15 March, 2019

FREE THE PRESS

Wikikeaks publisher Julian Assange has been taken into custody by the British Police. After almost 7 years in the Ecuadorian Embassy, he was dragged out, looking haggard and magnificent as Tolstoy with a giant white beard. The Ecuadorian Embassy had given him generous refuge till a change of regime brought an end to his asylum status—who knew asylum could be revoked? Maybe the catshit had something to do with it. One of the demands of the Embassy was that Assange clean up after his cat. Video footage has also surfaced showing him trying to learn how to skateboard inside the embassy.
There can be no doubt Assange was probably a nightmare tenant. Kudos to the Ecuadorians for suffering through seven years of a celebrity journalist living in their premises. But now the question arises—what next?
First and foremost is the freedom of the press, which all democratic nation-states must uphold. Assange was involved in collecting information on war crimes conducted by the US military. This reportage is the job of a journalist, which he was in full measure. In keeping with the times, his methods of information collection involved a large amount of cyber data. Collecting information for the purposes of verifying a story, especially a story as massive as the one Wikileaks was working on, has always been the professional prerogative of the press, and one that cannot be hampered by any state institution.
 Putting Assange in jail is the equivalent of what the Nepal Police has just done to journalist Arjun Giri, the editor of Tandav Weekly (tandavweekly.com), who was detained and charged under cybercrime law on Monday. His crime? Reporting on a financial fraud conducted by a member of a powerful family that rules Pokhara. Giri is a member of Nepal Journalists Forum, Kaski Chapter. Clearly if people had issue with his reportage, they should have printed rebuttals or put a lawsuit on him for defamation of character. Instead, they went to the police and put him in jail for cybercrime. Reporting on stories is not a crime—but often in tinpot dictatorships like Nepal, where the police can be used for the ends of powerful families, this misuse of the law possible.
The US however is not a tinpot democracy. It is the home of the brave and land of the free. Journalism holds special respect there—at least it did, before Trump took a personally antagonistic position to the press and started to attack its members with impunity. Assange has done nothing that another beacon of democracy, Noam Chomsky, has not done over a lifetime of critiquing the US military and its atrocities worldwide. The only difference is thatAssange, a freewheeling Aussie with libertarian tendencies, has drawn the ire of his jealous contemporaries who will never break a story as important as this one, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out. “Narcissist” is a favorite insult to hurl at Assange, which is odd because he’s clearly sacrificed his life to a cause much larger than himself.
This much is clear: Assange, despite the vociferous insults heaped upon him by the corporate American press, has already consolidated his legacy. Persecuting him now brings forth the opposite results desired by the US state. Extremely negative publicity is sure to follow any attempts to extradite him to the USA. A friend of mine who studied Evangelicals used to say they love persecution—the more persecuted they were, the more their suffering elevated them towards Christ. Something similar is in operation here: the more Assange is persecuted, the more his already canonized image is going to solidify with the young and the moderates, globally.
The US is already on shaky ground due to Trumpian isolation policies. Separating itself from rule of law and the freedom of the press is not going to make it more popular in the international stage. Britain is caught between Brexit and the annoyed Europeans, and any attempts now to cozy up with the Trump regime is only going to make their position more tenacious on the European continent. The only solution now is a speedy legal resolution which drops all charges against Assange and his publication, and a quiet flight back to Australia with his cat.
Published in the Annapurna Express, April 2019.
https://theannapurnaexpress.com/news/1455-free-the-press
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Nepal. She has a BA in international relations from Brown University.