If Joe Biden Really Wants to Celebrate Press Freedom, He Should Free Julian Assange

| 3rd May 2024

Joe Biden will celebrate World Press Freedom Day tomorrow. But it is a safe bet that he’ll have nothing to say about Assange or Imran Khan, both behind bars for defying the US.

President Joe Biden’s eloquence, such as it is, soars highest when he hymns alleluias to the free press. “Courageous journalists around the world have shown time and again that they will not be silenced or intimidated,” he proclaimed last year on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day. “The United States sees them and stands with them.” He reprised the theme last week at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner: “There are some who call you the enemy of the people. That’s wrong and that’s dangerous. You literally risk your lives doing your job.” The assembled correspondents, although themselves confronting no risk greater than crossing Pennsylvania Avenue to rewrite press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s handouts, applauded their stalwart champion.

The administration’s commitment to freedom of the press is rivaled only by its devotion to democracy beyond America’s borders. The public need not wait until 15 September — International Democracy Day — for the State Department to support fair elections in, say, Pakistan. Donald Lu, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, shared his concern for Pakistani electoral integrity in testimony to a House subcommittee on March 20. Lu, referring to February’s contested results, stated, “We have never used the term ‘free and fair’ in the characterization of this election.” Lu mentioned, among other deviations from democratic norms, “mass arrests of those in opposition, the shutdown of internet, and censorship and pressure placed on journalists.”

To the world’s journalists and Pakistan’s voters, the message is clear: America has your back. American actions, however, send a message at odds with Biden’s and Lu’s rhetorical flourishes: Don’t mess with Uncle Sam. Those who do will end up like Julian Assange in London’s Belmarsh Maximum Security Prison and Imran Khan in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail…

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Demonstration for Julian Assange, Barcelona Feb 20, 2024

The US Government’s Plot to Murder Julian Assange

While dictators kill troublesome journalists with guns and missiles, democracies can afford to be more patient. But the end result is the same.

In most of the countries whose wars I’ve covered over the past 50 years, journalists were fair game. The first deliberate killing I remember took place during Lebanon’s civil war in May 1976, when a sniper shot Le Monde correspondent Edouard Saab. Saab, who also edited Beirut’s French language daily, L’Orient-Le Jour, had excoriated the Syrian regime for stoking Lebanon’s violence … The Syrians were not the only ones killing writers in Lebanon. In 1966, supporters of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser murdered Kamal Mrowe, the esteemed editor-publisher of the Arabic daily Al Hayat. Mossad killed Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani in Beirut in July 1972, two months before I moved there … That’s just the Middle East. In other regions where I’ve worked soldiers and politicians murdered journalists with impunity. There is barely a corner of the globe where reporters are not targets of the powerful forces they challenge. The United States presents itself as an exception, despite its toleration of friendly states, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, that have killed journalists. On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, last year, President Joe Biden declared, “Courageous journalists around the world have shown time and again that they will not be silenced or intimidated. The United States sees them and stands with them.”

America did not stand with the reporters and camera operators from Al Jazeera, Reuters, and Spain’s Telecino in Baghdad when US forces fired on and killed them on April 8, 2003. The case that the killings were unintentional wore thinner in July 2007, when a US Apache helicopter killed a group of unarmed civilians on the streets of Baghdad. Among the dead were Reuters journalists Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh. Only WikiLeaks’ publication of the “Collateral Murder” footage, complete with the crew’s voiced glee at the killings, exposed the official lie.

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Medic carrying wounded Palestinian child in Gaza, 17th October 2023

Aren’t the Children of Gaza Worth Saving?

If our answer is yes, then we have to stop sending Israel the weapons that kill them. No one turns his back on a child whose life is threatened. This is how it should be. Who turns away from a child in danger? Why then the silence on the children killed, maimed, buried alive and orphaned in Gaza since the 8th of October last year?

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Protest in solidarity with Julian Assange outside the walls of Belmarsh Prison

A Visit to Belmarsh Prison, Where Julian Assange Awaits His Final Appeal Against Extradition to the US

HMP Belmarsh. It is 2:30 pm on Wednesday, December 13, when Julian Assange strides into the visitors’ area. He stands out in the column of 23 prisoners for his height — 6′ 2″ — and flowing white locks with trimmed beard. He squints, looking for a familiar face among the wives, sisters, sons, and fathers of the other inmates. I am waiting, as assigned, at D-3, one of about 40 sets of small coffee tables surrounded by three upholstered chairs — two blue, one red — screwed into the floor of what looks like a basketball court. We spot each other, walk forward, and embrace. It is the first time I have seen him in six years. I blurt, “You’re pale.” Through a mischievous smile I remember from past meetings, he jokes, “They call it prison pale.”

