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Progressives draw attention to Assange and other journalists under attack

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Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP/Taken April 20, 2022 – Supporters and activists hold placards outside Westminster Magistrates court in London on , calling for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is currently in custody pending an extradition request from the US, to be freed. In a Press Freedom Day panel discussion, progressive journalists sought to highlight the ongoing persecution of the WikiLeaks founder and the many ways in which journalists are under attack the world over.

By Peoples Dispatch

On Wednesday, May 3, progressive groups marked World Press Freedom Day by drawing attention to the continued hounding of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. In a panel discussion held by the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, in collaboration with the International Peoples’ Assembly and Peoples Dispatch, senior independent journalists spoke on why Assange continues to be punished and imprisoned for his reporting.

The panel discussed the topic “Telling The Truth Is a Crime: Why Julian Assange and Other Brave Journalists under Attack” and consisted of Indian civil rights activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad and senior journalist Prabir Purkayastha.

Teesta Setalvad is renowned for her more than two-decade long struggle to secure justice for the victims of the 2002 sectarian violence in Gujarat and for founding and leading Sabrang, an independent progressive platform known for its work against the Hindu right-wing in India.

Purkayastha, on the other hand, has worked for decades not only as an independent journalist but also as a prominent figure in India’s people’s science movement, peace and anti-imperialist movements, and also for founding the progressive online media platform NewsClick in 2009, being one of the earliest spaces for digital journalism in India.

In her opening remarks, while paying her tribute to Julian Assange and his continued struggle, Setalvad noted that “whatever we can do is (raise) our voices to ensure not just his release from incarceration, but the stigmatization of the journalism he represented … we need to raise our voice against that.”

She pointed out that press freedom should not merely be seen as just an abstract notion but needs to be viewed in the context of structural, socio-economic and political crises that are prevalent in today’s world. Setalvad talked about how instead of focusing on various rankings about press freedom, there is need to talk about how capitalism is affecting journalism and journalists everywhere.

“Our world of journalism in India took a huge hit, when you saw this huge structural change take place (referring to the neoliberal onslaught in the 1990s), which impacted ownership of the media, which impacted security of individual journalists and collectives of journalists working in the media, and through that attack has actually affected the quality of journalism itself.”

“And unless we are able to see this connection, I think we will just be talking about rankings,” she added.

Speaking about the effects of growing monopolies in the media, which has continued in the digital age as well, Prabir Purkayastha pointed out that “Julian Assange was one of the first persons to think that in this age how are you able to get information and disseminate to a much large body, even for a small organization… even things that states do not want to go public.”

Talking about how Wikileaks has made large troves of data on war crimes and the US diplomatic cables easily accessible to everyone, Purkayastha stated that “Julian has done something which nobody thought was possible: to create an information base deep down inside the states.”

He further noted that Assange’s work also allowed us “to realize that deep strikes of this kind are possible. Because of the centralization of information … also allows for a huge information infrastructure that the states are creating open to deep strikes of the kind that Chelsea Manning did or which was done later on by Snowden.”

Purkayastha said that despite the massive and pervasive intelligence capabilities of the state, it is increasingly easier today to disclose state secrets. He lauded Assange’s political vision to perceive this and also his technological acumen to set up WikiLeaks, a platform that continues to be difficult for states to shut down.

He claimed that it was tragic for several journalists and mainstream media organizations everywhere to have spent a good part of the past 11 years of Assange’s persecution disowning him, and expressed hope that things will change for the better.

“I hope the media, particularly those organizations like The Guardian and New York Times, who benefited from his journalism and later abandoned him saying he’s not a journalist, would at least now show the courage,” Purkayastha said.

“And the journalist community at large will accept that this has been one of the biggest travesties of justice that we have Julian Assange who has been condemned … of not being a journalist, therefore he does not deserve freedom of speech.”

Talking about the state of whistleblowers, journalists, and civil rights activists in India, Setalvad emphasized the difficulty in instituting any meaningful or comprehensive legal framework to protect them. She argued that while Assange’s case displays a brazen use of the entire state apparatus against one person, smaller instances of attack on individual journalists and activists are far more prevalent, both from state and non-state actors.

“What are we asking for?” Setalavad said. “We are asking for certain protection, and that protection can only come if there’s a consensus, and that consensus can only come if … movements start taking interests in some of these issues.”

The World Press Freedom Day began as a global effort to commemorate the historic Windhoek Declaration, passed by a group of African journalists on May 3, 1991 in Windhoek, Namibia. The declaration was the first of its kind and was followed by similar declarations made in Alma-Ata, Sana’a, and Santiago, outlining the principles of press freedoms in various regions.

While commemorations of Press Freedom Day are often only limited to discourses on state interference in the media, the Windhoek Declaration also spoke about the press being independent of “economic control” and advocated for a pluralistic press sans monopolies and unionization of journalists with due legal and political recognition.

The panel chose to highlight Assange as he continues to remain imprisoned without charge in a high-security prison in Belmarsh, UK, awaiting a final verdict on his extradition to the US. If extradited, Assange will face multiple charges of espionage and computer hacking.

The charges carry a combined maximum prison sentence of 175 years. Assange is the first journalist or publisher to be prosecuted under the infamous Espionage Act.

This article was published on Peoples Dispatch