The Relation Between Press Freedom and Assange

The printing press was the origin of mass media, so freedom in its applications was always important. As a central vehicle for political discourse, such freedom was proportionate to that of society as a whole, in a two-way causal relationship.

"Press" then became the term for influential public coverage of an issue, as in good or bad press. Those engaged in this activity were called journalists, for want of a better term. Yet whatever they should have been called, their action was essentially distinguished as dealing in relatively current, accessible and socially significant information that was stored and reproducible. Nothing about that changed since film, tape and binary data were adopted.

There are a raft of typical and mostly incidental features of journalists. These include getting paid for their activity, by an employer or in freelance arrangement, and having the resulting content vetted, edited or otherwise appearing in a periodical or monograph. These features relate to the quality of the end result, yet in ways that can be both positive and negative.

Most of this filtration is a matter of economics, and the difficulty of weighing political information certainly inclines people to economize by trusting particular outlets. Yet commerce, trust and consequent reputability are peripheral to concerns about press freedom. What is most crucial about press freedom is evidently that power is held to account by truth, without effective retaliation.

People like it when power is effectively held to account. But power never likes it, and amply responds on all fronts, making exposure of power a precarious business model at best. The more standard practice is accordingly something else, as thrown into stark relief by a revealing question put to WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson as part of an interview in Der Spiegel:

"WikiLeaks has a rather simple but radical approach. If documents are in the public interest and authentic, they will be published. Is this still the idea?"

For most news consumers, this was always meant to be the idea. Indeed, there is no actual excuse for deviating from it, let alone calling it radical, except in the sense that it is shamefully not standard practice. Any contrary reading bizarrely implies that restraint is required lest the public interest be served.

Some authentic information is not the public interest, such as the health records of private citizens or missile launch codes, for instance. There will always be controversies about what documents are in the public interest, and debate is to be encouraged, subject to the press freedom which may stand to be threatened by conservative views.

Yet this lack of consensus ultimately accounts for a small fraction of the public’s deprivation of important information. Most of the shortfall is simply explained by economic pressures. To manage risk and research cost, while maintaining broad appeal, it is only possible to hype scraps of information and sell these to the public as properly holding power to account.

Power is inclined to favor this over any thorough exposé, and even to drive the headlines through its own factional disputes. Hence this arrangement of deceiving society by making it feel properly informed and defended, in the cheapest sustainable way, ensures maximum security and profit for publishers.

So to the extent that their consciences are acclimatized, that is what most journalists do in the conglomerated media landscape. They fail to report what matters most, and pitch whatever they do report as mattering most. Shades of gray are the rule here, but the average is certainly far from pristine white.

Sustaining the illusions often necessitates marginalization of those who do publish what matters most. This can include denying that certain people are proper or legitimate journalists. Such denial with respect to Assange even persists in the face of statements by UK a tribunal and court, and proceeds by treating the word "journalist" as if the incidental features listed earlier were essential, while the crucial one of keeping power in check is entirely dispensable.

If that chicanery prevails we will only be forced by logic to revisit the matter at some later time. We would then just have to admit the same thing, that what matters most about press freedom is that whoever would reveal information significant enough to hold power to account should be protected in order to do that.

Such people may be called whistleblowers, journalists, editors, publishers and/or designated by some new term. But whatever they might be called, there is no serious doubt anywhere that Assange and WikiLeaks are to be counted as chief among them. Few if any could be said to have done more to expose the scale and detail of abuses of power.

Deprivation of press liberty takes many forms in literally every country around the globe. Yet all of them are arbitrary, in the crucial sense of lacking defensible justification, since their ultimate purpose is to protect power from scrutiny by prevention or retaliation.

It also goes without saying that every arbitrary deprivation comes with its pretext, taken to prove that it is not arbitrary. That is why it was all but impossible for the establishment to respect the UN ruling in favor of Assange, though they were obliged in every way to do so.

Like the words "journalist" and "arbitrary", some people have difficulty with the word "detainment" when it comes to Assange. These people suppose that if a safe place is voluntarily entered to escape a hounding party then detainment cannot apply.

But if nothing else were at stake, nobody would hesitate to admit that any dog barking down the hole of a rabbit after chasing it all the way there, is thereby detaining that rabbit from whatever it would do outside.

There is a special body at the UN to deal with deprivation of liberty in the form of restriction of movement, namely the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. They looked into every aspect of Assange’s asylum for sixteen months, focussing on the detailed circumstances, as well as legal obligations of the implicated countries, in terms of their own ratifications of human rights covenants.

The British judge sentencing Assange this month said the UN ruling was not binding on the court she was acting in, which is a simple and obfuscating way to say they have no stick to hit her with besides the human rights covenants her country ratified, and has no concern for in this context.

It is worth noting here a recent event that shed some unexpected light on our subject, and was billed as follows. "To mark World Press Freedom Day, the British High Commission, the Canadian High Commission and NZ Institute of International Affairs are hosting a panel to reflect on the state of press freedom in NZ and beyond, major changes in the media, the role of social media and the safety of journalists."