He has not been outdoors — apart from a minute when police dragged him into a paddy wagon — since he took refuge in London’s cramped Ecuadorian Embassy in June 2012. The embassy’s French windows had afforded glimpses of sky. Here at Belmarsh maximum security prison in southeast London, his abode since April 11, 2019, he has not seen the sun. Warders confine him to a cell for 23 out of every 24 hours. His single hour of recreation takes place within four walls, under supervision. His paleness is best described as deathly.

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Activists supporting Julian Assange in London's Piccadilly Circus with banners declaring 'Free Assange' and '2023 - Time to Set Him Free!'

Behind closed doors: A fresh look at Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

In December 2018, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, received an email from a group of lawyers headed “Julian Assange is seeking your protection”. Melzer, a Swiss international lawyer, asked himself: “Was this not the founder of WikiLeaks, the shady hacker with the white hair and the leather jacket who was hiding out in an embassy somewhere because of rape allegations?” As he recalls,

I was overtaken by a host of disparaging thoughts and almost reflexive feelings of rejection. Assange? No, I certainly would not be manipulated by this guy.

Three months later, Assange’s legal team contacted him again. Ecuador intended to expel Assange from its embassy in London, where he had taken refuge in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden and from there to the US. “A question started forming in my mind”, Melzer writes in The Trial of Julian Assange: A story of persecution. “Had I overlooked something when I dismissed this case the last time around?” Thus began a two-year investigation that uncovered the lengths to which the US – and the UK, Sweden and Ecuador – went to silence and punish Assange. Melzer changed his mind. This book should change others’.

The story begins in 2006, when Assange, together with fellow tech prodigies and free-speech advocates, founded WikiLeaks as a safe depository for inside sources to reveal wrongdoing without fear of retribution. Encryption prevented governments and corporations, not to mention WikiLeaks itself, from detecting the identities of whistleblowers, thereby protecting them from prosecutions of the kind that tormented many who had confided in traditional media, among them the Foreign and Commonwealth Office official Sarah Tisdall, who was jailed in 1984 for leaking British government documents to the Guardian, and the GCHQ translator Katharine Gun, who in 2003 was charged under the Official Secrets Act for leaking top-secret information to the Observer. A year into its existence, WikiLeaks published the US army’s protocols for detainee treatment at Camp Delta in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, including the denial of access to Red Cross delegates. It also released documents related to the ruling Moi family’s corruption in Kenya. In 2008 came the Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s emails, then in 2009 intercepts of government pager messages about the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. It was a measure of the trust sources placed in WikiLeaks that so many were…

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Village of Ehden, North of Lebanon by Paul Saad

Letter from Mount Lebanon

Peace is precarious in Lebanon, where everyone remembers the toll of previous conflicts and fears the spread of war.

Ehden is an ancient village on the northern heights of Mount Lebanon. Perched above the Qadisha (Sacred) Valley, it has long been a redoubt of the Maronite sect, an Eastern rite of Roman Catholicism whose adherents built their first church, Saint Mamas, here in 749 AD. Some Maronites like to claim descent from the Phoenicians, although their fourth-century founder, Saint Maroun, was born in northern Syria and never set foot in Lebanon. The people of Ehden and Zgharta, its sister village in the foothills nearer the sea, spoke Aramaic into the nineteenth century. Even today their Arabic is pronounced with a distinctive Aramaic accent. Most Lebanese, including urban Maronites, regard them as hillbillies whose feuds would embarrass the Hatfields and McCoys. Five families—Frangieh, Moawad, Doueihy, Karam, and Makary—have vied for dominance over the centuries. The Frangiehs have been primus inter pares since one of them, Suleiman Frangieh, became president of Lebanon in 1970.

My Makary grandmother raised me on mountain folktales. In one, her father is killed defending the village from an Ottoman raid about 1890, a few months before she was born. Other relatives told me he died in a feud among the families. Although her mother married again and took her to the New World, she never lost touch with her native land. Her Arabic—like her cooking—marked her as a born-and-bred Zghartawi.

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Newspaper reports William N. Oatis missing

The US Condemned Stalin’s Prosecution of Journalists. Now It Uses His Playbook.

The prosecution of Julian Assange in 2023 mirrors the prosecution of journalist Bill Oatis during the Cold War.

Two of my colleagues — Evan Gershkovich in Moscow and Julian Assange in London — languish in prisons for doing their job: keeping you informed. Russia and the U.S., knowingly or not, are following Joseph Stalin’s press playbook. A case in point: the Stalinist persecution of U.S. journalist William (Bill) Nathan Oatis in Cold War Czechoslovakia, which mirrors the contemporary prosecutions of my colleagues.

