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Tue, Jul

Freedom of the Press? A Steep Cost is Paid by Journalists and the People

VOICES

ACCORDING TO LIZ - Australian journalist Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame struck a deal and got to go home last week instead of being vacuumed up by the U.S. injustice system for revealing ugly truths about America. 

And just what does that say about the U.S. government? 

On this Fourth of July, as we celebrate the birth of the nation and the freedoms for which it stands, Americans must take a deep breathe and look at what preserving those freedoms promised us entails. Especially in the light of the recent MAGA-Court rulings. 

The United States was established despite England’s attempts to keep the people in the dark, to keep information on what was affecting the Colonies from spreading between them. It was the very fact that England tried to suppress freedom of speech that led to it bursting out all over the Colonies and its eventual enshrinement in the American Constitution, specifically in its First Amendment. 

Under the auspices of George III, newspapers and the works produced by printing presses in the Colonies were subject to stringent regulations. Authorities prohibited publication and circulation of information they considered seditious, charging those involved with libel and other serious crimes. 

Many of these men became the forces behind the Revolution and the creation of the United States of America. 

And they made sure that freedom of the press was ensconced in the First Amendment: 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 

Through the centuries since these words were penned, people wishing to preserve their own immunity from the power of the press have acted to curtail that right. It was precisely in protecting the right to possess and read pornography that the Supreme Court determined in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002) that: 

“First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws... The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.” 

Freedom of the press mandates it be allowed to expose state and corporate secrets, as well as increasing transparency of government and other powerful institutions, in order to enhance democratic discourse on all subjects. 

A country that does not allow this can only be called a dictatorship. 

The U.S. Justice Department began its criminal investigation of WikiLeaks and Assange soon after leaks of diplomatic cables in 2010 began, but soon realized that prospects for prosecution under the Espionage Act would be difficult due to strong protections for a free press. 

The Constitution protects re-publication even of illegally gained information provided the publisher does not break laws in acquiring it. Material gleaned through whistleblowers has always been fair game for the Fourth Estate. 

FBI and CIA officials clamored to have the White House designate Wikileaks an “information broker” instead of a publisher of whistleblowers’ data-dumps to allow for further persecution – oops, prosecution – of Assange and his organization. 

WikiLeaks’ run-and-gun approach, its dubious and uncertain sources, and its move into editorializing on what it revealed instead of just laying out the documentary evidence, boosted its vulnerability to abuse by promoters of fictitious political agendas and sucked into what were revealed to be conspiracy theories. 

It certainly partook in questionable activities but that does not void WikiLeaks importance to the American people and the world for standing as a fearless whistleblower against governments’ suppression of their own abuses, doublespeak, and corruption. 

Following the publishing of a series of documents beginning in early 2017 that detailed the activities and capabilities of the Central Intelligence Agency to perform electronic surveillance and cyber warfare, the CIA discussed plans to kidnap or assassinate Assange... which then led to then CIA Director Mike Pompeo to demand that whoever disclosed that plan to Yahoo that broke that story be prosecuted. 

But it was the State Department characterizing WikiLeaks' activities as illegal in the US that put Assange on the run. Prosecutors began drafting a memo in April of 2017 that evaluated charging WikiLeaks with conspiracy, theft of government property and violating the Espionage Act. 

The Assange plea deal last week brought to an inglorious end the longest-running freedom of the press story of the twenty-first century. 

The Military-Industrial Complex that President Eisenhower warned of in his 1961 farewell address, was established to cement the unspoken policy that the United States should promote wars in order to profit from the production and proliferation of armaments and related military matérial. 

WikiLeaks exposed the unsightly truths about the ugly underside of the American military industrial complex and its obscene power, of what President Eisenhower feared above all, and its power pushed governments, from Trump to Biden, to sweep in and put the eternal kibbosh on the right of the people to know the evil of what our government is doing with our tax dollars. 

The greatest danger of this great reveal was the embarrassment caused those officials in the know – elected, promoted and appointed, and how it might affect future elections and promotions, and their personal ability to continue to be paid from the people’s purse. 

And how different is Assange’s case from that of The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich who was arrested in Russia on espionage charges following the publication of disparaging reports on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? 

The prosecution of both journalists poses a grave danger for the future of investigative reporting and the freedom of the press around the world. 

It was the American pursuit of Assange that has set a harmful legal precedent for journalists to be tried under the Espionage Act for the receipt and revelation of classified data from all sources. 

Remember Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were low level operatives for what had been an American ally and were railroaded by Cold War hysteria? 

Assange had fought extradition to the States where, if convicted by a vengeful U.S. court of violating the same Section 794 of the Espionage Act about dissemination of defense information that could aid a foreign government, he risked the death penalty or up to life in prison. 

At least the embarrassing spectacle of authorities determined to violate press freedom and freedom of expression in general by making an example of Assange for exposing alleged war crimes committed by Americans has finally come to an end. 

Nevertheless, over its course and in its resolution, the persecution and intimidation of Assange and WiiLeaks has done extraordinary damage to freedom of the press. 

All his plea deal made clear is that Assange was practicing journalism that offended powerful entities within the United States, however his methods and fact-checking. 

But the evisceration of freedom of the press comes at a perilous cost; not only to journalists but, more importantly, to those who will sink in the shit of government lies that no longer will be scraped up by muckrakers.

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions.  In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)