The release of Julian Assange is crucial to the future of journalism, free speech and democracy. Free journalism is essential to prevent wars that states often justify with lies.
This is a speech delivered by Fabian Scheidler at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on World Press Freedom Day.
We live in an inverted, a perverted world. Julian Assange has uncovered war crimes as a journalist. But none of the criminals has ever been charged, let alone convicted. Instead, the man who revealed the crimes has been incarcerated for four years in inhumane conditions at Belmarsh High Security Prison in London. Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture from 2016 to 2022, concluded that Assange has being tortured by this treatment.
Julian Assange has not been charged with any crime in the UK, elsewhere in Europe, or in his native Australia. He is in custody solely because the U.S. is demanding his extradition to face charges under a draconian World War 1 espionage act and imprison him for the rest of his life.
War and lies are closely linked.
-Fabian Scheidler, journalist
But Assange is not a spy, he is a journalist and has acted as such. If he were extradited and convicted, it would set a dangerous precedent.
Every journalist on Earth in the future would have to fear being imprisoned for life as a spy for revealing dirty secrets of governments. That would be the end of freedom of the press as we know it.
What is Julian Assange in prison for? He is in prison for showing the truth about our wars, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. War and lies are very closely related. Wars cannot be fought without lies because most populations reject these wars as soon as they know the truth about them. Governments never tell the truth about their wars, because otherwise they lose the support of the population. Embedded journalists do not tell us the truth about the wars. After the disaster of the Vietnam War, various concepts have been developed to allow journalists to go to war theaters only embedded, accompanied by the respective military. We saw this in Iraq, we saw it in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Only a few journalists had the opportunity to look behind the scenes. That is why leaks, confidential sources and journalists like Julian Assange are so important.
Reporting the dirty truth about wars, no matter from which side they are waged, is crucial so that these wars can no longer be waged in the future. Let me give a few examples of this from history. In the Vietnam War, reporting by courageous journalists, often citing anonymous sources or using leaks, played a decisive role in ending the bloodshed. One of the most important steps was the story revealed by Seymour Hersh in 1969 about war crimes in My Lai, Vietnam. At that time, U.S. troops murdered hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children, in the village. This story and the images of it were instrumental in turning popular sentiment against this war. Another important revelation was the so-called Pentagon Papers, published by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg with the help of journalists. They showed that several U.S. governments had systematically lied to the population about the Vietnam War, about its motives, about its scale, and about its methods. It came out that not only Vietnam was bombed, but also Laos and Cambodia. An estimated three to four million people died in that war.
These reports and the largely anonymous sources on which they were based were instrumental in bringing this war to an end. This was later followed by the revelations of the secret programs used by the CIA to illegally spy on U.S. citizens. These revelations, again by Seymour Hersh, led to the establishment of the so-called Church Commission in 1975 to provide parliamentary oversight of the intelligence agencies – an important step in defense of democracy. We then saw a new phase of wars with the start of the so-called war on terror after September 11. In 2004, Seymour Hersh exposed U.S. torture practices at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
Wikileaks and Julian Assange are part of this long tradition. In 2010 and 2011, based largely on information from Chelsea Manning, Wikileaks exposed a whole series of crimes committed by our governments that shocked the world. Among them was a document that showed how the CIA tried to mobilize sentiment in Germany and France for the war in Afghanistan. A headline from this document is telling: “Why it is not enough to count on the apathy of the Germans.” The point was to mobilize people for an expansion of operations in Afghanistan through manipulated information.
The so-called Collateral Murder Video then caused a great public stir. Audio and video footage from a U.S. helicopter in Iraq documented American soldiers shooting at civilians, including two Reuters journalists, as they talked about the best way to murder them. The survivors tried to retrieve one of the journalists, who was badly injured, but the soldiers shot the wounded man again until he was dead. There were also two small children in the car who were hit and survived seriously wounded. This is just one small detail from that war. But the worldwide outrage over it shows what happens when the dirty truth about wars comes out. Support drops, the grand narratives about these wars shatter: that they are good wars, that they are just wars, that they are fought in the name of values.
Later, Wikileaks released the Afghan War Logs and the Iraq War Logs, hundreds of thousands of documents chronicling war crimes committed by both Western powers and the warlords with whom they worked closely. Finally, the Guantanamo Papers showed the world public the brutality with which this torture prison was run. The horror of the so-called war on terror became public not least through Wikileaks.
Why is Julian Assange in prison? Because he has removed the mask from the hypocrisy of our so-called Western values and has shown how brutal the reality behind it is.
That is why he has been persecuted, that is why he has been imprisoned, that is why he has been tortured, as Nils Melzer says. The courage of Julian Assange, and of sources like Chelsea Manning, was crucial to other whistleblowers and other journalists subsequently daring to expose dark practices of our governments, like Edward Snowden, who exposed the spying practices of the NSA and other agencies.
Julian Assange has come under massive attack following his revelations, not only from the governments involved, but also from some journalists. A host on the American TV channel Fox publicly called for him to be murdered. The U.S. government, with the help of the United Kingdom and Sweden, eventually did everything it could to put him behind bars as quickly as possible under various pretexts.
The release of Julian Assange is crucial for the future of journalism, freedom of speech, democracy and far beyond. To prevent future wars, free journalism is indispensable. Today, we find ourselves in an extremely dangerous situation. A new cold and also hot war between the blocs is looming. The war in Ukraine threatens to escalate. The USA and some allies are threatening war against China. This is a matter of survival for humankind, because it could lead to a nuclear confrontation.
The situation is critical for another reason. With climate change, species extinction and other ecological catastrophes, we are at dangerous tipping points in the Earth system. We must concentrate our social forces on setting in motion a socio-ecological transformation that will still prevent the climate catastrophe and enable us to live on this planet in dignity for generations to come. For this we need resources, money and international cooperation for a peaceful transformation and not for war. We are currently experiencing a new arms race that brings us closer to a nuclear confrontation and at the same time deprives us of the possibility to stop the ecological collapse. A brief review: The so-called wars on terror, in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, have cost a combined total of at least $5 trillion. That is about the amount that would be needed, according to Noam Chomsky and economist Robert Pollin, for a Global Green New Deal to launch an ecological transition in agriculture, energy supply, transportation, and at the same time create more social justice. This money has been channeled into wars over the last 20 years instead of the transformation we so desperately need.
To prevent this from happening again now, we need critical journalism, we need free journalism, we need courageous journalism. The recent Pentagon leak has shown that, according to the U.S. military’s assessments, the war in Ukraine is not winnable for either side in the near future. It is a stalemate. Prolonging this war further will result in tens or hundreds of thousands more deaths with no substantial gains for Ukraine. Only negotiations can end this war.
In this situation, we need free and daring journalists more than ever to give us unvarnished accounts of reality, to look behind the facades. At the tipping point in human history at which we stand, we need more than ever to defend the freedom of journalism and its sources.
This article was published by Fabian Scheidler in the Berliner Zeitung under the Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). It may be freely reused by the general public for non-commercial purposes, provided that the author and the Berliner Zeitung are credited and that no modifications are made.
Fabian Scheidler is the author of the book “The End of the Megamachine. A Brief History of a Failing Civilization,” which was translated into several languages (www.end-of-the-megamachine.com). His most recent book is “The Stuff We Are Made Of. Rethinking Nature and Society”. Fabian Scheidler has written as a free lance journalist for the Berliner Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Wiener Zeitung, Taz, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Jacobin, The Progressive, Radio France and others. In 2009, he received the Otto Brenner Media Prize for critical journalism.