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From Assange to Navalny, Powerful Nations Show Their Contempt for Press Freedoms

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A FREE PRESS - In the late evening of February 16, I was standing on the other side of the iron fence that surrounds the imposing white building of the Russian embassy in The Hague. Abundantly illuminated by the spotlights, the house resembles an expensive film set that has been abandoned for the night. 

But the last people who arrived with flowers that night did not look like fans waiting for movie stars. They were silent mourners paying their respects to a person they held in high esteem. The flowers were for Alexei Navalny, the Russian dissident who died that morning thousands of kilometers away, in the Arctic Circle.

In the Hague, the spotlights shone brightly on the golden double-headed eagle on the Russian embassy’s facade. Since the Bronze Age, the double-headed eagle has symbolized power. Used by the mighty Byzantine dynasty, the eagle is the oldest royal emblem representing both physical and spiritual power. The eagle has survived up to our times, even in countries without royal families. Russia abandoned its royal eagle following the 1917 revolution but resurrected its glory in 1993. The double-headed eagle on the Russian flag sports a red shield depicting a horseman slaying a black dragon.

Alexei Navalny challenged the Russian political system and lost his life. Julian Assange believed that the public has every right to know what their democratically elected representatives and their armies are doing. For now, he has lost his freedom and health.

On the western shores of Europe lies Belmarsh prison, which is known as Britain’s Guantanamo because of its torturous conditions as well as its population of mostly alleged murderers and terrorists. Near it and in front of the High Court in London, another group of people gathered four days after Navalny’s death, in the hopes that they could stop an extradition and stand up for press freedom. Too unwell to appear in court, Julian Assange was waiting for the decision in his cell. As expected, the judges decided to announce their verdict at some later date. It remains to be seen if Assange will be put on a plane to America, where he could face up to 175 years in prison.

On the American emblem, the eagle has a single head, like any normal bird of prey. Its only shield is a flag, not a mighty horseman with a sword. It carries 13 arrows in its left talon and an olive branch in its right talon, which denote the power of peace and war. The one-headed eagle eagerly awaits Assange. At most of the demonstrations against his extradition around the world, protesters have held up a photograph of his face with the lower part covered by the American flag, similar to the one on the breast of the emblematic eagle.

People formulate laws and can change them. The Russian administration is demonstrating great flexibility in introducing new laws that further limit freedom of expression and all other actions that the state doesn’t approve of. Those who would like to democratize the system do not stand a chance. On the other hand, Western countries are unreasonably slow in widening the scope of freedom by changing laws that are too rigid, overly general, or simply unjust. If the rule of law cannot be improved, then what is the sense of law in the ever-changing world?

Alexei Navalny challenged the Russian political system and lost his life. Julian Assange believed that the public has every right to know what their democratically elected representatives and their armies are doing. For now, he has lost his freedom and health. The authenticity of the thousands of confidential documents revealed through WikiLeaks has never been questioned. By revealing them, Assange allegedly broke the law, the Espionage Act of 1917. Since 1919, beginning with Schenck v. United States, the constitutionality of that law and its relationship to free speech have been contested in the courts multiple times. As Karen Sharpe writes in Counterpunch:

The Espionage Act, under which a journalist or publisher has heretofore never been prosecuted, was designed, as its name suggests, to prosecute those Americans working to undermine the U.S. war efforts by delivering national defense information to the enemy. Not only is Julian not an American citizen, and he was in Europe when he was publishing WikiLeaks, but the “enemy” to whom he was meant to have supplied classified information—information in the public interest—must ipso facto be any member of the general public anywhere in the world!

The same law can be used to hide atrocities and war crimes behind a wall of secrecy that protects guilty. None of those linked to the atrocities identified in the Wikileaks documents have been prosecuted. Only Assange is behind bars. In the United States, he is charged with 17 counts under the Espionage Act and one count under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Christophe Deloire and Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Without Borders put it:

Of course, Assange should not be in prison anywhere – not in the UK, nor the US, nor Australia… No one, anywhere, should be targeted for publishing information in the public interest. Assange should be immediately released – perhaps through a political solution if not the courts, given the political nature of the case against him.

In some cases, secrets must be respected and confidentiality is in order. But when crimes are committed, they must be revealed and not hidden, which is the purpose of any legal system. The only reasonable question is: are the laws that protect crimes acceptable or not in a democratic society? If they’re not acceptable, then Assange is a victim and not a culprit. As one of the posters held by a protester in London stressed: “Justice is locking up war criminals, not shooting the messenger!”

The two brave men are the martyrs of very different political realities and imperfect legal systems. Navalny fought for the freedom of his country, Assange for the transparency, freedom of information and press. One way or another, Navalny received the death penalty, delivered by the horseman shielded by two-headed eagle. Assange must wait in Belmarsh prison for the decision on his fate.

There is a clear and striking difference in the response of world leaders concerning these two men. In the case of Navalny, besides his supporters in Russia and around the world, politicians of the West are unanimously voicing their consternation. With indignation, trembling voices, and outrage, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, Jens Stoltenberg, Ursula von der Leyen, and Mark Rutte, as well as Rishi Sunak, David Cameron, and many others are condemning the autocratic and murderous Russian regime and Vladimir Putin’s brutality. They are eager to demonize their proven enemy one more time.

In the case of Assange, the most vocal dissenters are Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists, DiEM25, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and recently the Australian government. In the United Kingdom, where the proceedings are taking place, there was no major political pressure to block the extradition. Only a handful of British parliamentarians signed a petition calling for Assange’s release.

As for world leaders, they are mostly staying silent. Some, however, are not. Those calling on the UK government to block extradition include Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former president of Argentina Alberto Fernández, former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, former Spanish prime minister José Luis Zapatero, and some former heads of state from Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

It is not surprising that politicians in power do not want to encourage whistleblowers and autonomous journalists. A free press can be a serious inconvenience. Those who rule the world prefer to indulge in their power games in secrecy. The will to power prevents Western democracies from improving their laws and strengthening the pursuit of democracy and freedom. It would be surprising and welcome if some of them manage to radically change their attitudes and behaviors.

(Mira Oklobdzija is an independent researcher, activist, sociologist and anthropologist. For the last 12 years, she was a researcher on the team of experts working for the office of the Prosecutor at the UN ICTY. Her books include Revolution between Freedom and Dictatorship and, with Slobodan Drakulic and Claudio Venza, Urban Guerilla in Italy, as well as a number of articles dealing with human rights, political violence, war crimes, reconciliation, migrations, human nature, xenophobia, marginal groups, and outsiders. She lives in The Hague, Netherlands. This story was first featured in CommonDreams.org.)

 

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