On December 14, while addressing the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate, the ambassador-designate to Pakistan, Donald Armin Blome, pledged that he would champion the press in his new post. “Pakistani journalists and members of civil society face kidnappings, assaults, intimidation and disappearances,” he said, promising to advocate for expanded protections and to hold the perpetrators of these actions to account.
As a Pakistani journalist myself, I ought to have been relieved. In spite of all the talk of its impending decline, the United States remains the world’s preeminent superpower, and you would think that an incoming ambassador throwing his weight behind the media would augur better days for our embattled fraternity. Instead, I cannot help but question his moral authority to lecture anyone in the world on the issue of press freedom. Three successive administrations of the country he represents have mercilessly gone after Julian Assange, the long-tortured founder and publisher of Wikileaks, whom the United States government is trying to place in the dock on trumped-up charges of incitement and espionage.
On December 10—just four days before Blome made his speech—a British court ruled that Assange could be extradited to the United States to stand trial, where he faces a maximum sentence of 175 years’ imprisonment.
We have already read in these pages about the impact such a prosecution would have on the First Amendment. Let us now widen the net and examine what it will do to those of us who work outside the glittering republic. In Pakistan, the perils of telling the truth have never been greater. Scores of journalists—a handful of them spoke to The Nation in August—have been targeted because the state did not approve of their work. Indeed, so brazen has been this policy of intimidation that in the same week that this magazine published its report, the brother of one of the journalists profiled was abducted in broad daylight from the streets of Lahore.
The story is not very different beyond Pakistan’s borders either. In our neighbor to the east, India, which is supposed to be the world’s largest democracy, journalists are routinely charged with sedition and incitement, or else beaten and tortured for writing the wrong tweet. In Afghanistan, ever since the Taliban took control, hundreds if not thousands of reporters have fled, with the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee estimating that some 70 percent of the country’s news outlets have ceased operations. Then there is Iran, our Western neighbor, where female journalists are banned for blowing the whistle on workplace harassment, locked up for publishing material that is deemed irreligious, and murdered for taking photographs of public protests. Finally, there is China, with whom we share a border to the northeast. It ranks 177 of the 180 on the World Press Freedom Index and has become even more repressive in the wake of Covid 19.
Which returns us to the case of Assange, who is being punished for publishing documents that prove that the United States committed war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific director of Reporters Without Borders, says, “The way the US has been treating Julian Assange is clearly giving a blank cheque to authoritarian governments around the world to crack down on press freedom and force into silence journalists and information providers who displease them.” His view is shared by his colleague Rebecca Vincent, who argues that the persecution of Assange will undermine US efforts to promote the cause of press freedom internationally. “If the Biden administration is serious about its commitment to media freedom, they would lead by example and end this more than decade-long persecution now.”
As Vincent suggests, the victory of the Biden-Harris ticket was meant to realign the United States toward a foreign policy based on values rather than the pragmatism of their predecessors. Under the leadership of President Trump, whose transactional approach towards foreign engagement led him to absolve the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for his involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, freedom of the press was a nuisance at home and not much more than a talking point abroad. “They’re spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs,” he said of the Saudis by way of an excuse—and if we believe Bob Woodward, he also once bragged about saving the crown prince’s ass. The implication was clear: As long as you could compensate by supporting Washington’s strategic interests, or, more crudely, by paying in cash, you could act with near-impunity against your own critics and dissidents.
Sadly, what we have witnessed in the first 11 months of Biden’s premiership is a continuation of the same policy positions that left critics of the previous administration convulsing with anger. The United States continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia; leaders of countries with which it has important strategic partnerships—Abdel Fatah el-Sisi and Volodomyr Zelensky, to name a couple—are being allowed to punish those who would hold them to account; and the preeminent chronicler of American atrocity, Julian Assange, is being tormented for doing what any courageous reporter with access to the same information would have done in a heartbeat.
And yet, in spite of the damage that has been done, an opportunity still remains to chart a different course. One of the criticisms often leveled at those of us trying to report the facts in Pakistan is that we create an unflattering image of the country abroad. I’ve found that many of my colleagues are pained by this suggestion and respond to it in the same way as one might at being sworn at. But to me it is a reason to remain optimistic, because it shows that our rulers are still mindful of global opinion. If the United States were to free Assange, it would send a powerful message to the political establishment of repressive regimes around the world that the US has ceased to believe that journalism is a crime.
Otherwise, things will carry on as they are. My colleagues will continue to be abducted in broad daylight; many will return to tell the tale to police officers who won’t register their complaints out of fear; some, like Mudassar Naaru, will disappear altogether. Others, like Saleem Shahzad, will be found dead in a ditch.
And all the while, the likes of Donald Blome will find themselves in drawing rooms with unscrupulous leaders who will earnestly nod their heads while listening to sermons on press freedom, without ever really feeling under pressure to change their ways.