Some thoughts on the occasion of the 2024 Festival of Journalism in Perugia (17-21 April), where Julian Assange’s name is inexplicably absent from the official programs.

Translated from the article in the Monthly Report of the Italian daily L’Indipendente, February 2024, #31

If you don’t know much about Julian Assange, you are probably under the impression that the co-founder of the WikiLeaks website is being persecuted by the United States, obstinately, because of his embarrassing revelations about U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and the scandalous conditions of detention at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo. And, indeed, these are effectively the basis of the charges brought by the Department of Justice against Assange in order to extradite him from the UK.

But if there is so much talk about the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Logs, and the Operating Procedures for Guantanamo – and not about all the other documents revealed by Assange – it is only because, for fourteen years now, the U.S. and the UK. have been relentlessly pursuing Assange for precisely those three “leaks”. In reality, however, the revelations made by Assange are much wider in scope: they touch on the crimes and malfeasance committed around the world by multinational corporations, private individuals, and a wide array of states and governments. But with a difference.  Unlike the two Anglo-Saxon countries, these other actors have preferred the strategy of hushing up their wrongdoings. That is, they have preferred – successfully –  to let their misdeeds fall into oblivion rather than keep them alive in the public’s memory through lengthy (and headline making) attempts at prosecution, such as the U.S. (under Trump) chose to do.

All of this explains why today we talk only about the WikiLeaks documents that reveal the war crimes committed by the U.S. – the Collateral Murder video above all – while forgetting all the other important and far-reaching scoops.

In reality, WikiLeaks has given us much more than the widely publicized revelations about Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo.  Between 2006 (the year of its launch) and 2019 (the year of Assange’s capture and solitary confinement in Belmarsh prison), the site uncovered hundreds of other misdeeds touching on just about everything.  Scoops that most people seem to have forgotten today, in spite of their importance.  They show how WikiLeaks has protected our environment and food security, defended our privacy, safeguarded the climate, ensured fairness in taxation, protected out right to know, and promoted world peace.

Here are a half-dozen of the less talked-about revelations made by Julian Assange:

  • in defense of the environment and health

A multinational chemical company wanted to market an agricultural insecticide that would kill bees that came into contact with it. Thanks to the WikiLeaks revelations, the product was withdrawn from the market.

  • in defense of our privacy

Assange (and Edward Snowden) revealed how the CIA and the NSA surreptitiously obtain illegal access to the confidential data that we keep in our cell phones; this has enabled us to take measures to safeguard our privacy;

  • in defense of the climate

The Australian journalist revealed the malpractices used by the countries that pollute most, to thwart COP agreements aimed at preventing a climate catastrophe, in particular a secret treaty designed to torpedo the COP21 agreement (it was withdrawn); 

  • in defense of world peace

The documents released by WikiLeaks revealed how Hillary Clinton sold the world the war against Libya as necessary to safeguard democracy, whereas her real interests were in safeguarding the petrodollar (which Libya was undermining) and her presidential ambitions;

  • in defense of our right to fair tax treatment

Thanks to whistleblower Rudolf Elmer, WikiLeaks has revealed the tax fraud practices of several thousand multimillionaires – among the biggest tax evaders – including some 40 politicians;

  • in defense of our right to know

Through multiple “leaks”, Assange has defended our right to know what the world’s powerful do secretly, in spite of the high-sounding values they proclaim – for example, the revelations about the intrigue between the Vatican and the bloodthirsty Chilean dictator Pinochet, contained in the Kissinger files.

Independent journalism

Julian Assange was able to make these scorching revelations because he was able to act as a truly independent journalist, i.e., he was not subject to a desk editor and an editor-in-chief, both of which are dependent on an entrepreneur, i.e., the publisher or owner of the media outlet and member of the monied elite.

It is rare, in our capitalist society, for a journalist to be able to reach a sizable portion of the mainstream public while remaining truly independent, that is, not subject to a line laid down by some entrepreneur.  Assange was an exception, so much so that many journalists refuse to consider him as one of their own. It is as if they said, “Sure, Assange uncovered and disseminated news-worthy stories, and that, of course, constitutes the essence of journalism; but he did so outside a system of top-down control, so he is not a journalist like the rest of us because he is not institutionalized.”

This is clearly a very narrow and self-serving definition of journalism but one so widely held that, in the annual list of imprisoned journalists around the world compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and presented last January 19th in New York, Assange’s name was absent.  The Committee tried to justify its decision to journalist-blogger Kevin Gosztola [, 1/20/2024] with these words: “[We] chose not to list Assange as a journalist, in part because his role has just as often been as a source and because WikiLeaks does not generally perform as a news outlet with an editorial process.” And therein lies the duplicity: the unspoken meaning behind the words “editorial process.

