“Just be fair”: when does journalism undermine its own reputation?
Stefania Maurizi works for the Italian daily La Repubblica as an investigative journalist. She has worked on all the WikiLeaks releases of secret documents, and the Snowden files about Italy. She has recently started a multijurisdictional Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation effort to defend the right of the press to access the full set of documents on the Julian Assange and WikiLeaks case. Six years since Ecuador granted Julian Assange political asylum, a freedom of information act in the UK is shedding light on what was happening behind the scenes during that period. With few records and a great deal of mystery…
Yorgos Boskos (YB): In a speech to the International Journalism Festival in Perugia last April, you outlined the multijurisdictional Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation effort that you have launched to defend the right of the press to have access to the full set of documents on the Julian Assange and WikiLeaks case. What are the outcomes of this procedure so far?
Stefania Maurizi (SM): The reporters covering Assange’s case were just willing to crib from the authorities’ declarations. No media has tried to access the full set of documents in his regard. FOIA litigation is an ongoing procedure in Sweden and UK.
Sweden has a very helpful transparency law when it comes to Freedom of Information, enabling me to get hold of 226 pages of documents for the first time. Most of those documents were not redacted. Thanks to those documents, I learned that the UK authorities looked at this case as ‘special’ in their correspondence with the Swedish prosecutors, and a UK lawyer named Paul Close working for the UK Crown Prosecution Service – the UK Government’s entity which supported the Swedish prosecutors’ work from the very beginning – refers to the Julian Assange case as not “being dealt with as just another extradition request”. I wonder what makes this case special: the documents I have obtained so far don’t explain it.
Julian Assange has never refused to be questioned. He offered to be questioned from the very first moment in many possible ways. Thanks to this FOIA, we have learned that the UK is responsible for contributing to creating the legal and diplomatic mess in the case of Julian Assange, because it was the UK authorities which advised their Swedish colleagues against the only investigative strategy that could have led to a quick closure of the preliminary investigation: questioning Assange in London, rather than extraditing him to Stockholm, as the Swedish prosecutors have always tried to do.
That’s the reason he is still confined in the Ecuadorian Embassy: because the decision to extradite him to Sweden made him seriously concerned about the risk of being extradited to the US, which is still the most serious risk he faces, even if the Swedish investigation was dropped in May 2017. This risk of being extradited to the US is real: Assange’s fears are completely rational. It is encouraging that the FOIA process has produced a number of documents concerning the Assange case, but it is very suspicious that the UK authorities have admitted that they destroyed key emails linked to the case. Why did they destroy crucial emails about an ongoing case? They haven’t provided any serious explanation. I keep litigating the case and I am going to submit further FOIA requests to the US and Australian agencies
This risk of being extradited to the US is real: Assange’s fears are completely rational.
YB: You have worked on all WikiLeaks’ releases of secret documents to date. Did you receive any threats during your investigation of the WikiLeaks story?
SM: I started working on the Wikileaks story back in 2009. At that time, I was working for the Italian magazine l’ Espresso, which focuses on deep reporting and investigation. Both l’ Espresso and la Repubblica have been very helpful and collaborative. This was a wonderful experience and I was provided with full support and the tools to work properly. I have not had threats, but I have been tailed. In these days, it is quite common to be tailed. Every call you dial can be intercepted. I take that for granted. That’s why I don’t use a smartphone any more.
YB: What’s the most remarkable experience you have had working on Wikileaks releases and Snowden files?
SM: Access to information which has basically revealed the ‘invisible power’, the state and the intelligence services that act behind our backs. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people are not aware of these dark corners and don’t realize the existence of the full force of the State against them. Assange, Snowden, and Manning have shed tremendous light on the inner government of the world, notwithstanding.
YB: Why did you decide to go into investigative journalism?
SM: I think that investigative journalism is of crucial importance in the digital era; a powerful form of oversight for our Democracy. Of course, I respect news reporting, but we are completely carpet-bombed by news. There is an increasingly strong need for deep reporting in order to unearth the ‘invisible power’. And I greatly appreciate investigative projects like the Daphne Project: an extremely intelligent project which undoubtedly sends a powerful message, because it says: “they might kill the journalist, but not the stories”. Even if some bastard kills a journalist or a source, the investigation will go ahead in any case.
