It is named after a tribunal which has gone down in history: the Russell Tribunal, convened by prominent philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre, to hold the United States’ government accountable for war crimes in Vietnam. This week in Washington DC, journalists, philosophers, lawyers, parliamentarians and defenders of human rights will convene at the National Press Club, just a few meters away from the White House, for the Belmarsh Tribunal, to expose and document the extremely grave threat posed to press freedom by the prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, held in Britain’s harshest prison, Belmarsh, since April 2019.
Co-chaired by U.S. journalist Amy Goodman of the independent media outlet Democracy Now! and by Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat of the progressive movement “Progressive International”, the Belmarsh Tribunal will hear witnesses like legendary whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Corbyn, Stella Assange, wife and legal adviser of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ editor Kristinn Hrafnsson, human rights lawyers Renata Avila and Steve Donzinger, prominent constitutional lawyer Margaret Ratner-Kunstler, the editor of the weekly American magazine The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel, renowned investigative journalist Betty Medsger, and many others.
Il Fatto Quotidiano sat down for interviews with Amy Goodman and Srecko Horvat.
Amy Goodman: “Freedom of the press saves lives. That’s why what Julian Assange has done is so important”
You will be co-chairing the Belmarsh Tribunal. What do you think is going to happen to Assange if he gets extradited to the United States?
I don’t know if he will ultimately be extradited to the U.S., though now it looks like he is on that path. If he were to be extradited, he would undergo trial – he has been charged and faces more than 170 years in prison. It is hard to believe. What is happening to Julian Assange is so significant – not only personally horrifying for him, but for international press freedom and for freedom in the United States. What really matters in a sense is the court of public opinion. The actual court is where he will be tried, but it is critical to get information out about what Julian Assange did. Most people, of course, have never heard of Julian Assange, and those who have, have very little accurate information about what he did. But one of the people who has championed his case is Daniel Ellsberg, and Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. He is the most famous whistleblower in the world, and he says that Julian is the new Dan Ellsberg. I want to go back about 12-13 years, when Julian Assange and WikiLeaks released the Collateral Murder video, which regarded an Apache helicopter’s gunship over an area of Baghdad called New Baghdad. [The crew] saw men below and opened fire, ultimately killing 10 of them. That was July 12, 2007. Now let’s go back to February [2007, five months before the attack depicted in the Collateral Murder video]. There is no video of this, but the same helicopter gunship unit was flying over Iraq and saw two men who were holding up their hands in sign of surrender. Those soldiers were not rogue, they called back to the base and said: these men are trying to surrender to us, and the lawyer at the base says: you can’t surrender to a helicopter. This is all in the Iraq War Logs – not written by a peace activist, but written by the military. They opened fire on those two men. Whenever I tell that story, of what happened in February 2007, from those Iraq War Logs which were part of the tranche of documents that were released by WikiLeaks, people are horrified, and they gasp. An Apache helicopter gunship opened fire on people trying to surrender? I dare say that if we knew that at the time, if we had had that information, then what happened six months later would have never happened, because there would have been an investigation. Freedom of the press saves lives. The free flow of information in a democratic society is absolutely critical to the functioning of a democratic society. That’s why what Julian Assange has done is so important, and also why he is being prosecuted. He is being used as an example to the rest of the world, to journalists in the United States, the most powerful country on earth: do not release these documents!
It is highly ironic that while Julian Assange risks spending his life in prison, we have the former president of the United States, Donald Trump – whose administration charged Assange for receiving and publishing U.S. classified information – and the current president Joe Biden – whose administration hasn’t dropped the charges against Assange – who might end up in an investigation for allegedly mishandling classified information. Do you believe these investigations will unleash a public debate on the Espionage Act and maybe some reforms?
This is a very important issue: the number of classified documents that the government holds – we are talking about millions – but not only the documents, the number of people who have access to those documents are millions. The classification system in the United States is broken. We see that across the political spectrum. The man whose administration brought the charges against Julian Assange, Trump, and the man who continues the prosecution of Julian Assange, Joe Biden, are embroiled in scandals around holding classified information. There needs to be a complete reassessment of documents that are classified in the United States.
A few days ago DemocracyNow! reported on activists from the grassroots organization Codepink disrupting a talk held at Brookings Institute on the war in Ukraine asking the Biden administration for “more negotiations, not more war”. How do you see the current debate on the war in Ukraine?
Yes, they held up a sign saying ‘Diplomacy, not war’. I see DemocracyNow! as a daily grassroots, global news hour, as a place for debate and discussion about the most critical issues. The war in Ukraine is one of those critical issues, and it is our job to go where the silence is. On DemocracyNow! we played the speech by bishop William Barber, a very well-respected religious figure, who continues the work of Dr. Martin Luther King’s poor people campaign. He gave a speech on Christmas Eve, saying that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was immoral, illegal, deadly and dangerous to say the least, but he also said: there must be diplomacy now. Something he has been calling for from the beginning. And he is not alone; a thousand religious leaders banded together to call for a Christmas truce, and they ranged across many denominations. There is much discussion for this in places like France, in places like Germany. So, I see our role as going where the silence is. But many, many people are speaking out, so it is not really silent, it just doesn’t hit the corporate media’s radar, or they choose not to air it. And I wonder if that partly has to do with how the media system works in the United States. I am not talking about Fox, I am talking about CNN, I am talking about MSNBC: every five or six minutes they break for commercials, and what are those commercials for? What corporations? They are for weapons manufacturers, they are for oil, gas, coal companies. And it’s not as if journalists are told ‘you will not cover that’, though I’m sure that happens. The censorship in the United States is more a matter of journalists knowing what will get them to rise in their organization, and what will instead marginalize them. But journalists aren’t here to win popularity contests; it is our job to bring out the full spectrum of opinions, and in the case of Julian Assange it is absolutely critical, in fact it’s a matter of life and death.
