Julian Assange and Yang Hengjun

Australian-Chinese writer Yang Hengjun has been imprisoned in China for seven months. Foreign Minister Marise Payne has, rightfully, complained that he is being held in “harsh conditions” and should be released or only be detained in accordance with the rules of international law. The Australian government has been outspoken on Yang’s behalf.

But shouldn’t this attention and care be afforded to all Australian citizens?

For almost six months Julian Assange has been in the UK’s top security prison, Belmarsh. He is being imprisoned ahead of court proceedings, which are aimed at extraditing him to the US where he faces the prospect of 175 years in jail.

Yang and Assange are Australian citizens imprisoned under troublesome conditions. Each is to be charged with espionage yet denied the means of preparing their defence. Both are denounced by powerful states, threatened with years of imprisonment and possible death. And yet there hasn’t been a peep from our government — or mainstream journalists, for that matter — on Assange.

At the recent Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom Summit, there was a great focus on the need to protect whistleblowers. Here, ABC chair Ita Buttrose commented on police raids on the ABC: “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life … to intimidate journalists and to put terror into whistleblowers so they won’t come and talk to us”.

We cannot talk about the intimidation of journalists and whistleblowers without talking about Assange.

For exposing murder and mayhem in US wars, Assange has been psychologically tortured and treated as a top security prisoner. Speaking of his son’s last months in the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange’s father has claimed “[new guards] humiliated him, deliberately elbowing him aside, cutting off his telephone, denying or forgetting to provide meals, refusing toilet paper”. “His every move [was] watched and recorded”.

From the start of the controversy over WikiLeaks’ revelations, a hostile media in the US, UK and Australia has smeared Assange. US politicians have incited violence against him and essentially called for his assassination.

In May 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer and two physicians visited Assange. They concluded that he showed all the symptoms typical of someone exposed to prolonged psychological torture. Melzer said: “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.”

So what would it take for politicians and journalists to express even a hint of shame at Melzer’s conclusions? Gabriel Assange, Julian’s brother, hoped a letter to Scott Morrison might do the trick. 

“Dear The Honourable Scott Morrison,” he wrote. “On August 6 I visited my brother in Belmarsh prison. It was a year since I last saw him … He commented ‘this place is hell’. In an instant I knew what he meant. A yellow inmate band tied tightly around his arm exposed how emaciated he had become beneath his baggy prison clothes. His eyes and voice were signs that this hell was working hard to crush any hope he had left.

“I held back tears as I realised I might never see him again. I beg you to help us save my brother Julian’s life.”

It is commendable that Australia has confronted China over Yang’s detention and treatment. But Australia should, equally, be condemned for throwing Assange in the too-hard basket. The government should be objecting to the US over his extradition proceedings, and our journalists should be arguing for his release.

Until either of those things happen, what are we even talking about when we talk about “press freedom”?

Stuart Rees is professor emeritus at the University of Sydney and the founder/director of Sydney Peace Foundation.

Peter Fray

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