YB: Can you tell us about the NSA targeting Italy?
SM: They targeted Italy using the Metadata programme, and collecting millions of pieces of data of the Italian people. Our embassies were under surveillance. They intercepted Silvio Berlusconi’s calls.
However, the strange thing is that after all those leaks and revelations our government has done absolutely nothing. According to Italian law, the prosecutors were supposed to investigate this case. Instead, they dropped it.
YB: Do you think that the Metadata programme is still running?
SM: Of course, they carry on as always. Metadata is one of the most important leaks in history. The European Union has done absolutely nothing about this. Metadata has never prevented any kind of terrorist attack. They basically run it not to fight terrorism, but in order to gather information, because information is power.
YB: What’s your opinion of the latest El País editorial on Julian Assange?
SM: I think that the Managing Editor of El País, David Alandete, should avoid very serious accusations against Julian Assange without providing solid facts which support those accusations on Russia. The Spanish daily El País has basically not replied to The Intercept’s story (How Shoddy Reporting and Anti-Russian Propaganda Coerced Ecuador to Silence Julian Assange) by Glenn Greenwald and M.C. McGrath. The El País editorial did not provide solid facts: it just expressed opinions.
YB: Why do you think the majority of the press does not have a liking for Wikileaks?
SM: For a very simple reason; because Wikileaks has the ability to publish everything in any case, compared to traditional newspapers, which have lost control of it. I completely disagree with some colleagues of mine who say that ‘‘Wikileaks does not believe in journalism’’, and undermines its reputation. This is absolutely not true. We should not forget that most of the documents that have been released were in collaboration with media partners.
It is very damaging that the media likes to portray a confrontation between Wikileaks and the United States. This is propaganda, not the big picture. At the governmental level, the Australian Government has done absolutely nothing regarding Julian Assange’s case. I wonder if they have even realized that an Australian citizen is being arbitrarily detained in London just for doing journalism! Wikileaks is an ‘aggressive’ media organization on a mission to fight the ‘invisible power’ behind any government in the world.
YB: Do you think that a Jeremy Corbyn’s government would back Julian Assange?
SM: I hope so. I am not sure whether he would like to fight this case, though. It is such an unpopular case, especially in the UK. He will find himself up against the UK establishment and British Intelligence Services. The current British government has refused to acknowledge the UN Ruling and provide safe passage for Julian Assange. I hope that the next UK government will comply with Opinion No. 54/2015, as adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), which considers Julian Assange as arbitrarily detained at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
YB: According to the Guardian’s latest story, Ecuador spent millions on a spy operation for Julian Assange. An anonymous source had told the newspaper that J.A. hacked into embassy communications. The Guardian provided no evidence for that. Is that shoddy journalism?
SM: The Guardian’s reporters didn’t put forward any solid evidence or credible source. I think it is a matter of very basic “hygiene” to remain skeptical until we have some solid facts. This is true in general, but in particular when it comes to WikiLeaks, because throughout the last nine years I have heard all sorts of things on Julian Assange: unverified rumors and very weird stories.
Anything goes when it comes to depicting Julian Assange and his organisation as unstable people, radical, irresponsible, nut job, creepy, very suspicious guys. Remember what happened back in 2010, when WikiLeaks published the Afghan War Logs and the Pentagon accused Julian Assange and his staff of having blood on their hands? The entire media just parroted what the Pentagon was saying, even when it was crystal clear that the Pentagon had an obvious and gigantic interest in demonising WikiLeaks and smashing its reputation.
How many reporters questioned the Pentagon? Ninety-nine percent of them have just kept printing whatever the Pentagon said without questioning it. Now it’s Russia: once again ninety-nine percent of reporters are a-critically repeating whatever the intelligence agencies say and once again it is very obvious that those intelligence agencies have a huge interest in smashing WikiLeaks, because they perceive it as an existential threat. Printing these unverificable claims a-critically is not journalism. I actually think it is the worst betrayal of journalism.
