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The death threats, the media, and the government's sycophantic pursuit of Julian Assange

By Jennifer Wilson - posted Monday, 6 December 2010


I'm indebted to Antony Loewenstein for his article of December 2 in The Drum titled "Where's the media's backbone over Wikileaks?"

In his article, Loewenstein takes the Australian media to task for its collective inadequacy in the reporting of the 250,000 US cables dumped by Wikileaks.

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One aspect he singles out for attention is the series of calls for the assassination of Assange, the demands that he be tried as a terrorist and condemned to death, and the demands for him to be killed without benefit of a trial at all.

These reactions, or more accurately, these incitements to murder, came from senior political and media figures in the USA and Canada, individuals with a wide ranging public voice, and plenty of influence. Their calls for Assange's death were reported globally.

Demands have also been made for Assange's arrest by the US, on as yet unspecified, even nebulous charges. Australian Attorney General Robert McClelland has offered to assist the US in its pursuit of Assange, and together with Prime Minister Gillard is exploring the possibility of bringing criminal charges against him in this country.

Julia Gillard has, with no substantial grounds at all, repeatedly referred to Wikileaks and Assange's activities as "illegal." Whether or not the Wikileaks dump is "illegal" is far from certain. Even in the US, who is the primary victim if indeed any crime has been committed by Assange, the legality or otherwise of his actions remains unclear.

Australia has not been sinned against in the dump, but irrespective of that, in their desperation to assuage the USA Gillard and McClelland are casting about to find an offence, any offence, with which to charge Assange.

Julian Assange is an Australian citizen. Our Attorney General and our Prime Minister have publicly committed to doing everything they can to assist the US in its pursuit of one of our citizens, a citizen who has now been threatened with death several times by several different figures, in that country.

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This is really quite remarkable. Our government is supposed to protect its citizens, as it protects US citizens, from threats of death. After all, didn't we just go to great lengths to ensure that the convicted wife murderer Gabe Watson would not be returned to his homeland unless they first agreed not to kill him? Yet we'll hunt down one of our citizens who has not been charged with, let alone convicted of anything, and offer him up for assassination apparently without a qualm.

What a very special relationship indeed we have with the USA.

But what is breathtakingly alarming is that nobody in the mainstream media, and in government, seems to find it at all necessary to remark upon the fact that Assange's activities are considered by influential and senior figures in the USA and Canada to be deserving of death.

If you ring up your ex and leave "if you don't stop telling everybody I'm a tosser I'll kill you," on the message bank, you're in big trouble. But if you're a powerful figure in the media and politics in the USA you can volunteer anybody for slaughter for any reason, and nobody will hold you to account for it.

And if you're the Australian government and it's one of your citizens being subjected to that threat, you can offer to help find him and nobody in the mainstream media will question your sanity and your ethics.

It seems that in Australia we've now sunk to such a level of moral turpitude that we are not at all ruffled by the notion of a whistleblower in a democracy being murdered for his activities.

Silence implies complicity. Silence implies approval. Silence implies that it is fine by us to incite the assassination of someone who has caused bother and embarrassment to important people.

Embarrass important people? Of course you'll be killed!

Loewenstein appeared on The Drum on ABC TV December 2, to discuss his perspective on the media's coverage of the Wikileaks dump. The panel consisted of Annabel Crabbe, Leigh Sales (both senior ABC journalists) and Joe Hildebrand of the Daily Telegraph. It very quickly proved impossible to persuade any of these three panellists to seriously address the media's coverage of the Wikileaks affair, or indeed the affair itself. They would not address the contents of the cables, or the death threats. Not even the implications for free speech and dissent if the US does declare Wikileaks a terrorist organisation (as has been suggested by the US Administration and others) could tempt them into a more thoughtful state of mind.

In fact, the panel illustrated exactly what Loewenstein is complaining about. Amid much giggling, Crabbe remarked that Assange had thrown a "tantie" about a New York Times article, and asked what did that tell you about the man. Well, not a lot, really. He can spit the dummy. And this matters because?

