people knows about them the better, and you have expressed your fear, recurrent among journalists – or good-faith journalists – but which are stereotypes of the fear that the State power limits freedom of expression. That almost doesn’t exist in Latin America, it’s… are idealisations, myths. Please understand that today the media power was and is probably much greater than political power, in fact normally has political power in function to defend their interests, economic power, social power and, above all, the informational power. And they have been the great electors.
That is not to say that Ecuador is sterling when it comes to press freedom. However, those raising the issue of press freedom in the context of Assange’s decision to seek asylum have not written much of anything at all about who owns and has typically owned the media in Ecuador. In fact, Correa asserts the media were involved in the 2010 coup attempt by corrupt police, where Correa was kidnapped and military troops had to rescue him. He maintains they have an interest in destabilizing the country to make it impossible for him to govern. But, none of that is given consideration when suggesting Assange’s request is fool-headed.
Anti-American Troublemakers Made for Each Other
Then, there’s the idea that both Correa and Assange are “anti-American” so isn’t it great that Assange managed to get to the embassy to ask for help? Canadian international lawyer Robert Amsterdam told CNN, “It’s a very smart move to go there. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa and Assange have mutual interests — they both support the idea that the U.S. is an imperial power that has to be checked…From a Latin perspective, what a glorious thing to get Assange.” Amsterdam emphasized how Ecuador is “hostile” toward US foreign policy and suggested he would be “welcomed” just for that fact.
The Washington Post editorial board went a step further (which is not surprising since they may have ties to the media organizations fighting Correa). They call Correa a “small-time South American autocrat,” who is in a position to take the “role of chief Yanqui-baiter and friend-to-rogues, which Mr. Chavez has modeled for the past dozen years” since Chavez is “dying” of cancer. They describe a “sycophantic interview” on a “Russian state propaganda outlet” where Assange and Correa “wallowed” in “anti-American slanders and paranoia” and Correa cried, “Welcome to the club of the persecuted!” And the editorial board argued Assange has “little to gain,” as he will be arrested by UK police even if granted asylum, but, on the other hand, Correa “could make himself a hero with the global anti-American left by embracing Mr. Assange’s cause.”
The editorial is symptomatic of the fact that Assange’s request for asylum in a Latin-American country perceived by the US to be governed by a left-wing autocrat formed a nexus destined to make any US media outlet promote sneering commentary ignorant of inconvenient facts. Even though the Post published multiple stories on US diplomatic cables, the Post loathes Assange and WikiLeaks because of what it represents and how its commitment to “scientific journalism”—the publishing of actual documents for public consumption—threatens their gatekeeper role in the US. And, as a US media outlet, they are consumed by American exceptionalism and function as a purveyor of government propaganda that reinforces the culture of imperialism in American society.
A “Fabulist” Creating Drama
Finally, to the charge that Assange is just doing this to create drama, the media have made it seem like Assange is hysterical to think he could end up in the grips of the United States if he goes to the United States. Commentators and headlines have wondered why the US would not just try to extradite him from the UK now if they wanted him in their custody. Joan Smith of The Independent called Assange’s asylum a part of an ongoing “one-man psychodrama.”
Lawyer for WikiLeaks, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, pushed back against this perception and described on “Democracy Now!” why the US government would wait until he was in Sweden to request his extradition:
It would have—for the U.S. to move within Britain, of course, it would have complicated matters a great deal, because then he’s facing a Swedish—a Swedish prosecution, and then the U.S. comes in. So what happens to the U.S.—to the U.S. indictment? And then, of course, Julian Assange gets notice that he’s been indicted in the United States, and of course it makes his situation more precarious. And in addition, he would have probably been able to remain on the streets in London, whereas the U.S., really, I think, probably understood that as soon as he gets into Sweden, he’s in prison, he may—those charges may not amount—not charges, those allegations may not amount to anything once he testifies, once he gives evidence, and then they can keep him in prison with this warrant.
And I also think that, if you look at the situation, Sweden versus the U.K., the U.K. can take years to get someone extradited. I mean, we know of the case—I forgot his name, but the young man who supposedly hacked into the Pentagon computer to find out about UFOs—seven, eight years on his extradition. Incredible extradition lawyers in London. It’s a big country. Sweden, whatever we think of Sweden, its justice system certainly seems to have some problems, because Julian Assange would be in jail without bail. And also, it’s a smaller country and just can be knocked around more by the United States.
A responsible press in this instance would evaluate the claims by Assange that he would face political persecution in Sweden if he allowed himself to be extradited without struggle. Fair skepticism might resemble Peter Galbraith’s commentary, where he writes, “Much as US officials might want him in jail, the legal and constitutional barriers to a successful prosecution are insurmountable. There is no basis for extradition.” Galbraith at least weighs the possibility rather than concocting sidebar reasons that attack Assange’s personality and cajole his supporters to abandon him.
The breadth of caricature, misinformation, misrepresentation and pretentiousness in coverage of Assange’s asylum request would be surprising if it weren’t for the fact that media have allowed many labels and smears to be attached to Assange without question. As of now, it would be hard to fault someone from the public who called Assange a sleazy, self-important, anti-American, anti-Semitic and high-tech info-terrorist. That is, in fact, the perception which the total coverage by media has created, since press began reporting on him extensively in 2010.
Pundits like David Allen Green have also offered simplistic, un-nuanced and vainglorious comments like, Assange is “entitled to assert whatever legal rights he has in resisting extradition to Sweden to answer serious allegations of rape and sexual assault. But every delay, every evasion, of Assange in answering these allegations is also a further delay in dealing with the allegations.” This obscures the fact that this is not merely a case of a man trying to escape accountability for rape or sexual assault. It has, as journalist Alexa O’Brien has detailed, not necessarily been free of bias or prosecutorial misconduct. (And, in fact, if one argues this, they do not actually believe Assange is entitled to asserting his legal rights.)
The media have once again shown how much they despise an insurrectionist of the people who is committed to disseminating the truth of corruption in institutions so that they cannot continue to use secrecy to conceal crimes, misconduct and wrongdoing. They have once again shown they despise him because in one year he did what media institutions should have done from at least 2001-2010. He laid bare the operations of the US military and US diplomats so all could see the atrocity, conceit, depravity and underhandedness of US foreign policy.
That media cannot understand his fear of extradition to the United States is not because they do not know the logic behind his anxiety. It is rather because they are committed to playing an elite role in society that might be jeopardized if they admitted governments just might be bullied by the United States into handing over Assange for a political trial in the United States.