Since Monday, on a backroom door of the EXB office, a sign reads “Do not disturb – Court in session”. Inside, on a computer screen, Julian Assange sits in the back of the court behind a glass wall while his lawyers plead against his extradition to the US. We’re among few journalists who were admitted into the courtroom as observers – and for the next four weeks, from Berlin Mitte, we’ll be closely following the livestreamed judicial drama unfolding at London’s Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey.
To be honest, I was amazed we ‘passed’ (we keep hearing that colleagues, Reporters Without Borders, even members of the German government were rejected). Maybe I was one of those applications that the judge didn’t get a chance to review, as she complained about on the first day of the hearings? Now we were in, it felt more than ever our duty to bear witness and report on what might be Julian Assange’s last judicial battle on European soil. This is also, in many ways, the trial of the whistleblower generation, when at the turn of 2010, investigative journalists felt empowered by WikiLeaks, a platform that was offering the press access to sources and help build a better world. These were also the times when mainstream media believed in digging up hidden truths, and eargerly collaborated with Julian Assange.
An acquaintance whose opinion I value dismissed it altogether: “Sorry, I’m not an Assange fanboy.” I didn’t have time to ask him why. Truth is, I don’t consider myself an “Assange fangirl…”
“Good for you!” exclaimed a friend when I told her about our reporting plans and our digital courtroom. “Amazing how you’re always so interested in everything!” she said before swiftly moving on to more ‘relevant’ Art Fair talk. An acquaintance whose opinion I value dismissed it altogether: “Sorry, I’m not an Assange fanboy.” I didn’t have time to ask him why. A member of the team reported to me that her partner didn’t see the point “Who cares, really?” he’d told his wife over dinner. These reactions – from educated, progressive people who’d clearly otherwise stand for freedom of press and justice – keep surprising me.
Truth is, I don’t consider myself to be an “Assange fangirl”. This trial isn’t about Assange anyway. It’s about the fundamental right for journalists to inform the public about what matters, even if it means exposing embarrassing truths that our governments would rather keep secret – like the cold-blooded shooting of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists by US soldiers (video above). This and many shocking cases of political corruption that ran the headlines of national and international papers in 2010 were brought to light thanks to WikiLeaks. And that’s what on trial in London with Julian Assange today.
And through this, what’s also at stake is the future of our democracies, because without a free press and adequate access to information, how are we supposed to make informed decisions on which leaders to choose or revoke? No free access to information means rigged elections, and a poor democracy.
This is not only about a man fighting for his fate out there in a London courtroom, but also about our future here and now as concerned citizens of the so-called free democratic world.
So, beyond Assange and WikiLeaks, EXB is supporting the rights for fellow journalists to investigate uncover and expose without risking persecution or prosecution. In our Western democracies, we don’t need a gun or Novichok poison to deal with ‘toublemakers’ – we have our own silencing means, less bombastic, but as pervasive (and persuasive), using mass media to mob, discredit and smear, solitary confinement to crush, and now resorting to a sham trial. Now, the judiciary of a country that might have exited the EU but not the realm of law and human rights to my knowledge, bears such resemblance to good old Moscow Trials makes me a little queasy. That this should happen right here in Europe in quasi public indifference is shocking to me. That so many friends don’t give a shit really depresses me.
You don’t like Assange? Who cares? In this case too much focus has been put on Assange, and even more on denigrating him. As Nils Melzer, an independent UN reporter who investigated the case (and no Assange ‘fanboy’ either), explained, it’s all been so politicised, that no one remembers what matters here: “the elephant in the room,” the actual leaks, through which we learnt about US war crimes, but also an endless list of cases of misconduct and shady deals by governments, big corporations and political leaders the world over. Melzer contends that “the US government has already won, because Assange has been silenced”. In 2010, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and New York Times were running their front-page scoops with Assange leaks. Why aren’t they more vocal about the shocking treatment befalling the man they all worked with 10 years ago?
“The silence from the journalistic community with regards to Julian Assange is indicative of the end of journalism in the Western world”
I talked to many colleagues, inspiring journalists from Italy, Sweden or Pakistan who broke major stories thanks to the Wikileaks material. They believe in their mission as investigative reporters, although the mainstream publications they worked for have sometimes let them down. They are not optimistic. “The silence from the journalistic community with regards to Julian Assange is indicative of the end of journalism in the Western world” Johannes Wahlstrom told me last Sunday. The following day, my journalist friend from Pakistan texted me that he just got fired from his university teaching job at a famous American-sponsored Kazakh University after realising he was found guilty of “supporting press freedom” (they plugged him off in the middle of a Zoom conference). “I know about the pressure, I know about the demonisation, I know all the tricks,” he said. He didn’t know about the Assange trial had just resumed, and when he heard, he said he was sad this was happening in “your civilised part of the world,” as he called it with a point of irony. These are very dark days for independent journalism indeed.
For the next four weeks we’ll try our best to prove Johannes wrong, as journalists. We’ll report from the London hearings, talk to experts and courtroom witnesses, feature films and run background interviews with investigative reporters who have experience working with leaks and whistleblowers. And hopefully we’ll spark your interest, dear reader, and the awareness that this is not only about a man fighting for his fate out there in a London courtroom, but also about our future here and now as concerned citizens of the so-called free democratic world.