On Monday Julian Assange was driven to the Old Bailey to continue his fight against extradition to the United States, where the Trump administration has launched the most dangerous attack on press freedom in at least a generation by indicting him for publishing US government documents. Amid coverage of the proceedings, Assange’s critics have inevitably commented on his appearance, rumours of his behaviour while isolated in the Ecuadorian embassy, and other salacious details.
These predictable distractions are emblematic of the sorry state of our political and cultural discourse. If Assange is extradited to face charges for practising journalism and exposing government misconduct, the consequences for press freedom and the public’s right to know will be catastrophic. Still, rather than seriously addressing the important principles at stake in Assange’s unprecedented indictment and the 175 years in prison he faces, many would rather focus on inconsequential personality profiles.
Assange is not on trial for skateboarding in the Ecuadorian embassy, for tweeting, for calling Hillary Clinton a war hawk, or for having an unkempt beard as he was dragged into detention by British police. Assange faces extradition to the United States because he published incontrovertible proof of war crimes and abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, embarrassing the most powerful nation on Earth. Assange published hard evidence of “the ways in which the first world exploits the third”, according to whistleblower Chelsea Manning, the source of that evidence. Assange is on trial for his journalism, for his principles, not his personality.
You’ve probably heard the refrain from well-meaning pundits: “You don’t have to like him, but you should oppose threats to silence him.” But that refrain misses the point by reinforcing the manipulative tropes deployed against Assange.
When setting a gravely dangerous precedent, governments don’t typically persecute the most beloved individuals in the world. They target those who can be portrayed as subversive, unpatriotic – or simply weird. Then they actively distort public debate by emphasizing those traits.
These techniques are not new. After Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to journalists to expose the US government’s lies about Vietnam, the Nixon administration’s “White House Plumbers” broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in search of material that could be used to discredit him. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was falsely portrayed as collaborating with the Chinese, then the Russians. Obsession with military intelligence analyst Manning’s mental health and gender identity was ubiquitous. By demonizing the messenger, governments seek to poison the message.
The prosecution will be all too happy when coverage of Assange’s extradition hearing devolves into irrelevant tangents and smears. It matters little that Assange’s beard was the result of his shaving kit having been confiscated, or that reports of Paul Manafort visiting him in the embassy were proven to be fabricated. By the time these petty claims are refuted, the damage will be done. At best, public debate over the real issues will be derailed; at worst, public opinion will be manipulated in favour of the establishment.
By drawing attention away from the principles of the case, the obsession with personality pushes out the significance of WikiLeaks’ revelations and the extent to which governments have concealed misconduct from their own citizens. It pushes out how Assange’s 2010 publications exposed 15,000 previously uncounted civilian casualties in Iraq, casualties that the US Army would have buried. It pushes out the fact that the United States is attempting to accomplish what repressive regimes can only dream of: deciding what journalists around the globe can and cannot write. It pushes out the fact that all whistleblowers and journalism itself, not just Assange, is on trial here.
This piece was written by Noam Chomsky and Alice Walker, co-chairs of AssangeDefense.org