A record number of journalists are languishing in prisons around the world, yet Assange is constantly held up as a poster boy for this type of injustice. There are far more deserving candidates
There is a good reason that investigative journalists work according to an ethical code of practice - there is often a great deal at stake when they are working to uncover social injustices and scandals.
One of the rules is that you always verify the information and source of any leak that you receive. This is certainly how Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit operates. It is essential when it comes to protecting sources, ensuring you are not unwittingly reproducing propaganda for one side of a conflict and for ensuring that you are not putting your own or other people’s lives in danger.
But Julian Assange openly eschews a major part of this code. In an interview with the UK TV station, Channel 4, Assange once said: “Other journalists try to verify sources. We don't do that, we verify documents. We don't care where it came from." Indeed, Assange explained in that interview, the system used to collect data leaks by Wikileaks prevents even Wikileaks knowing the identity of a source.
In Assange’s own estimation, therefore, Wikileaks, is not a bona fide investigative journalistic outlet. In fact, it is little more than a data-dump platform where few checks, if any, are carried out on the information revealed there. It is, at best, a cavalier approach to journalism.
In 2016, Wikileaks published links to databases containing sensitive information about millions of Turkish citizens. It was a consequence of the posting online of nearly 300,000 emails from the country’s ruling party. Now, while Wikileaks may have had good grounds to shine a light on the activities of politicians in Turkey, what it ended up doing was endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable women.
Within these databases were the addresses, telephone numbers and in some cases the Turkish citizenship IDs, of millions of people. This potentially put millions of Turkish women at risk of harm from stalkers and violent ex-partners from whom these women’s details had often been kept secret - also for very good reason, given that hundreds of women are murdered in Turkey each year, often by domestic partners.
This is why, while I strongly disagree with punishing journalists for publicising secrets which are being kept for harmful reasons (most secrets, probably), I bristle at the sheer lionising of Julian Assange that we see on an almost daily basis in many parts of the media.
The issue of journalists being arrested and jailed for doing their jobs has reached a critical point. Last month, Reporters Without Borders published its annual census of imprisoned journalists and revealed that the number for 2022 - 533 - has reached a new record (it was 488 in 2021).
The vast majority of these have been arrested merely for doing their jobs - perhaps not as sensational as publishing a cache of American state secrets, which Wikileaks did relating to US actions in Afghanistan.
More than half are jailed in just five countries: China, which remains “the world’s biggest jailer of journalists” with 110, followed by Myanmar (62), Iran (47), Vietnam (39) and Belarus (31).
Among the 47 journalists currently in prison in Iran, 34 were arrested after protests broke out in September over the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for breaching the country’s strict dress code.
Reporters Without Borders awarded its Prize for Courage to the Iranian journalist, Narges Mohammadi, who has been imprisoned many times over the past decade.
Many journalists are imprisoned in Europe as well - mostly in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Assange is the only one listed for the UK.
So, let’s take a moment to remember a few of the real journalists we don’t hear so much about who are in prison for actually doing journalism.
- Htet Htet Khine was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour in Myanmar for the second time in September last year. She was working as a freelance reporter for BBC Media Action and was accused of contacting “illegal organisations”.
- Maria Ponomarenko, a Russian journalist from Siberia, was detained in April 2022, accused of “discrediting the Russian armed forces” with “fake” social media posts. She is reported to have attempted suicide in prison.
- Fahad Shah is an Indian Kashmiri journalist and founder of the popular weekly political news site, Kashmir Walla. He was arrested last January and charged with sedition, public mischief and unlawful activities for doing his job. He is still in prison.
- Zhang Zhan is a Chinese journalist and former lawyer, who was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison for reporting on the impact of lockdown measures in Wuhan in February 2020.
- Sidheeq Kappan, a journalist from Kerala, India, was imprisoned in October 2020. He was arrested while reporting on the story of a 19-year-old Dalit woman who died after being gang-raped.
- Aasif Sultan, an Indian Kashmiri journalist, is still in prison after being jailed in August 2018 under anti-terror laws. His family and editor at the Kashmir Narrator say he was merely carrying out his work as a journalist when he was detained.
- Vida Rabbani, a freelance journalist and political commentator, was arrested in September 2022 and sentenced to more than 10 years in prison in Iran. She had been reporting on the protests in the country following the death of Mahsa Amini.
- Yahor Martsinovich, who was chief editor of Belarus independent news website Nasha Niva, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in Belarus. Authorities accused him of not paying the correct rate for electricity supplied to his office, but it is widely known that the government had targeted Nasha Niva in a crackdown on the media.
There are many, many more who have been imprisoned for doing their jobs as journalists around the world - far too many, sadly, to be listed here. These men and women were arrested for investigating and reporting on the ground in difficult and dangerous environments, not just for publishing leaked documents from behind a desk without even bothering to implement proper, stringent checks on the sources.
I would rather see any one of them held up as the face of bravery among journalists who continue their work regardless of the dangers they face.
Nina Montagu-Smith is Editor of Al Jazeera Journalism Review