Russian authorities arrested investigative journalist Ivan Golunov on a suspicious drug charge last week. But a public outcry forced the government to drop the charges. The fact that this occurred in “authoritarian” Russia, while WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange faces major persecution in the West, is a shocking indictment of both our judicial system and media establishment.
In past years, Golunov built a reputation for revealing high-end corruption in Russia. As a result, many people were suspicious about his arrest, siding with the journalist’s lawyer – who argued that the drugs were planted.
Following his arrest, three of Russia’s leading newspapers printed headline news stories defending the journalist. The front-page spreads read “We are Ivan Golunov”. Activists, meanwhile, made plans for a demonstration on 12 June.
In its report on his arrest, the BBC highlighted that “Russia is ranked 83rd out of 100 countries for press freedom by Freedom House”. It also claimed that the “case was becoming a serious embarrassment for the Russian authorities”.
UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, meanwhile, wrote:
Very concerned by arrest of Russian investigative journalist, Ivan Golunov of
@meduzaproject. Journalists must be free to hold power to account without fear of retribution. We are following his case closely. #FreeGolunov #DefendMediaFreedom
There are obvious concerns for press freedom in Russia. But the UK government clearly has zero moral authority to pontificate on the matter. As UN torture expert Nils Melzer recently said in relation to Assange:
In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.
Perhaps most revealing is the difference in the media’s reaction to Assange’s persecution in the West and that of Golunov in Russia. While Assange has been consistently smeared, degraded, and mocked across the Western media, Russia’s news cycle focused on Golunov’s arrest; and many journalists actually defended him. In the words of journalist Bryan MacDonald:
this was unprecedented and rubbishes the usual US/UK drivel about there being no press freedom in Russia.
Both events have exposed Western journalists as locked in a lazy and vapid group-think. And as Melzer told The Canary, they have done their readers a major disservice:
It is a bit like being served poisoned junk food at a restaurant – a betrayal of trust with potentially serious consequences.
Solidarity among journalists
An important issue at stake is solidarity among journalists against assaults on press freedom. After Daniel Ellsberg began publishing the now infamous Pentagon Papers, US president Richard Nixon tried to use the moment to crack down on critical journalists. Nixon’s justice department cited the Espionage Act to block the New York Times from publishing further documents. But as Bruce Shapiro recounts:
reporters and editors at the [Washington] Post defiantly obtained and published their own copy of the documents; other news outfits rallied round; and ultimately the US Supreme Court upheld the Times’ and the Post’s First Amendment right to publish without prior government restraint.
Nixon played his hand hoping for minimal public outcry against his administration’s attack on the first amendment. And as this case revealed, the law is only as strong as those left willing to defend it.
Like Nixon, Trump has no obvious interest in prosecuting leaks of years-old controversies that damage the reputation of a past administration. But like Nixon, he will seize any opportunity to weaken an independent press.
Trump also understands—better than Nixon did—American journalism’s chronic lack of solidarity.
Ultimately, any journalist or politician that sides with Golunov but not Assange (or vice versa) should not be taken seriously.
Featured image via YouTube – Channel 4 News
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