In the authoritarian political system that exists in Russia, it can be very hard to learn the truth about what the government is up to, let alone force it to change its behavior or obtain any sort of justice for its crimes. This makes government leaks, the whistleblowers who leak them, and the journalists and press outlets that publish them, all the more vital.
It also means all of those entities have a big target on their backs. So let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say Moscow has engaged in a years-long attempt to catch and imprison the man responsible for publishing a series of massive leaks that proved deeply embarrassing to the Kremlin.
Though he’s not a Russian national, has never lived in the country, nor was he there when he committed his supposed “crime,” the Russian government has taken the radical step of trying to have him extradited to its soil, so it can put him through a trial that’s a foregone conclusion and imprison him for god knows how long — effectively asserting the right to prosecute and jail any journalist anywhere in the world if they happen to publish something that displeases Russia’s ruling elite.
What was it that displeased them? One was the several tranches of secret documents he released about the various wars Moscow has fought in the twenty-first century, revealing war crimes we never knew about, a civilian death toll higher than we thought, and various cover-ups and behind-the-scenes subterfuge. Another was the decades worth of diplomatic cables that gave us unprecedented insight into the workings of Russian and other nations’ foreign policy.
But maybe his greatest crime in the minds of the country’s ruling class was publishing scandalous information about the corruption and political manipulation of one section of the political elite, embarrassing revelations almost certainly fed to him by an adversarial foreign power with its own particular motivations.
The Kremlin has gone to extraordinary lengths to punish these acts of truth-telling, and to deter any future ones. It pressured PayPal to cut off payments to him, gave immunity to a criminal and sex offender if he helped them catch him, and used its assets in the hacker world to attack a foreign government’s websites and create the pretext for its security services to enter the country he was staying in. It eventually forced him to spend seven years in a foreign embassy to avoid capture by Russian authorities, leading to the partial unravelling of his sanity. Once they finally caught him, they promptly imprisoned him without charge for the next three years, some of it spent in solitary confinement, a vicious form of torture. As a result of Moscow’s actions, when he finally showed up to his extradition trial, he struggled to say his name and age, and the extreme stress ultimately caused him to have a stroke.
All for the crime of exposing war crimes and corruption.
Of course, these paragraphs don’t actually describe the actions of the Russian government. Make no mistake — Russia is governed by a militaristic, corrupt elite contemptuous of international law who love clamping down on dissent and free information, to the point of murder. This is why all of this sounds plausible as yet another Kremlin misdeed.
It just happens that in this particular case, this is a summary of what the US government has done the past decade or so to punish WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
The latest news in the Assange saga is that last week, the UK home secretary formally approved Assange’s extradition to the United States. While the decision will be appealed, the announcement brings us one step closer to the dreaded prospect of Assange being banished to some horrid prison stateside.
It’s of course terrifying for Assange, who doctors have warned may end up dying in prison as a result of this treatment. But it’s even more terrifying for what it would mean for press freedoms in the United States and the world, given that it would establish a precedent letting the US government imprison and torture journalists and publishers who reveal its secrets — and letting it do so to any reporter or publisher anywhere in the world.
There’s a lot you can say about all this. You could talk about how it makes a mockery of both president Joe Biden’s pledge to break from his far-right predecessor and his call to lead the world’s democracies against the spread of autocracy. You could talk about the hypocrisy of the US mainstream media, which spent the Donald Trump years extolling the virtues of a free press but seem unconcerned by Biden continuing Trump’s most radical assault on it. You could talk about the glaring contradiction involved in being appalled, as the Western world quite rightly is, at the assassination of journalists by countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia while Washington does the same to comparatively little outcry.
But it’s also useful to do thought experiments like the above, and imagine how we’d feel if the actions carried out by the US government against Julian Assange were carried out by another government we in the West would describe as authoritarian or despotic, like Russia’s — or China’s, or Saudi Arabia’s, or North Korea’s. Once we do that, we can see just how extreme and dangerous Washington’s treatment of Assange is, the kind of behavior we would never accept from any other government, and one we should do our utmost to ward US policymakers away from seeing through.
Biden and the Western establishment are right that democracy is under threat around the globe. But that threat gets worse when we criticize the attacks on democracy from other states and fail to call out our own leaders when they do it.