By this term, the CPJ insinuates two things. First, an alleged lack of editorial care on Assange’s part in publishing his revelations – while, in fact, Julian repeatedly demonstrated that he carefully vetted what he published. Second, the CPJ insinuates that, since Assange did not follow the hierarchical process of validating a news story, from desk editor to publisher, this omission somehow makes his journalistic work unprofessional – which is clearly a false assumption.  True enough, at WikiLeaks Julian and his staff decided whether or not to publish a revelation; they did not get, as normally occurs in newsrooms, approval by a desk editor, who consults with an editor-in-chief who is accountable to the owner or publisher of the outlet. In other words, Julian did not act under a chain of command that ends with an entrepreneur who sets policy.  His only imperative was to tell the truth, no matter what.  But this is hardly a reason for considering, per se, his journalistic work to be unprofessional!  And yet, for the CPJ and many institutional journalists, Julian Assange remains an outsider.

Of course, among the various institutional journalists, there are those who fight against the condition of being totally subordinate; many have joined trade unions and guilds so that they can fight for some margin of freedom in their reporting, with respect to the line dictated by the editor-in-chief and the publisher. It is not surprising, then, that most of these self-organized journalists have recognized Julian as one of their own, bestowing upon him membership in their journalistic associations.

It should be recognized, of course, that not all journalists have felt it necessary to unionize in order to report as they please. Various journalists manage to create for themselves a margin of editorial freedom simply by playing the card of their celebrity or outstanding professionalism. But they constitute exceptions and in any case never really have the upper hand.  There is also an entire category of journalists who, despite being dependent on a publisher, consider themselves perfectly free to be able to write whatever they want – and who actually succeed in doing so – due to the fact that, because of their own personal ideological choices and inclinations, these individuals think much like their bosses (indeed, they were probably chosen for this very reason): in other words, they enjoy freedom, but only that of a convict on parole.

And who are the bosses? Because capitalism leads to a concentration of economic power, in the United States the majority of mainstream journalists answer to only six owners (in 1983 there were 50 owners but concentration and cross-ownership have drastically reduced the number). [12.]  In Italy, most mainstream journalists answer to one of just four billionaire families: Agnelli, Berlusconi, Cairo and Caltagirone.  So if the news continues to sound more or less the same switching channels or changing newspapers, there’s a reason – the same reason that makes independent journalism so difficult, as Julian’s case demonstrates: the existence of a media oligarchy.

Here, then, is one of the greatest contradictions in our Western democratic society.  In order to write freely as a mainstream journalist, it is necessary to abdicate a good deal of one’s freedom by joining an editorial staff and then answering to a publisher/entrepreneur.  If you decide to work outside the system, you might be able to publish what you want in some alternative media channel, but, like Assange, you will still not be considered a journalist – at least by your colleagues who are loyal to the system – and, more importantly, you will normally not be able to reach the mainstream public and thus influence public opinion, as Julian managed to do, exceptionally.  You’ll have to resign yourself to communicating within a bubble.

To summarize, in our Western democracies, then, the mainstream press likes to call itself free while, in fact, living a condition of probation or parole in which a handful of controllers (i.e., the publishers, who all belong to a corporate elite) ensure that the news that gets published in their media is compatible with the System and does not upset it.  In such a society, it is inevitable that anyone like Julian Assange gets persecuted and rejected as a foreign body.

There are, of course, in addition to mainstream newspapers, agencies and niche newspapers which are often organized as cooperatives or self-sustaining communities of editors and readers. Then there are local radio and TV stations, blogs and vlogs. Being more or less economically self-sustaining, these non-mainstream media do indeed have a certain amount of freedom; but this is due to the fact that their audiences are very limited.  Indeed, this is the only reason why the System tolerates them: they operate within “bubbles”, with little impact on mainstream public opinion.

Let us fight, yes, for ideals, but not only for ideals

Here, then, in broad strokes, is the reality of journalism (and, in particular, investigative journalism) in Western democracies today. It is a system that, by its very nature, cannot tolerate a rebel like Julian Assange – thus his current status as a political prisoner confined to “provisional” solitary confinement for the past five years, and which will become permanent solitary confinement if the U.S. obtains his extradition, which is now before the British High Court in London.  The Court held audiences last Feb. 20 and 21 but has yet to render a verdict.