In her activist role, Alex Hills made a brief unscheduled address to this panel concerning Julian Assange, after which the British High Commissioner, Laura Clarke, and then a journalist of long experience, Richard Harman, made short revealing statements in succession.

Hill’s full statement is appended and concludes with, "End the smears and lies about an antiwar hero…Stop delivering a one-sided, Government-sanctioned narrative. That is what is going here."

Clarke: "[it.] him being held to account and to justice, and it’s not, I would say, a media freedom issue."

Harman: "Luke Harding has done quite a lot on this question of whether he’s a journalist or not, and has concluded that he is not."

This angle on the journalist "question" was detailed above, as at best a pure distraction from what matters most about press freedom. Nonetheless, Harding’s invoked opinion ranks a bit lower than just worthless here, since his long history of spite toward Assange culminated in a broadly decried allegation that he had meetings with Paul Manafort in the Ecuadorian embassy.

As for Clarke’s ironic reference to justice and holding to account, on the very same day we had this statement from the UN: "The Working Group regrets that the Government has not complied with its Opinion and has now furthered the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of Mr. Assange."

Naturally this Working Group did not neglect to consider the Swedish preliminary investigation into sexual allegations against Assange, which has just opened for a third time, as teased shortly after his arrest. Yet there is still no pertaining indictment, despite interviews and statements from all parties being filed years ago, and charge in absentia being a Swedish practice.

Assange’s conviction on the day of his arrest was also predicated on the astounding notion that the universal right to seek asylum (later granted by the host and underscored by the UN) is not reasonable cause to miss a bail appearance.

Finally there is the indictment from the US against him, pertaining to WikiLeaks’ publication of the largest leaks of US military and political abuses in history. He appeared in court for this the very day before the British High Commissioner declared it was not a media freedom issue.

Grant, for the sake of argument, spurious claims of hacking in the press release for that indictment, along with any stripe of conspiracy or espionage you fancy. Nevertheless, all he stands accused of in material terms is encouragement of a source (basic journalism), and failed assistance in cracking an alternate password, to protect her identity while accessing information entirely available under the clearance she had.

There are no laws against power-exposing journalism per se, since that would give the game away. Yet since the close call of the Pentagon papers case, many are duly mindful of the threat that other laws present to press freedom, such as the Espionage Act, and subsequently the Patriot Act as well as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

But rather than blocking, modifying or repealing such laws as being contrary to the First Amendment, the US has taken the more dangerous path of trusting the government and courts to respect freedom of the press when interpreting them.

Indeed the Department of Justice under Obama decided there was no way to prosecute Assange without setting a precedent to prosecute the New York Times. But now Trump has proven why press freedom should never have been entrusted to the government, by indicting Assange anyway.

The sole action he faces prosecution for was an attempt to protect anonymity of the source providing the data in an historic publication. This is by definition a press freedom issue, and in no conceivable way a minor one.

Yet exactly so much was ignored as irrelevant, all around the world, by mainstream media and prominent politicians, as the pious actions and conferrings on World Press Freedom day unfolded.

It is one thing for a boy to say "the emperor has no clothes." It’s another for a British High Commissioner to nakedly assert that this is "not…a media freedom issue." She actually uttered this absurd core of orthodoxy on Assange.

It usually requires such an unscripted moment for propaganda to short circuit. Yet it is much rarer for it to burn a hole in itself that lets the sun flood through.

For at least one moment of clarity, let’s not follow critters that scurry from its rays, back to the shelter of stones prized off them. Leave the crimped senses of "journalist", "detainment" and "arbitrary" for those whose who really want our future so benighted.

The establishment is simply in denial. For nearly a decade, Julian Assange has been arbitrarily detained for multi-award-winning journalism, and there is no case that press freedom was ever more relevant to.

Hill’s full statement: "We’ve focussed on lies the social media, but not those in the mainstream media. I want to point out the brazen hypocrisy of World Press Freedom day being hosted by the UK government at this dark time. Julian Assange is being persecuted by war criminals and the corrupt that he exposed are still sitting in positions of power in the government on both sides of the aisle, as well as within much of the media, Imagine the precedent that Trump is setting, that any country can extradite a foreign journalist or publisher and make them subject to draconian laws, possibly the death penalty, just because they published truth about that government’s war crimes. Imagine if that state is Saudi Arabia. We call on the world media to stand by their award winning colleague and Nobel Peace Price nominee. End the smears and lies about an antiwar hero. You want to know how to get people trusting the media more? Tell the truth! Stop delivering a one-sided, Government-sanctioned narrative. That is what is going here."

Dr. Simon Floth is an Australian analytical philosopher who has lectured in metaphysics and logic at the University of New England and is currently researching on religion. Since 2004 independent news sites have run his political articles and he appears as a panelist with Unity4J to support Julian Assange. He was a volunteer with WikiLeaks from 2007-2009, discussing vision and experimenting in collaborative analysis by email. He can be reached at