But of course I understand why this happens: siding with governments and their powerful entities has always been very convenient for your career. If you are a reporter and smash WikiLeaks, you can be sure you will get headlines and opportunities in the media. Whereas finding journalists who have worked seriously on their documents, who have worked seriously on the Assange case, trying to unearth solid and factual information – that is very difficult.How many reporters questioned the Pentagon? Ninety-nine percent of them have just kept printing whatever the Pentagon said without questioning it.
YB: Rafael Correa – in an interview with The Intercept – denounces the treatment of J.A. as torture and defends spy operations to protect Julian Assange. Was Hotel Operation scandalous or designed to protect Assange, as Correa stated?
SM: I think there is little doubt that, with all his problems, president Rafael Correa has tried to protect Julian Assange, and I really admired his decision to give him asylum. That said, it is difficult to say what really happened with this “Operation Hotel”, considering how little we know and how difficult it is to verify any information that was actually collected on Julian Assange, his staff and visitors. As a long-time media partner, I have been one of his frequent visitors, so I have both a personal and professional interest in understanding this.
It would definitely be good to know what happened, because like WikiLeaks or not, this story can prove disquieting: the Guardian reporters claim that they have access to the logs of visitors and to information regarding the purposes of their visits. This information was somehow obtained by a newspaper which, as Greenwald wrote, has a “deeply emotional and personalised feud” with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
I don’t know what the Guardian’s reporters really have in their hands and I don’t know what information was actually collected on Julian Assange and his staff and visitors, but unfortunately by publishing this information the Guardian risks opening up a Pandora’s box: someone gathers all sorts of information on a media organisation, its editor, journalists, visitors and then this information ends up in the hands of a media which literally hates them. I am not sure where this will end up. It’s barbaric.
We know that surveillance technology makes it very easy to do large scale spying with little money, so it does not even take state actors to spy on a media organisation on a massive scale and media organisations are certainly vulnerable, because we journalists meet all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. Today, WikiLeaks gets targeted, but tomorrow it will be la Repubblica or le Monde or the Guardian itself. Who’s next?
YB: Guardian reporters call J.A. a fugitive, alleging in another story that the WikiLeaks founder has become an unwelcome guest in Ecuador’s embassy. Any comment?
SM: I have great respect for the Guardian’s work in general, but it is tragic to see how the Guardian has treated Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. The Guardian procured massive scoops from Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and the Guardian has ended up imitating at least in part the brilliant model pioneered by Julian Assange, by introducing a submission platform that receives leaks from anonymous sources and by establishing media partnerships to publish revelations with a maximum international impact.
I am not saying that the Guardian should spend its days celebrating WikiLeaks. But it should just be fair. Take the term “fugitive” they used in their latest story on “Operation Hotel”: that is precisely the word the UK government uses to refer to Julian Assange. The Guardian is certainly aware that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) established that the UK government is responsible for detaining him arbitrarily since 2010.
It definitely knows that the UK government tried to appeal the UNWGAD’s decision and lost. So in the eyes of international law, Julian Assange is a vulnerable person under arbitrary detention by the UK government: he is not a fugitive.
I don’t think the media should assist powerful governments in whitewashing violations of international law and I don’t think the Guardian should help the UK government to smash WikiLeaks: it should act as a watchdog.
WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are definitely not perfect and I do not agree with everything they do regardless: they certainly have made mistakes and some questionable choices. But as a matter of fact, as a long-time media partner, I have been able to verify that the documents they have published are genuine and in the public interest.
This is what a media organisation does: publishing authentic information in the public interest. They have done very important work by providing crucial documents to the public, so that every lawyer, every journalist, every activist and citizen can access the information freely and take informed decisions.
This work is extremely valuable and, it is a matter of fact that this work has been copied or imitated by many. I don’t think there is any doubt that the powerful entities exposed by WikiLeaks want to destroy it and I don’t think there is any doubt that Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks team face huge legal and extralegal risks. I don’t think I have ever seen another media organisation targeted by the full force of the State, as WikiLeaks is. Media like the Guardian should not assist governments and their powerful entities in smashing WikiLeaks. That’s not what journalism is supposed to do.
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