As the world remains fixated on the COVID pandemic and a divisive presidential election in the United States, it's crucial that we all remain mindful about the fact that freedom of expression is under attack.
What happened to the fourth estate? Where is the honest reporting that we all so desperately need, and upon which the very survival of democracy depends?
I'll tell you where it is: It's languishing in Her Majesty's Prison Belmarsh.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has spent the last year and a half in that London prison under terrible conditions. The U.S. wants to extradite him to face unprecedented charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, which could lead to a sentence of up to 175 years. Given that the federal court in Washington, D.C., has a 100% record of guilty verdicts in espionage cases, Assange would likely spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement. In effect, it would be a lingering sentence of death. And what grave crime might fit such a punishment? The crime of publishing the truth.
Ten years ago, Assange worked with whistleblower Chelsea Manning to reveal U.S. misconduct and share it with the world. In short, he did what any respectable journalist should do: He shone a light on secrets that the U.S. government would rather keep hidden but which the public had an absolute right — and an absolute need — to know.
Because of Manning, Assange and WikiLeaks, we learned of unreported civilian casualties, war crimes, human rights violations, the killing of journalists and the U.S. military's efforts to cover up its misdeeds through misinformation. These revelations won numerous awards for helping to change the global conversation on the post-9/11 wars.
But while human rights organizations and journalism societies have heralded Manning and Assange for the work they did in the public interest, the U.S. government has sought to make examples of them. To hang them like dead magpies in the hedge as a dire warning to others.
If the U.S. extradites Assange, it will set the dangerous precedent that journalists can be prosecuted merely for working with inside sources, or for publishing information the government deems harmful. As many experts have testified, this would be the death knell of investigative journalism. It would become nearly impossible for a free press to fulfill its obligation to inform the citizenry, challenge government secrecy, expose concealed wrongdoing or share any information that might embarrass those in power.
Citizens throughout the world should consider the important role that knowledge plays in democratic life. Knowledge makes us who we are, enables us to understand our fellow citizens and encourages us to grow. Without access to information, our power to express our will at the ballot box is weakened. And our access to information depends on the right to free expression.
The U.S. military and its partners have been at war for nearly two decades. These wars have cost millions of lives and displaced at least 37 million people. We know that our governments, through bias, incompetence or manipulation, have played fast and loose with the truth about these wars. An independent press is the only safeguard we have against government deception. We should always celebrate brave whistleblowers and journalists committed to sharing with us the information we need to be responsible citizens. The information that Manning leaked and Assange published was true, released in the public interest, and never harmed anyone — unless damaging the reputations of public officials constitutes harm.
Right now, with the connivance of Facebook, Google and Twitter, the U.S. government is attempting to dramatically reshape how we share information. It appears that the U.K. government is willing to help its closest ally and turn over Assange.
So what to do now? I am sometimes accused of preaching to the choir. So be it. Choir — we are a very large choir, and in the name of truth and love and freedom we must raise our voices in unison, in a mighty choral roar to demand of the U.S. and U.K. governments that they end their war on journalism. That they dismiss the charges against Julian Assange and cancel the extradition proceedings in the kangaroo court in London. Certainly the future of democracy, and possibly the very future of life on earth, depends upon it.