What does all this mean for pro-Assange activists?  Brutally put, it means that, when they shout “Free Assange” and ignore the system they are living under, they are simply talking “pie in the sky”.   The same holds when they demand respect for real democracy and true freedom of the press and expression.  These are all things which, while sacrosanct, are incompatible with the status quo of shackled media and corporate dominance as just described.  Which means the real fight lies in changing that status quo. One cannot demand the acceptance of a “foreign body” within a given structure without working, at the same time, to change that structure. Otherwise the “foreign body” will continue to be rejected.  Activism for Julian therefore means, not just chanting slogans, but actively seeking to fundamentally change the structure of our society, starting with the world of media and information. Otherwise, slogans will remain pious aspirations, continually ignored.  Idealism must go hand in hand with realism.

Julian, too, has to assess realistically what he will settle for.  Given the oligarchic structure of Western media, a U.S. presidential pardon or a no-extradition decision by a British court could be conceivable only if some concession were made – for example, Julian’s promise not to restart his WikiLeaks site if he is let free. This might entail his acceptance of voluntary exile, along with his family, to some remote area in Australia, with no internet and no modem for satellite coverage.  Would Julian make such a deal, if offered (and perhaps there have indeed been offers to negotiate something of the sort, as signaled by Julian’s letter to King Charles)?  At present, it seems unlikely that he would, and thus the current stalemate. But he just might be able to devise some other solution that would be acceptable to his captors.

The point is that, in the world we live in today, it is inconceivable to ask for Julian to be freed if that means letting him reactivate WikiLeaks; the System would simply not tolerate it.  The revelation of the CIA plot to assassinate Julian (which was then set aside in favor of judicial persecution) leaves no doubt about it: should Julian be freed and should he start making embarrassing revelations once again, his days would surely be numbered – just like those of the 120 journalists killed around the world last year for revealing embarrassing secrets.  So the answer must lie in changing the System, in making it more open, more compatible with a future WikiLeaks revived.  There is no reasonable hope of seeing Julian free again and editor of WikiLeaks if we merely invoke high-sounding principles and do not contemporaneously  struggle to fully liberate journalism, and investigative journalism in particular, from its current shackles.  And that implies liberation from our current socioeconomic structure as well.

So what can we do, practically speaking, to free journalism and thus pave the way to freeing Julian?  Here are four battles to undertake to bring about real change.

  • Fight for legislation to put an end to media concentration, a condition sine qua non for independent journalism. Only with widespread pluralism of ownership can we hope to have truly diversified editorial lines and, therefore, greater freedom of expression for individual journalists. Only with an end to the concentration of mainstream newspapers in the hands of a few oligarchs can space be left for counter information that can go mainstream. If we succeed in putting an end to the current oligopoly, WikiLeaks will become just one of many free and independent voices in the media. And Assange will become the godfather of countless followers.
  • Expand the now inadequate legal protection of whistleblowers, i.e., those who report criminal wrongdoing within their sphere of employment. It is also necessary to support NGOs that protect whistleblowers. In a recent Belmarsh interview with writer Charles Glass [see ], Julian confessed that WikiLeaks was no longer able to expose war crimes and corruption as in the past: his imprisonment and US government surveillance and restrictions on WikiLeaks’ funding have discouraged potential whistleblowers. Therefore, it is up to us to offer all those able to expose wrongdoings, greater guarantees and protection.
  • Strengthen the legal protection of investigative journalists. This means new laws better protecting the secrecy of sources. It also means supporting the struggle by unions against retaliatory dismissals or mobbing. Finally, it means enacting regulations against the use of lawfare to persecute journalists.
  • Narrowing the scope and broadening the appealability of state secrets. Current laws governing state secrecy do not protect sufficiently those who disclose secrets in the public interest. And this, in spite of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1971 that declared the preeminence of public interest as well as similar rulings by the European Court of Human Rights.  State secrets must become more appealable by enhancing the public interest provision. The wording of the Obama executive order 13526 should therefore be changed from “a person cannot be charged with disclosing classified information, as long as the disclosed information could not be legally classified as secret” to “so long as the disclosure was in the public interest.”


In his conversation with Cédric Villani [, 11/21/2023], a French friend who visited him in Belmarsh prison, Julian confessed that he feared “that he had become a symbol, someone who stands up against the System,” and no more.  Villani, noting Julian’s despondency, tried to reassure him by pointing out that “the lone protester facing the tanks in Tiananmen Square or David vs. Goliath” are also merely symbols, but they have given countless people the will to fight and have therefore been instrumental in changing the world.

Julian must, of course, be more than just an isolated symbol. For otherwise, as was said, he would become an easy target to be eliminated by a bullet or by an arbitrary court order. Instead, Julian must become a broad movement of people fighting for truth in public discourse and for effective media independence. Only in the context of a truly free media, can Julian Assange and WikiLeaks become truly free again.