Artist and Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei staged a silent protest Monday outside the Old Bailey Court in London as critics pan the media for largely ignoring the extradition hearing of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose trial enters its fourth week of witness testimony.
"He truly represents a core value of why we are free—because we have freedom of the press," Weiwei, a longtime supporter of Assange, said outside the courtroom.
"[Assange] is prepared to fight, but this is not fair to him," he continued. "Free him, let him be a free man."
Weiwei urged more civil action to bring attention to the trial, a call that came as media watchdogs point out an alarming lack of coverage of the hearing.
"The next time you see a mainstream media talking-head fawn over Bob Woodward, just remember that if they had any backbone, any moral core, they would be fawning over Julian Assange instead," Lee Camp, a progressive political critic, wrote in Consortium News last week.
Camp pointed to the stark contrast in the deluge of mainstream media coverage of veteran journalist Bob Woodward's recent book, and revelations about President Donald Trump's lying to the American public about the severity of the impending Covid-19 pandemic last winter and the relative silence on Assange's trial.
Video journalist and commentator Matt Orfalea this month also drew comparisons between Woodward and Assange's treatment by the United States government and global media.
"Bob Woodward... has made his career publishing government secrets," Orfalea said in a video posted earlier this month. "But today, he could go to jail for publishing government secrets, because the Trump administration has issued the first indictment in history charging a publisher for publishing government secrets."
U.S. prosecutors have indicted the 49-year-old Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks' publication of secret American military documents in 2010. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.
"Journalists do not need to care about Assange or like him," Jonathan Cook, a U.K.-based reporter wrote as the trial began in early September. "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 U.S., 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," Cook added. "But it has had no such effect."
Explaining the vested interests of corporate media in siding with western governments on which they report, Cook continued:
There were two goals the U.S. and U.K. set out to achieve through the visible persecution, confinement, and torture of Assange.
First, he and WikiLeaks, the transparency organization he co-founded, needed to be disabled. Engaging with WikiLeaks had to be made too risky to contemplate for potential whistleblowers. That is why Chelsea Manning—the U.S. soldier who passed on documents relating to U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan for which Assange now faces extradition—was similarly subjected to harsh imprisonment. She later faced punitive daily fines while in jail to pressure her into testifying against Assange.
The aim has been to discredit WikiLeaks and similar organizations and stop them from publishing additional revelatory documents—of the kind that show western governments are not the "good guys" managing world affairs for the benefit of mankind, but are in fact highly militarized, global bullies advancing the same ruthless colonial policies of war, destruction, and pillage they always pursued.
And second, Assange had to be made to suffer horribly and in public—to be made an example of—to deter other journalists from ever following in his footsteps. He is the modern equivalent of a severed head on a pike displayed at the city gates.
The very obvious fact—confirmed by the media coverage of his case—is that this strategy, advanced chiefly by the U.S. and U.K. (with Sweden playing a lesser role), has been wildly successful. Most corporate media journalists are still enthusiastically colluding in the vilification of Assange—mainly at this stage by ignoring his awful plight.
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U.S. lawmakers have largely condemned Assange, despite what columnist Alan MacLeod argued last week in a column for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) is the "incendiary precedent" Assange's case would set for the media in the U.S. in particular.
Both President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have condemned Assange. In 2010, Biden reportedly compared the WikiLeaks founder to "a high-tech terrorist."
Progressive journalists have noted the media's missing coverage.
These other brave journalists include/individuals include @jlpassarelli, Cathy Vogan of @ConsortiumNews, @jamesdoleman, @MElmaazi, @Williamrt, @Tareq_Haddad, Charlie Jones of @CourtNewsUK, @MaryKostakidis, @richimedhurst, @CraigMurrayOrg, @_taylorhudak...— Katie Halper (@kthalps) September 22, 2020
ShadowProof's Keven Gosztola—who has been providing comprehensive coverage of the trial since its start—reported earlier this month that Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, testified in Assange's defense and poked holes in the U.S government's argument that in publishing the secret documents on WikiLeaks, Assange endangered lives. Gosztola pointed out that the WikiLeaks founder had asked the U.S. government for help redacting names prior to releasing the information on his website.
Ellsberg noted Assange withheld 15,000 files from the release of the Afghanistan War Logs. He also requested assistance from the State Department and the Defense Department on redacting names, but they refused to help WikiLeaks redact a single document, even though it is a standard journalistic practice to consult officials to minimize harm.
"I have no doubt that Julian would have removed those names," Ellsberg declared. Both the State and Defense Departments could have helped WikiLeaks remove the names of individuals, who prosecutors insist were negatively impacted.
Yet, rather than take steps to protect individuals, Ellsberg suggested these government agencies chose to "preserve the possibility of charging Mr. Assange with precisely the charges" he faces now.
Not a single person has been identified by the U.S. government when they talk about deaths, physical harm, or incarceration that were linked to the WikiLeaks publications.
As Assange's trial continues, advocates fear corporate media is failing not only the public but the future of press freedom.
Cook noted that access journalism has weakened corporate media's willingness to challenge sources they rely on regularly—including the U.S. government—even if that means not quite holding power to account. He wrote:
Assange did not just expose the political class, he exposed the media class too—for their feebleness, for their hypocrisy, for their dependence on the centers of power, for their inability to criticize a corporate system in which they were embedded.
Few of them can forgive Assange that crime. Which is why they will be there cheering on his extradition, if only through their silence. A few liberal writers will wait till it is too late for Assange, till he has been packaged up for rendition, to voice half-hearted, mealy-mouthed or agonized columns arguing that, unpleasant as Assange supposedly is, he did not deserve the treatment the U.S. has in store for him.
But that will be far too little, far too late. Assange needed solidarity from journalists and their media organizations long ago, as well as full-throated denunciations of his oppressors. He and WikiLeaks were on the front line of a war to remake journalism, to rebuild it as a true check on the runaway power of our governments. Journalists had a chance to join him in that struggle. Instead, they fled the battlefield, leaving him as a sacrificial offering to their corporate masters.
On Monday Rebecca Vincent, director of International Campaigns for Reporters Without Borders, confirming reporting from Gosztola, tweeted news from the trial that medical experts are now concerned Assange could attempt to take his own life while in detention.
"Even as their house is burning down, media are insisting it is just the Northern Lights," MacLeod wrote.