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Why we should care about Julian Assange

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Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange in 2010 published information provided to him by then-US Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning that comprised nearly 750,000 classified or unclassified but sensitive military and diplomatic documents.

Among those documents was a collateral murder film clip that showed US Apache helicopters killing people in Iraq including two local Reuters news agency employees, exposing a US military cover-up. The military had claimed that the helicopters were responding to an active firefight and that all killed were insurgents. The film clip showed otherwise, that a war crime was committed.

Manning, who later claimed a transgender identity and changed his name to Chelsea, was jailed for 35 years for transmitting the information to Wikileaks, eventually serving seven before having her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama. Julian Assange spent almost eight years cooped up in the Ecuador Embassy in London to escape extradition to Sweden on allegations of rape purportedly committed during a visit in 2010.

In April, the Ecuadorian government rescinded Assange’s asylum, stripped him of his Ecuadorian citizenship and invited the London Metropolitan Police to forcibly remove him from the embassy. Soon after, Assange was found guilty of skipping bail when fighting the Swedish extradition application and sentenced to 50 weeks imprisonment, where he is now housed in solitary confinement at HM Prison Belmarsh.  

On the day of Assange’s arrest in London, the US charged him with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion by allegedly having attempted to crack a password so that Chelsea Manning could search for more classified information using a different username. Chelsea Manning is also now back in prison for refusing to give evidence before a grand jury against Assange, something that made up part of the charges she was convicted of in 2011.

Over the past few days Assange has been further indicted with 17 more charges under the Espionage Act with penalties which could see him spending the rest of his life in a US prison should he be expedited. Swedish prosecutors have also reopened the investigation of Assange for rape and preparing another request for extradition to Sweden.

Assange has been painted as an arrogant, narcissistic sexual malingerer and a threat to ‘national security’ by politicians, the media and even close associates. He was portrayed as an egotistical, unsociable and un-empathetic person in the film made about him “The Fifth Estate,” most of which is apparently true.

However, it’s not Julian Assange’s manner, personality, or social behavior that should be of concern here. It’s our future freedoms and right to know that are at stake in a world that is becoming less transparent and more totalitarian.

There are two major issues that are of concern. The first is about how whistle-blowers are treated by governments. The second is what will be the future consequences to our rights and freedoms from what is happening to Assange.

The Trump Administration’s use of the Espionage Act, which dates back to the First World War, isalarming. The Espionage Act is backdoor censorship to keep information about government secret, especially embarrassing information.  It seeks to circumvent the US First Amendment which guarantees freedom of the press as a pillar of democratic and transparent government. The government is the one that defines what is seditious, and public interest is not a defense under the Espionage Act.

The US government has never charged a single journalist with obtaining or publishing classified information in the 100 years since the Espionage Act became law – notably, for instance, during the New York Times publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The use of the Espionage Act thus awakens concerns among journalists and news organizations that the Trump administration is opening a new front against the journalism profession, which has been branded the enemy of the American people.

Equally worrying, by using the Espionage Act to go after a foreign national – Assange is an Australian – the administration is making US law another weapon in its arsenal. Assange is not a US citizen and did not commit any offense on US soil. The US assumption of global legal sovereignty has not been resisted by any government. The power of the US to catch whistle-blowersand muzzle the press is gradually increasing.

It’s now most probable that Julian Assange will never be able to walk as a free man anywhere ever again. The Nobel Foundation has been found wanting again for not highlighting the plight of whistle-blowers, preferring to side with the establishment in the awards it has been handing out. So too are the major press houses complacent when the journalistic profession is under major attack by the US government.

The ‘war on terror’ and Russia meddling in the US election are mere diversions from attempts to gain more control over the rights and freedoms of its citizens. Unelected officials and opaque, rather than transparent, government institutions are an affront to representative government and accountability. There is also a direct attack upon the nature of journalism. The word investigative is now dangerous. Persuading a source of information to provide more information has been defined as a crime now. The message is out there, investigate what the government doesn’t want people to know, and the same will happen to that journalist that is happening to Julian Assange now.

National security is the new mode of censorship and journalist no matter where they are can be subject to indictment. The press is becoming more restricted now than it was a couple of generations ago.

While liberals are concerned about same-sex marriage and the greens about climate change, the greatest threat to the rights and freedom of people is left alone, allowing governments the freedom to continue to encroach these freedoms.

The Assange experiment with Wikileaks has been of great personal cost to him. However the episode playing out now will result in a loss of the freedom of speech and right to know. Journalism could slip into the dark ages where pure investigative journalism may give way to placid reporting of public events. This is a victory for the unaccountable elements of government that are willing to circumspect the Constitution, break laws, kill, and prosecute those who may divulge the truth to the public.

Author’s note: This article first published in the Asia Sentinel

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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