Below is my column in the BBC on the historical and potential legal significance of the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Much of the prosecution could turn on whether Assange is a journalist. Notably, Assange just received a European journalism award from the European parliamentarians. Assange is this year’s recipient of the 2019 GUE/NGL Award for Journalists, Whistleblowers & Defenders of the Right to Information.
In the meantime, there are some interesting comparison between the Assange and Zenger cases in the long-standing debate over what constitutes press freedoms.
Below is my column in USA Today on the Julian Assange arrest. We are still learning more about Assange’s confinement, including bizarre accounts of Assange’s conduct in the Ecaudorian Embassy in London. The key question will be the highly generalized allegation in the single count indictment from the Justice Department that Assange played an active role in the hacking. That would cross the Rubicon for journalists and make this an even more difficult case for those worried about free speech and the free press. Yet, the indictment is strikingly silent on details or an assertion that Assange actually used the password. We will likely learn more as the May hearing approaches for his extradition.
I have been a long critic of the hate crime laws in Great Britain which has devastated free speech protections with regular criminal charges against people deemed to be insulting or harassing to others. One case highlights how such speech codes have turned courts into micromanagers of manners and language used by citizens in public. It began with a mother, Kate Scottow (left), being arrested in front of her children for the crime of referring to a transgender woman as a man online. The alleged victim, transgender activist Stephanie Hayden, has now charged that she is being denied free speech after being accused of trolling on the Internet.
We have previously discussed the decision to bar certain travelers from the United States based on their political views or associations. I have long opposed such orders as inimical to free speech and counterproductive for the country as a whole. The latest example of this policy is the barring of Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. According to NPR, the Palestinian activist was prevented from entering to speak to various groups who wanted to hear from him. The government prevented that as well as his desire to attend his daughter’s wedding.
On Thursday, British authorities arrested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London after Ecuador abandoned its long-standing commitment to protect Assange from a coordinated effort of the United States and a variety of other countries as intelligence organizations. American intelligence has long demanded the prosecution of Assange who disclosed controversial military operations in the United States. The arrest will now trigger litigation over the status of Assange. Was he acting as a journalist, a whistleblower, a spy, or a dupe?
Literally for decades, I have written about the continued and disgraceful use of ambassador positions to reward campaign donors and friends of sittings presidents. While most countries properly confine ambassadors to professional diplomatics and government officials, the United States routinely appoints embarrassing individuals who have no cognitive skills or talents for the positions. Now a NBC news report shows that President Donald Trump has followed this poor practice in giving ambassadorships to at least 14 donors to the inaugural fund. It is a pay to play arrangement that is not only legal but steadfastly defended by both parties who effectively sell these positions to the continued irritation of our allies.
The nation of Brunei has taken the final plunge into extreme Islamic laws with the adoption of the medieval Sharia law. As a result, the kingdom will stone to death homosexuals and adulterers. The expansion of Sharia law into Asia is a troubling development for human rights and civil liberties.
The Chinese government maintains one of the most extensive censorship operations in history — an effort to hold the world at its physical and virtual borders. It is not only an effort to prevent citizens from reading of civil liberties or government abuses. It is also a ban on such subjects as homosexuality. That effort has taken a ridiculous term with the censoring of gay language and plots from the hit movie “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The cuts have left audiences reportedly confused by the disjointed dialogue and story.
Our close ally, Egypt, is again proving the worst expectations of its authoritarian rule. Singer Sherine Abdel-Wahabdemon commented to an audience in Bahrain that “Here I can say whatever I want. In Egypt, anyone who talks gets imprisoned.” Egypt could object and show that it remains a nation committed to free speech. Instead, it immediately proved her correct by banning her from ever performing in her native country. Egypt is obviously not disturbed by the world knowing that it is opposed to basic civil liberties. It was more concerned that its arbitrary arrests and punishments had not silenced this star and it was intent on showing other Egyptians what would happen if they even acknowledge their lack of free speech. What is truly depressing is that the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi had the Egypt’s Musicians Union silence a fellow artist, who in turn has begged for forgiveness for acknowledging that free speech no longer exists in Egypt.
I have been a critic of the alarming criminalizing of speech in Great Britain through hate speech laws. Such laws create an insatiable appetite for greater and greater speech regulation and create a sense of empowerment among citizens to silence those with whom they disagree. We have yet another example of how religious and political speech is being rapidly curtailed in Great Britain under expanding speech codes. Carolina Farrow, a Roman Catholic columnist, is now being investigated because, on Twitter, she referred to the biological rather than identified gender of the child of a transgender rights activist. She is accused of referring to Green’s daughter as a boy. For that, the activist, Susie Green, filed a complaint under Malicious Communications Act, which bars offensive, threatening and abusive content online. Police wanted a “taped interview with caution” on possible charges for transphobic conduct on social media. After criticism, Green decided to drop her demand for a criminal investigation but the point is that such references are now treated as criminal matters. The chilling effect on free speech is obvious.
We have previously discussed how the environmental values often lose out to business or economic arguments because the environment remains something of an abstraction. When President Donald Trump heralds lower gas prices, that is a concrete value. However, when many of us call for cleaner air, it is treated as a good but not an immediate benefit. There is yet another study (in addition to our earlier discussed studies here and here and here) that show the real costs of air pollution. An article published in the European Heart Journal estimates that nearly 800,000 people die prematurely each year in Europe due to pollution and that every life is cut short by about two years. If that cheaper gas is put against a death or a two-year reduction in life expectancy, the political calculus may change.
A study in the Journal of Forensic Studies purports to answer the long-standing question of the identity of the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. Using DNA evidence, the authors conclude that Polish barber Aaron Kosminski, 22. After 130 years, the mystery may indeed be solved.
We have been discussing the incredible courage of women activists in Saudi Arabia and Iran who are being arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for claiming the most basic civil liberties. One of the most inspiring activists is Nasrin Sotoudeh, a world renowned human rights lawyer jailed in Iran for her representation of women who removed their mandatory headscarf. In an act of unspeakable brutality and savagery, an Iranian court has sentenced her to 38 years and 148 lashes in a trumped up charge of spying, spreading propaganda, and insulting Iran’s supreme leader. In the meantime, ten women are being tried in Saudi Arabia which continues to repress women and girls under its strict Islamic code.
The dilemma posed to the West by the returning “ISIS brides” was on display this week as the last group of die-hard women were transported by anti-ISIS forces to safe areas away from the final holdout in Syria, Baghouz. The burka-wearing women were shown in a video shouting abuse at female reporters and even grabbing them by their hair in anger of the failure to comply with Islamic strictures. One woman yells at a female reporter “Have you not read the Koran, are you not ashamed?” Another simply says “We will seek vengeance, there will be blood up your knees.” The scene is unfolding in Syria as we brace for litigation in the United States over the return of Hoda Muthana, an ISIS bride who once supported the terrorist organization but now wants to return. Muthana has an intriguing claim to citizenship.