We rarely see a critical approach by U.S. media towards the military-industrial complex, and the intelligence complex. You co-founded DemocracyNow! to give voice to independent journalism; do you see any hope for change in the U.S. media landscape?
I always have hope. I have hope because as we travel the world, I am continuously amazed at how people hold that hope, for more democracy, for peace with justice. And that’s what inspires me. In the United States, Americans have enormous compassion, but they have to be able to hear what others have to say. Democracy Now! was founded 27 years ago. It was originally part of the Pacifica Radio Network, which was founded after WWII by a war resister. It was five stations, and when its station in Houston Texas went on the air in the 1970s it was blown up by the Ku Klux Klan, immediately. The leader of the Ku Klux Klan said it was his proudest act, and that’s because he understood how dangerous independent media is. Dangerous because it allows people to speak for themselves. And when you hear someone speaking from their own experience, whether it is an Afghan mother or an Iraqi child, you might say: that sounds like my mother, my aunt, my child, my neighbor. You might not agree with them, but it makes it much more likely that you would not want to destroy them. That is what the role of the media should be. It fights the ways that you can just ridicule people – you come to understand them as full human beings when you hear them speak. I think that is the power of the media. It can be the greatest force for peace on earth, instead it is wielded as a weapon of war. That’s why we have to challenge the media to be all that it can be and to be a great force for peace.
Srecko Horvat: “There is no democracy without free journalism”
You and Progressive International have fought for years to free Julian Assange. Do you see politically progressive people aware of what is at stake in this case?
What’s at stake is the future of the freedom of the press. If Julian Assange is extradited to the United States, freedom of the press will die. I met him for the first time in Autumn 2015: since then, things have changed in a positive sense in the last few months. Of course he is still in prison, in Belmarsh in the U.K., but we are seeing political pressure around president Biden, diplomatic gestures from the Australian Prime Minister, [Anthony] Albanese, the joint letter signed by the most influential newspapers in the world. There is a sort of rising consensus that Julian Assange shouldn’t be charged under the Espionage Act, and the consensus is not just among progressives. Progressive people were the first to be aware. Under Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian government was aware what this case is about, which is why he gave Assange political asylum. In recent months we have also seen what the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, has said, what AMLO, the Mexican president, is saying, as well as Gabriel Boric, and Lula, who announced his visit to Washington DC next month. We are coming to Washington with our Tribunal at a very timely moment. Julian Assange revealed Collateral Murder at the National Press Club, which is just two blocks away from the White House and is also the place where we are holding our Belmarsh Tribunal. He revealed the war crimes of the White House just two blocks away from the White House. I think that was a very courageous act, and of course he irritated the US establishment of both administrations. But I think Biden has a chance to protect freedom of the press by dropping the charges.
One of the important things that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have done is expose the war propaganda machine, from Afghanistan and Iraq to the drone wars. Speaking about the current war in Ukraine, a recent editorial in Foreign Policy argued that the progressive should give war a chance, because diplomacy won’t stop Putin. As Progressive International, how do you look at this?
As Progressive International we have members all over the world, including Africa, Asia and Latin America: and not everyone sees the war the same way that we in Europe or people in the United States see it. If you ask me personally, I was saying that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal even before the war started, so I am saying that again. At the same time, we have to understand the context and the role of NATO in the warm-up to this war. Coming from a country which is ex-Yugoslavia, I know what the consequences of war are. While war is happening, politicians and oligarchs are making deals on how to rule the country after the war, and that’s the time when the International Monetary Fund or BlackRock come in, like they are coming in to Ukraine now. In many countries of ex-Yugoslavia, like Croatia or Serbia, even 30 years after the war, we are still governed by parts of those elites from the war, and people’s standard of living is getting worse and worse. Socialist Yugoslavia had a free healthcare system, free education, social housing, and very strong industry. Today we are living in the desert of post-socialism and everything is privatized. And I am afraid something similar might happen to Ukraine. Now, of course, the first priority is to stop the war and end the suffering.
You mentioned that president Biden has a chance to drop the case against Julian Assange. If you had a chance to send a message to him, what would you say?
I don’t think Biden would care at all what I have to say, but I think the composition of the Belmarsh Tribunal is very powerful and will send a very strong message to Biden to drop the charges. My personal message would be, of course, that it would be politically beneficial for him to drop the charges, in the sense that he could actually gain a lot of public support, and he would signal that there is hope for democracy in the United States, because there is no democracy without free journalism.