Australian journalist Peter Greste chaired the ‘My Crime is Journalism’ panel at Sydney’s Opera House. It included Rappler’s Maria Ressa, Mada Masr editor Lina Attalah, Russian writer Irina Brogan and US based Steve Coll. Panel members spoke candidly about the personal tribulations they faced as reporters whose press freedom was limited by governments.
Ms Ressa recounted her arrest for cyber libel in the Philippines while Attalah spoke about the aftermath of being attacked by security forces when reporting from a Cairo demonstration.
Several questions were put to the panel about how Assange’s prosecution could further endanger press rights and the effects of the “smear campaign” against him.
Assange most notably published a series of leaks by former US Army soldier, Chelsea Manning, which led to the launch of the criminal investigation against WikiLeaks in 2010.
The discussion shifted to his plight only once during the panel until question time.
“Now we have the indictment of Julian Assange. Whether you think he is a journalist or not, it will create precedents that will affect all journalists. The US laws protecting journalism are based on precedents that are fading in an atmosphere where the president calls the press ‘the enemy of the people,” said Coll.
The first audience question asked the panel to ‘address the elephant in the room’ by talking about his detention, and the psychological torture he faced as a result of his work.
“His prosecution endangers press rights not only in the United States but potentially in other Western countries because the findings of the case so far describe the government theory of the journalists’ function as a co-conspirator and threat to national security,” responded Coll.
He said although Assange was not popular with the media in the United States, the implications of his case will be important to all journalists.
“That’s all the more reason to be vigilant about the law that’ll be created out of this prosecution and to look into being engaged in defending the principles of independent journalism and speech,” he said.
UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Professor Nils Melzer, called for an end to the ‘collective persecution’ of Assange at a press conference in May. Melzer revealed that following an examination of the WikiLeaks founder in a British prison, there was disturbing evidence of the deterioration in his mental and physical state. He further called out Britain, Sweden and the United States for “ganging up” on him as a form of psychological torture.
Peter Greste wrote that “Julian Assange is not a journalist, and WikiLeaks is not a news organisation,” in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year. He was asked by another audience member if he would rethink his prior criticisms.
“I think there’s a problem getting hung up on definitions and my concern is what this means for journalism and recognise that Julian deserves a free trial, a fair trial. Doesn’t look as though it will be coming… and I think that’s a travesty. I am also deeply troubled by what that does mean for journalism and for Julian as an individual as well,” said Greste.
A third question about Assange was deflected.
The United States Department of Justice revealed new charges of alleged violations of the Espionage Act against the WikiLeaks founder in May. Whether Assange is classified as a journalist or not, the indictment could affect all journalists and will ultimately put freedom of the press on trial.