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Assange is Russia’s Unlikely Symbol of Free Speech

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange protest against his arrest, near the British Council in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

[Editlor's note: This story is updated with news on an extradition hearing in London].

While the Kremlin has for years systematically cracked down on press freedom at home, Russian state media has been busy lately depicting Julian Assange as a free speech martyr.

Since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on April 11 for skipping bail in 2012, the Kremlin’s media has portrayed his arrest as a blow to free speech in the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Assange’s arrest “does not correspond to the ideals of freedom of the press or media, while the Russian Foreign Ministry’s press secretary Maria Zakharova said it showed “the throat of freedom was being squeezed.”

​On his weekly current affairs program on Russian state television, Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the Russian state news agency Rossiya Segodnya, likewise said the U.S. and the United Kingdom had “betrayed their principle of free speech” in arresting the WikiLeaks founder.

​Another Russian state TV program host, Artyom Sheynin, also used Assange’s arrest to attack what he saw as the hypocrisy of those “always preaching to us about freedom of speech and human rights.”

Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of the Russian-state broadcaster RT and the state agency Rossiya Segodnya, bragged that the international media had been “forced” to use Russia’s footage of the arrest, saying it was shameful they were not there to film the event themselves. She used the incident to lash out at the UK’s Guardian newspaper and other media outlets for being “hypocritical servants” of their establishments and not real journalists.

RT’s Ruptly video agency released a self-congratulatory video to that effect.

Shortly after the arrest, RT’s entire homepage on April 11 was dedicated to Assange’s arrest.

A screenshot from on the day of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's arrest in London, England on April 11, 2019.
A screenshot from on the day of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's arrest in London, England on April 11, 2019.

One after the other, Russian state media poured out articles on Assange:

Dozens more articles, broadcast segments, op-eds and even poetry have rehashed variations on the same theme: “Assange’s arrest is a blow against press freedom.”

The baseless claim that Assange faces the death penalty was repeated by Simonyan and nightly news reports.

Simonyan said there is no safe place on earth for people who harm the United States, other than Russia.

Russian state broadcaster Sputnik provided a platform to a WikiLeaks collaborator, who is widely considered a Holocaust denier -- Israel Shamir -- to express the same view.

As was seen following the November 25, 2018 Kerch Strait incident, Russian state media’s coverage is often coordinated. There are reports that chief editors attend strategy meetings with President Vladimir Putin’s staffers.

Moreover, just like the message, the messenger in this free speech “crusade” is an unlikely one.

U.K. -- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen in a police van after was arrested by British police outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Britain April 11, 2019.
U.K. -- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen in a police van after was arrested by British police outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Britain April 11, 2019.

Dana Priest, the Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter and Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland, told it is “more than hypocritical that Russian government would talk about free speech in any way, given their lack of support for free speech in Russia.”

She added: “The narrative that Assange is a hero is a convenient one for Russia because they leveraged his notoriety and he’s one of the exceptions to their free speech practices in that they did help him spread information against their usual habit.”

Russia’s lack of commitment to a free press has been well documented.

Alexey Kovalev, head of investigations for the independent Russian-language news website Meduza, described the Russian media landscape In March 2017: “Today, the three major Russian TV channels are either directly owned by the state, operating as state enterprises (Channel One and VGTRK, or All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company), or owned by a subsidiary of one of Russia’s largest oil and gas companies, Gazprom (NTV). So are two of Russia’s three major news agencies, Rossiya Segodnya and TASS. Later, larger independent online news outlets such as were subjected to hostile takeovers by loyalist editorial teams picked by the Kremlin.”

Soon thereafter, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov was allegedly pressured to sell his stake in the Russian media company RBK Group for angering the Kremlin after it reported on Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, and her ex-husband, Kirill Shamalov, as well as the Panama Papers, which shined a spotlight on Putin’s wealth.

And while the Kremlin had the airwaves and print media mostly under its thumb, the Russian government’s attention turned to the internet.

In March 2014, the Russian government blocked the LiveJournal blogs of Alexei Navalny, and on the pretext that they had made “calls for unlawful activity” during Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

Recently, the Russian parliament began pushing legislation, known as the “sovereign internet bill” that critics say would give the government the ability to disrupt online access and dissent.

Russia’s so-called internet iron curtain was submitted by two members of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, and a deputy in the State Duma, the lower chamber, and was signed into law recently by President Vladimir Putin.

The Federation Council members, Andrei Klishas and Lyudmila Bokova, also introduced “sweeping internet censorship bills” criminalizing insults against state officials and banning the publication of “fake news”.

Another lawmaker, Andrei Lugovoi (also accused in the 2006 Alexander Litvinenko murder), previously authored an internet extremism law allowing authorities to block websites containing illegal information, including calls for unsanctioned protests and “extremist” activity.

“Tougher Internet laws introduced over the past five years require search engines to delete some search results, messaging services to share encryption keys with security services and social networks to store users' personal data on servers within the country,” the Moscow Times wrote this past March.

And yet Russia -- a country where it is illegal to distribute images of Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing makeup, Google risks being suspended for identifying Crimea as Ukrainian territory and the promulgation of memes can lead to criminal prosecution -- has taken up the torch for freedom of speech in the name of Assange.

It should be noted that there is a vigorous debate among journalists and rights activists in the West over the arrest. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers’ fame, similarly fear the arrest of Assange is troubling for press freedom.

But several key facts have consistently been omitted from Russian state media reports on Assange.

  • Assange only took shelter in the Ecuadorian Embassy after exhausting extradition appeals to Sweden on rape and other sexual assault charges. That led to his arrest for violating the Bail Act of 1976.
  • Assange is not facing extradition to the United States for any information promulgated by WikiLeaks. At this point, he is indicted on one count of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion” into a U.S. Department of Defense computer.
  • Assange’s extradition to the U.S. is not a fait accompli, as many British MPs and legal experts have said that any Swedish request for extradition should have priority over an American one.

On Thursday, May 2, Assange appeared in a British court by video link for an initial hearing on the U.S. extradition request -- where he told a judge he would not consent to extradition.

“I do not want to surrender for extradition for doing journalism that has protected many people and won many awards,” Assange was quoted as telling the court.

The judge in the case said it would be "many months" before Assange faces a full hearing on the U.S. request. Reports from London indicate, should Sweden reopen its investigation into the rape claim against Assange, it would be up to British officials to decide whether and to whom Assange would be extradited.

Some U.S. pundits believe he “will never see the inside of an American courtroom” due to the “weakness” of his indictment.

But others view the case against him as being quite clear.

Donald N. Jensen, the Editor in Chief and a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told that Assange is not a journalist, but “a criminal, traitor and propaganda outlet for the people he works with or for.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London

“They are using Assange’s material that is linked to Russian authorities and asking – why is the West restricting free information? But this is not free information; it’s classified information,” he said.

However, Dana Priest said it is to some extent irrelevant how one characterizes Assange’s activities (as a publisher or otherwise), given that journalists see value in the work he did.

“I don’t think it matters what Assange’s motives are or what his character is. It’s harmful for journalists to link the merits of his case to his personality. It’s important to focus on the potential precedence that his case could determine for a wide range of journalistic activity,” she said. But any potentially chilling effect on such media activity is immaterial to Moscow, as the Russian media campaign in support of Assange is not about press freedom, but “turning the West’s values back on itself,” Jensen said.

“They are interested in causing trouble and chaos,” Jensen added. “There is a lot of propaganda mileage in his extradition. Let it go to trial and try to exploit it.”

[Friday, May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. This is one of a series of articles on press freedom and disinformation].