If only Assange had been Navalny

If only Assange had been Navalny

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Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy, London, May 2017

Jack Taylor · Getty

In March 2017 Julian Assange was nearing the end of his fifth year holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. WikiLeaks had just released details of what it said were CIA hacking tools, which made the CIA more determined than ever to capture him. A recent article by Yahoo News journalists, based on conversations with more than 30 former US officials, reveals how they planned to do it (1).

First they considered kidnapping, but breaching the inviolability of the Ecuadorian embassy to abduct an Australian citizen in the heart of London would have been diplomatically tricky. Then they thought Assange was preparing to flee to Russia with Ecuadorian and Kremlin collusion, and started to consider even more fantastic schemes.

These included ‘potential gun battles with Kremlin operatives on the streets of London, crashing a car into a Russian diplomatic vehicle transporting Assange and then grabbing him, and shooting out the tires of a Russian plane carrying Assange before it could take off for Moscow … One report said Assange might try to escape the embassy hidden in a laundry cart.’ Some senior officials inside the CIA and the Trump administration even discussed killing Assange, going so far as to ‘request “sketches” or “options” for how to assassinate him’. But the White House vetoed this.

CIA director Mike Pompeo was open about his intentions in a speech on 13 April 2017: ‘WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service and has encouraged its followers to find jobs at the CIA in order to obtain intelligence … It’s time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.’ He added, ‘We can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to … crush us with misappropriated secrets.’ Later, he said, ‘We’re going to become a much more vicious agency in ensuring that we are delivering [our strategy]. We are going to go to the hardest places with some of the hardest people in our organisation to crush it.’

Silence in the western press

The Yahoo News story should have echoed around the media world, with indignant editorials about the right to inform, threats to democracy and rising illiberalism even in democratic regimes. Especially as the lead investigator, Michael Isikoff, could hardly be suspected of being anti-American or pro-Moscow: in March 2018 he had co-authored a book titled Russian Roulette: the Inside Story of Putin’s War on America.

But two weeks after these revelations, neither the Wall Street Journal nor the Washington Post nor the New York Times had published a single line about them (2). Nor had Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, Les Échos or France Presse. The Guardian, Courrier International, Le Point, Médiapart and Cnews had mentioned them online, though in most cases briefly. Basically, almost no one had noticed. Bloomberg had given the story just 28 words.

Julian Assange’s tragedy is that he is Australian, and not Russian. If the Kremlin were after him governments would compete to offer him asylum

Jack Dion

Remember the international media storm over the attempted murder of Alexey Navalny (3)? He too was a brave opponent of authority, a whistleblower threatened and persecuted by the state, but he was held in a Russian jail, rather than a London prison. The different treatment of these two heroes is a fine example of the flexibility of the concepts of ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom of the press’ which the western media trumpet at every opportunity. Opposing Vladimir Putin seems to make Navalny more ‘human’ than Assange, who is a dissident too, but in the ‘free world’.

In their 1988 classic, Manufacturing Consent, Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky say a ‘propaganda system will consistently portray people abused by enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy.’ As evidence, they cite the press’s very different treatment of the murders of two clerics well known for opposing their countries’ governments: Oscar Romero, the Salvadorian archbishop killed by a paramilitary group in March 1980, and Jerzy Popiełuszko, the Polish priest killed by the Polish intelligence services in October 1984.

After an exhaustive study of major US newspapers, Herman and Chomsky concluded that a victim in a Soviet satellite state (part of Ronald Reagan’s ‘evil empire’) was worth 137 to 179 times more to the press than one in a US client state.

The gap in this case is smaller. Le Monde’s archives show it has mentioned Assange in 225 articles since he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy on 19 June 2012, and Navalny in 419. It also portrays the two men in quite different lights. Three of its five editorials on Assange talk of his ‘ambivalent career’.

On 13 April 2019, two days after his arrest in London by British police, Le Monde editorialised: ‘Before we discuss the fate of whistleblowersbattling secretive states, we must consider two self-evident facts. First, Julian Assange is answerable to the law, like anyone else … Second, [he] is no friend to human rights.’ Why not? Because ‘this anti-American activist usually targets the secrets of democratic nations, rarely those of totalitarian states.’ In other words, he should target Russia more often, and go easier on the US.

Another editorial on 26 February 2020 concluded: ‘Julian Assange should not be extradited to the US’ although ‘he does not behave like a defender of human rights or someone with respect for justice … He is quick to target the secrets of democratic countries, less so those of authoritarian ones.’ The Wall Street Journal, which has long theorised pro-western double standards, voiced the same criticisms on 12 April 2019: ‘Mr Assange has never been a hero of transparency or democratic accountability. His targets always seem to be democratic institutions or governments, not authoritarians.’

When it comes to Navalny, Le Monde’s support is unreserved. None of its five editorials about him (of 13 articles that mention him) talks of an ambivalent career or says he is answerable to the law like anyone else. Yet Navalny’s membership of a nationalist organisation (the Russian National Liberation Movement), his participation in the xenophobic Russian Marches, and his racist comments about migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia led Amnesty International to strip him of his ‘prisoner of conscience’ status; they cited ‘concerns relating to discriminatory statements he made in 2007 and 2008 which may have constituted advocacy of hatred’. (Amnesty restored his status in May this year after the Russian government cynically exploited its withdrawal for propaganda purposes.)

Le Monde calls Navalny a ‘lawyer, blogger and outspoken critic of state corruption … on the way to becoming Vladimir Putin’s number one opponent’ (19 July 2013); he gets none of the harsh treatment meted out to Assange. He has featured on the back page as a master of social media (16 June 2017) and even been treated as a colleague. ‘His investigative journalism, in widely viewed online videos, was formidably effective in its criticism of the world of corruption’ (22 August 2020).

On 15 January this year, Le Monde devoted part of its front page to Navalny, and carried an editorial and an article praising him, as well as an article by Navalny himself calling Putin the ‘spiritual leader of the corrupt’. The centre-left daily also urged European governments to ‘stop appeasing Putin’.

France Inter’s Géopolitique commentary takes the same stance. Its presenter, Pierre Haski, has condemned the US’s targeting of Assange and argued against his extradition, but told listeners that he has a ‘dark side, both personally and politically’ and ‘a whiff of brimstone about him’. The eight editorials devoted to Navalny between 1 January 2018 and 21 October 2021 (compared with only two on Assange) expressed no such reservations, praising his courage and pugnacity — qualities he certainly has, but shares with Assange.

Western media now on the attack

Journalist Jack Dion summed it up in April 2019: ‘Julian Assange’s tragedy is that he is Australian, and not Russian. If the Kremlin were after him … governments would be competing for the honour of offering him political asylum. His likeness would be projected onto the façade of theHôtel de Ville [Paris city hall] and [mayor] Anne Hidalgo would stop illuminating the Eiffel Tower until he was freed’ (4).

Western journalists used to love Assange for giving them so many scoops in geopolitically quieter times, and in 2010 he was Time magazine’s Person of the Year. But since 2016, when WikiLeaks published the DNC emails leak — which the CIA blamed on Russian hackers — they have savaged him. The New York Times (international edition) asked, ‘When Assange speaks, is Putin talking?’ (2 September 2016) But when Russia labelled a number of NGOs ‘foreign agents’, the western press were rightly indignant.

Assange is still in prison because the Biden administration wants him extradited to face espionage charges. If the request is denied, we already know some of the ways the CIA might assassinate him. Last month, a brave Russian journalist, Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the Nobel peace prize for defending freedom of speech. Next year, will it be Assange?



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