A Free Man in Belmarsh


James Graham writes: I’m surrounded by books. I grab the one off the top of the pile and play a game of open sesame. Here goes:

“They must feel that they are weak. How could this very establishment in the United Kingdom, which has been in power for hundreds of years, feel threatened? It’s quite sophisticated after all. It has many different components: the intelligence services, the banks, the landed gentry, the oligarchs from Russia, the commercial media, …the BBC which is the big propaganda organism that helps keep the country cohesive… How could they feel threatened by a wild colonial boy from Australia who arrived from overseas?”

A few pages later:

“Power is mostly the illusion of power. The Pentagon demanded we destroy our publications. We kept publishing. Clinton denounced us and said we were an attack on the ‘international community’. We kept publishing. I was put in prison and under house arrest. We kept publishing. We went head to head with the NSA getting Edward Snowden out of Hong Kong, we won and got him asylum. Clinton tried to destroy us and was herself destroyed. Elephants, it seems, can be brought down with string. Perhaps there are no elephants.”

Insights like that make a man dangerous. It puts him at odds with Empire, which is used to having its way. So it’s no surprise that the man who wrote or spoke those words is now the prisoner of an endless legal checkmate carried out in the airless chambers of the English courts. Sent to prison for breaching bail, he began a 50-week sentence in April 2019. It is now December 2021 and the English courts, in a royal stitch-up, have accepted American assurances about his future treatment. This too will be contested, leaving the man, in frail health, a little longer in jail.

Every week there are new revelations, such as the plot concocted by the CIA to assassinate him, which came to light in October. To add to the brutal irony the British court’s ruling was handed down within days of events celebrating Democracy, Human Rights, the Nobel Prize and Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Julian Assange is the man in question. He isn’t a journalist toiling away at one of the legacy fronts like the Times or the Guardian but someone who invented his own role in life. Julian Assange made news until he became the news, ducking into the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid extradition to the U.S.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued their annual December report on journalists imprisoned around the world. It’s sitting here next to Julian’s book. The report lists some 290 journalists behind bars, and while many of the usual suspect countries are near the top, the U.S. and Great Britain are excluded. You do a double take; obviously this is an error of some sort. Assange is the prize catch, the man they are making a lesson of, so that the rest of the world gets the message. If he isn’t a journalist, then who the hell is? The CPJ has mistaken credentials for impact, so they respond to criticism with weaselly definitions of journalist. The beat goes on.

There are other problems with the Committee’s report. It is seriously outmoded. How so? The definition of a journalist is rapidly evolving. Attacks on freedom of information and expression matter not only to journalists but to everyone in the field: public interest watchdogs, NGOs, advocacy groups – even lawyers. The American contribution to the imprisoned over the last year includes Reality Winner, Daniel Hale, Natalie Edwards, all having served time or in the clink now. We know their names even if mainstream media rarely mentions their stories.

If you’re an Environmental Activist these days, you’re on the world’s most dangerous beat. An activist testifies, reveals, argues: they’re attempting to expand the historical record. They do the work traditional news organizations no longer do. The MSM prefer narratives they can repeat ad nauseam. Everything else makes a lightning fast trip down the memory hole.

And so, like Daniel Hale, the former NSA analyst who revealed the savagery of America’s Afghan drone program, still in jail – no peep about him from Sleepy Joe Biden, who warned us that democracy is dying before grabbing the jail keys for Julian Assange on World Human Rights Day – there are many others who aren’t journalists, some of whom haven’t been arrested but loom large in the picture. You could start with Ed Snowden, in exile in Russia for nearly a decade. Steven Donziger, the lawyer who won a huge judgment against Shell in Ecuador, was just released to a second round of house arrest. Others, like Berta Cáceres murdered in Honduras, never had the luxury of escaping or being safe at home.

Most of this happened before the Pegasus revelations this summer. That too changed everything: now we know that anyone, anywhere, you, too, dear reader, can be spied on down to the short hairs of your private life once a government or private entity is willing to pay for it. Despite Google’s lawsuit against the Israeli-government subsidized NSO Group and Snowden’s call for the U.N. to ban Pegasus, the technique is sure to proliferate. A November report found that every government in Europe except one was employing Pegasus, and in that exception, France, the security agencies were caught napping and promised it wouldn’t happen again.

For those brave enough to be actors on this stage, the ground beneath their feet has shifted dramatically. A journalist at Forbidden Stories in Paris told me recently, “For twenty years we watched the security of our communications closely and kept up, always one step ahead. Now everything is precarious.” Forbidden Stories not only broke the Pegasus story, they revealed the truth behind Daphne Caruana Galizia’s death in Malta. Meet with a journo from FS and they’ll sometimes turn on a faucet so running water disguises our voices; you get the feeling journalists in the field are becoming like Mafia soldiers of old, communicating with hand gestures in shady corners. Pegasus turned us all into journalists, rapporteurs of what’s really going on.

Where does that leave our wild colonial boy? Charges against him have fallen apart, one after another. His lawyers chisel away at the legal fortress, attempting to free the prisoner kept illegally in notorious Belmarsh. Court proceedings are not in their interest.

“A trial… will certainly bring up two kinds of problems, the war crimes he revealed, the … enormous numbers of civilians killed which had not been reported, a major program of torture by our Iraqi allies which continued into the Obama Administration… These are not things they want discussed in open-ended trial.” That’s Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers in a recent interview. The Deep Insecurity State is making an example of Assange so journalists, researchers, whistleblowers around the world can’t help but notice, while newspaper journalists and television presenters act as if it will never happen to them.

In His Own Words is a short, sober book built around paragraph-length entrees. It is of course about Wikileaks, “the biggest dog in the room,” as Assange calls it but really more about where we are right now and what sort of future we can dare to imagine. Assange, it may surprise you, is an optimist at heart.

“I posed the question of what the most positive trajectory for the future would look like. Self-knowledge, diversity, and networks of self-determination. A highly educated global population…stimulating vibrant new cultures and the maximal diversification of individual thought, increased regional self-determination, and the self-determination of interest groups that are able to network quickly and exchange value rapidly over geographic boundaries.” Orwell’s shadow looms over happy prognostications like that.

Getting Assange out will be a real test of our resistance, our ability to act together in this fractured time. There is good news: Craig Murray – writer, blogger, ex-British ambassador, another man you may never have heard of – was released from jail in Edinburgh, Scotland on November 30th, having served four months for the newly invented crime of “jigsaw identification.” He’s out and if one can get free, so can another. Crossing party lines in November while citing Wikileaks’ revelations of American espionage on French politicians, the National Assembly here in Paris overwhelmingly voted to give him political asylum. Symbolic but important and it means it can be done.

JULIAN ASSANGE IN HIS OWN WORDS, Compiled and edited by Karen Sharpe, O/R Books 2021.

©James Graham 2021

James Graham is a Paris-based writer whose stories have appeared in Counterpunch, the Baffler, The Guardian and elsewhere. His new English-language novel is le Plouc de Paris. Continental Riffs on Substack is his port in the storm. He can reached at [email protected]


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