To Bill Oatis, as to Assange and Gershkovich, journalism was less a job than a vocation. He worked on school newspapers from the age of 12 and dropped out of college in 1933 to take a job at his hometown newspaper, the Marion, Indiana, Leader-Tribune. From there, he moved to the Associated Press (AP) bureau in the state capital, Indianapolis. (His managing editor, Drysdale Brannon, recalled, “He was a factual reporter and probably the most conscientious man who ever worked on the staff.”) Diverted from journalism to the Army for three years during World War II, he returned to the AP, first to its New York news desk, then to London and in 1950 to Prague, Czechoslovakia, as bureau chief.

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The Great War, Library of Congress

Revisiting the Mental Health Fallout from the Unprecedented Horror of the First World War

All the armies in the Great War had a word for it: the Germans called it “Kriegsneurose”; the French “la confusion mentale de la guerre”; the British “neurasthenia” and, when Dr. Charles Samuel Myers introduced the soldiers’ slang into medical discourse in 1915, “shell shock.” Twenty-five years later, it was “battle fatigue.” By the end of the twentieth century, it became post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In December 1914, a mere five months into “the war to end war,” Britain’s armed forces lost 10 percent of all frontline officers and 4 percent of enlisted men, the “other ranks,” to “nervous and mental shock.” An editorial that month in the British medical journal The Lancet lamented “the frequency with which hysteria, traumatic and otherwise, is showing itself.”

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"The 2000 Yard Stare", by Thomas Lea, 1944, WWII. The Army Art Collection, U.S. Army Center for Military History

From “Shell Shock” to PTSD, Veterans Have a Long Walk to Health

Will Robinson, an American Iraq war veteran, languished for months with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) all alone at home in Louisiana. One day in March 2016, he watched the movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. Strayed’s book of the same title told of her redemption from despair by hiking 2,650 miles of wilderness on the Pacific Coast Trail, from Mexico to Canada. Robinson decided to follow Strayed’s example, packing up a tent and supplies a month later to duplicate her journey and, he hoped, its hopeful outcome.

He had nothing to lose. Forced into the army at the age of eighteen by a judge who promised to erase his conviction for petty theft if he served, he was deployed to South Korea in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Six months in Iraq left him with injuries to his wrist, his knee and, more significantly, his mind. The army gave him a medical discharge for PTSD, but it offered little in the way of medical treatment. He attempted suicide with drugs the Veterans Administration issued him, surviving only because the pills made him vomit. Other vets of the war on terror were not so lucky; every day, an average of twenty-two take their lives rather than endure another moment of living hell. Robinson promised his mother he would not try again. Then she died, and he retreated into loneliness and depression.

It was during that dark time that Robinson saw “Wild” and took his first, literal, step towards recovery. He may not have known that he was following the advice of a British psychiatrist, Dr. Arthur J. Brock, who had prescribed similar solutions to soldiers traumatized in the First World War. The battles between 1914 and 1918 subjected young men to the unprecedented terrors of high explosive artillery shells, poison gas, flamethrowers, rapid machine-gun fire and claustrophobia in rat-infested trenches. Growing numbers of casualties carried to field hospitals had no physical wounds. At least, not wounds the doctors could see.

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Soldiers Dont Go Mad

Poet by Day, Sick by Night

Every summer before the war, Siegfried Sassoon had gloried in playing cricket. Yet, at Craiglockhart, he shunned team sports and clubs. His only athletic pursuits were golf and leaping alone “like a young ram” over the Pentland ridges. At the end of his first week, he wrote to Ottoline Morrell, “My fellow-patients are 160 more or less dotty officers. A great many of them are degenerate looking.” One had committed suicide. Estranged from the other inmates, Sassoon cherished his time with [Dr. William Halse Rivers] Rivers, “a sensible man who doesn’t say anything silly.” Rivers assured him he was sane, albeit with one abnormality: opposition to the war. Yet, Sassoon wrote to Ottoline, the doctor’s pro-war arguments “don’t make any impression on me.”

He used the evening sessions with Rivers “to give my anti-war complex an airing.” Doctor and patient debated the war’s rights and wrongs, neither making headway with the other. Among discussion topics were European politicians’ declarations as translated in The Cambridge Magazine. Sassoon maintained the statesmen, far from waging defensive war, sought to annex territory from Germany and its allies. France wanted Alsace and the portions of Lorraine that Germany had seized in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. The Kingdom of Italy had joined the war in April 1915 to acquire chunks of Austria-Hungary. Britain coveted German colonies in Africa. The May 1916 Sykes-Picot accord dividing the Ottoman Empire among France, Britain, and Russia would have bolstered Sassoon’s case had it not been an official secret. Rivers argued that Germany would not negotiate. Its military and political leaders were as determined as Britain’s to fight until victory, despite the stasis of the trenches, the daily death toll, and the calamitous offensives. Like the belligerent nations, Rivers and Sassoon stuck to their positions without breakthrough or compromise.

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