May 2, 2024

If Joe Biden Really Wants to Celebrate Press Freedom, He Should Free Julian Assange

Joe Biden will celebrate World Press Freedom Day tomorrow. But it is a safe bet that he’ll have nothing to say about Assange or Imran Khan, both behind bars for defying the US.

Charles Glass
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (L) and former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan (R)(Carl Court / Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

President Joe Biden’s eloquence, such as it is, soars highest when he hymns alleluias to the free press. “Courageous journalists around the world have shown time and again that they will not be silenced or intimidated,” he proclaimed last year on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day. “The United States sees them and stands with them.” He reprised the theme last week at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner: “There are some who call you the enemy of the people. That’s wrong and that’s dangerous. You literally risk your lives doing your job.” The assembled correspondents, although themselves confronting no risk greater than crossing Pennsylvania Avenue to rewrite press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s handouts, applauded their stalwart champion.

The administration’s commitment to freedom of the press is rivaled only by its devotion to democracy beyond America’s borders. The public need not wait until 15 September—International Democracy Day—for the State Department to support fair elections in, say, Pakistan. Donald Lu, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, shared his concern for Pakistani electoral integrity in testimony to a House subcommittee on March 20. Lu, referring to February’s contested results, stated, “We have never used the term ‘free and fair’ in the characterization of this election.” Lu mentioned, among other deviations from democratic norms, “mass arrests of those in opposition, the shutdown of internet, and censorship and pressure placed on journalists.”

To the world’s journalists and Pakistan’s voters, the message is clear: America has your back. American actions, however, send a message at odds with Biden’s and Lu’s rhetorical flourishes: Don’t mess with Uncle Sam. Those who do will end up like Julian Assange in London’s Belmarsh Maximum Security Prison and Imran Khan in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail.

Adiala and Belmarsh are modern, state-of-the-art holding pens for murderers, drug lords, and terrorists. Yet Assange and Khan have killed no one, sold no drugs, planted no bombs. They outraged Washington in different ways, but they are both paying for it in the same way. Assange exposed America’s dark secrets. Khan defended his country’s sovereignty against American tutelage. Both have been disabled: Assange no longer publishes documents exposing US war crimes, and Khan ceased to serve as the prime minister who asserted his country’s neutrality in the US-Russia standoff. Theirs are textbook lessons in how to eliminate troublesome critics and discourage others from following their example.

The similarities in the treatment of Assange and Khan are instructive. First, their punishments have been selective—in that others who acted as they did were left alone. The Department of Justice is prosecuting Assange for publishing classified government documents, but it has not charged others—including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and London’s The Guardian—who’ve committed the same offenses. Moreover, it has not indicted John Young of for being the first to release State Department cables without redacting names of sources whose lives might have been at risk. Young testified at Assange’s extradition hearing in London that “no US law enforcement authority has notified me that this publication of the cables is illegal, consists or contributes to a crime in any way, nor have they asked for them to be removed.”

In Khan’s case, the United States reacted swiftly to Pakistan’s abstention on the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The same Donald Lu who would criticize Pakistani election rigging this year informed Pakistan’s ambassador in April 2022 that “it will be tough going ahead” if Khan remained in office. Although China, India, and Bangladesh also abstained, the US lacked the leverage with them it had with Pakistan—and its armed forces. Two days after Lu’s ultimatum, Pakistan’s parliament, encouraged by the armed forces, dismissed Khan in a vote of no-confidence.

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With Khan out of the prime minister’s office, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a long-delayed loan of $3 billion to Pakistan’s new caretaker government. The IMF had a hand in Assange’s persecution as well, loaning Ecuador $4.5 billion when it agreed to expel Assange from his asylum in its London embassy.

That Assange and Khan have suffered physical and mental torment is undoubted. Assange’s health has suffered in solitary confinement so severely that two successive UN special rapporteurs on torture have classified his treatment as torture that will be exacerbated if Britain extradites him to harsher treatment in the United States. Khan’s family members have been arrested, and a would-be assassin wounded him. Khan was then tried in courts where his witnesses were not allowed to testify. Judges found him guilty of revealing a state secret, marrying his wife before a prescribed period after her divorce, and keeping gifts that should have become state property. Khan received concurrent sentences of 10, seven, and 14 years. Some of the jurists later confessed that they had reached their verdicts under pressure from the Pakistani military. Khan is 71 years old. For 70 years, no one had accused him of any crime. Since his dismissal, Pakistan’s government has charged him with more than 100.

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Legal norms have similarly been cast aside in Assange’s case. Jurisprudence in Britain and the United States regards lawyer-client discussions as confidential. If the prosecution has access to such privileged communications, courts must declare a mistrial. However, all of Assange’s correspondence with defense counsel were seized by a private security company, Undercover Global Plc, in cooperation with the CIA. The company recorded his discussions with his lawyers and, as company director David Morales Guillen has stated, passed the records to the CIA. For a normal defendant entitled to a fair trial, the charges would have to be dropped. Assange is not a normal client anymore than Khan is a normal politician. The rules are being bent, revised, and trampled upon to keep them in prison and away from their work.

Donald Lu’s critique of Pakistani electoral fraud omitted one obvious fact: “Free and fair” polling would have handed Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek e-Insaf (PTI—Movement for Justice), a parliamentary majority and returned him to office. Pakistan’s army and the country’s two traditional parties calculated that it was easier to bear a little criticism in a House subcommittee than to reinstate a popular politician the US detested. The US has not penalized Pakistan for election rigging.

World Press Freedom Day rolls around again tomorrow (May 3). Biden will no doubt condemn Russia for unjustly interning American journalist Evan Gershkovich—as we all should. He is unlikely to mention the journalists arrested in Pakistan for violating the military’s injunction against publishing Imran Khan’s name. He is even less likely to mention the journalist whose freedom he could order in an instant, Julian Assange.

I am not defending Julian and Imran because they are my friends. They are my friends because they are worth defending.

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Charles Glass

Charles Glass is a writer, journalist, broadcaster, and publisher, who has written on conflict in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe for the past 45 years. His latest book is Soldiers Don't Go Mad: A Story of Brotherhood, Poetry, and Mental Illness During the First World War.

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