Sales insisted that Assange is a journalist and not, as Loewenstein suggests, a whistle blower, on the grounds that he releases his material through the mainstream newspapers. Therefore he ought to be playing by journalists' rules, which apparently don't cover dumping 250,000 cables in the manner in which he has dumped them.

Mercifully, I cannot recall Hildebrande's contribution, other than that it involved a lot of noisy laughter.

These comments from Al Jazeera reporter, Mike Hanna, give an indication of the information that is now available to us, thanks to Wikileaks. Hanna is referring to allegations that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton ordered US diplomatic staff to steal the personal data (credit card, frequent flyer information) of highly placed United Nations officials:

Even the most cursory read (of the leaked cables) makes clear diplomatic staff are being asked to conduct a massive intelligence gathering exercise - involving, to put it bluntly, the theft of personal data. This, on the face of it, is a document asking diplomats to carry out activities that are not only against all accepted protocols, but are illegal in terms of US or international law.

To repeat, it is couched as an order, an instruction, not a request.

In other words, there was plenty for The Drum panel to have an opinion about, and intelligently discuss.

The panel's attitude to the Wikileaks story was, and remains, inexplicable.

And why host Steve Kinnane didn't rein them in and give them some direction, also remains inexplicable.

Assange has scooped every mainstream journo on the planet. He's rewritten the rules of investigative journalism with his massive dump, and he's not even a journalist. Reporters have to go to the secondary source because Assange controls the primary. He's not one of them. He's an outsider. He plays by his own rules. And he pays the price.

Loewenstein suggested that envy and jealous rivalry might be a contributing factor in the Australian mainstream media's apparent determination to give the Wikileaks story as little in depth attention as possible. This the only explanation I can find, unless they're in cahoots with the Gillard government to give the matter the minimum amount of credence, as authorised by the PM, and instead to distract us by focusing on Assange's hair colour, temperament, and how he should list his occupation on his CV.

Wait a minute. Isn't that what they did all through the election campaign? Gillard's earlobes? Abbott's swimmers? Devastating dearth of substantial policy discussion? Buried us instead under great mounds of twaddle till we couldn't bear to listen to the news one more time. Could that also have been a conspiracy between media and politicians to keep the punters deep concerns repressed, and thus less troublesome?

Fortunately, outlets such as the Guardian, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and many other international mainstream media have had the sense and the integrity to set their egos aside and report fully on what Wikileaks continues to dump. Perhaps these media organizations are not as afraid of the US as are the Australians?

Lowenstein also suggests that some Australian media are far too cosy with centres of power, and far too impressed by them. They are thus rendered incapable of comprehensively analysing an attack such as Wikileaks has made on that centre. He gives the example of the ABC's World Today Eleanor Hall, of whom he comments: "It was painful on Monday listening to ABC radio's The World Today grilling a New York Times journalist about his paper's decision to publish some of the revelations. Virtually every question asked by host Eleanor Hall could have come from the State Department. The contents and implications of the cables were mostly ignored."

This is scary stuff. Is it now becoming the media's role to shoot the messenger and ignore the message? To ask questions on behalf of a government? To put obstacles in the way of the public dissemination of subversive material?

Thank you, Antony Loewenstein for sticking your neck out on this matter. I hope they'll still give you gigs on The Drum.

And thank you, Julian Assange. Better not stick your neck out for while though mate.

And thank you bloggers, OLO, overseas news outlets and other online sites where a person can still find something with a bit of grit and substance to get her teeth into.

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About the Author

Dr Jennifer Wilson worked with adult survivors of child abuse for 20 years. On leaving clinical practice she returned to academia, where she taught critical theory and creative writing, and pursued her interest in human rights, popular cultural representations of death and dying, and forgiveness. Dr Wilson has presented papers on human rights and other issues at Oxford, Barcelona, and East London Universities, as well as at several international human rights conferences. Her academic work has been published in national and international journals. Her fiction has also appeared in several anthologies. She is currently working on a secular exploration of forgiveness, and a collection of essays. She blogs at http://www.noplaceforsheep.wordpress.com.

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