It has been said that the first casualty of war is truth, and it is not hyperbolic to suggest that in the Russian government, the truth has never faced a greater foe. History can offer us few comparable examples of such an impressive and consistent state-led defiance of truth. The collective audacity to lie to our face and saturate conversations with countless packets of misinformation so that for the average Russian citizen the truth is often surrendered as simply unknowable.
It has been an instrumental key to gaining the compliance of their mentally exhausted population. So used to being inundated with alternate facts, the Russian people are incapable of gaining anything close to the sufficient certainty needed to risk their lives and stand up to their regime. Many are genuinely unsure if it is their government that is evil, or the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, we in the West enjoy the confidence of a rich tapestry of the collective free media. With journalists of varying levels of experience, with conflicting ideological and political leanings, all being funded by a cacophony of international and independently owned media organisations. The idea that western media actually has the capability to conspire to lie to us, let alone the desire, is delusional.
Despite this clear and undeniable advantage held in the battle for truth in the fog of war, the utterance of a single name highlights the uncomfortable fact that our own self-sabotaging actions prevents the “Free West” from ever truly taking the high ground – Julian Assange.
I want you to consider this hypothetical scenario.
Information concerning the conduct of NATO forces is leaked to a journalist. The information provides indisputable evidence of war crimes committed by US forces against Russian speaking Ukrainians. It potentially confirms Kremlin talking points and casts into doubt who the “good guys” really are in this conflict. The information is classified.
Will that journalist share this information with the world? Any answer to that question must be considered in the context of what has become of Julian Assange.
By any measure, Assange is not much of a journalist. His release of classified information with little regard for the safety of those involved was incredibly reckless, and he has regularly been used, intentionally or otherwise, to distribute obvious disinformation from the Russian Government. But in the age where anyone with a Twitter account or Telegram channel is a potential publisher of news, his fate is a warning to all of us.
The manner in which Assange has been pursued for decades with a vicious determination usually reserved for terrorists and mass murders clearly articulates to any citizen of the world; if you know about crimes perpetrated by the United States Government, and you tell the world, you will pay a price that will define your life, if not end it.
As someone who has previously held a Top Secret security clearance, I understood the ramifications if I shared any classified information. I could be arrested, charged, and sentenced to a custodial sentence all in secret. This was a responsibility I accepted when I pursued that career. I surrendered specific rights of freedom of speech. There are a lot of things that even today I am forbidden by law from speaking about.
But that was my choice; the population of this country did not collectively surrender any rights in the name of US national security. No agreement has been made among the Australian people to actively conceal information on behalf of the US government. Julian Assange, for all his personal failings, had not breached any contract with the US government. He believed he had not just the right, but the responsibility to share information with the world.
I have an immense amount of faith in the media that is reporting on this conflict, and I have absolutely no evidence that anything close to the hypothetical scenario in Ukraine has occurred. But so long as Assange languishes in prison for speaking about the crimes of the US government, we cannot claim to have anything close to confidence that our knowledge is the absolute truth.
If we as a society accept that Assange can be prosecuted for telling the truth, we surrender our right to knowing the truth. We make the handling of truth a dangerous act, and demand unreasonable bravery from any journalist prepared to share the truth with us.
Assange is not who I am defending here, he is a deeply flawed man. But it is the truth that we must be prepared to take a stand for. Revealing the truth must never incur a cost. The truth must liberate us, not incarcerate us. Yet, when all is said and done, Assange is being persecuted because he told the truth.
If we sit passively as this occurs, then we accept that just like in Russia, the truth is unknowable. So long as this is the case, the war against Russian disinformation can never be won.
Putin’s misinformation machine succeeds by exploiting doubt in what is being reported in the “mainstream media”. If a single journalist is punished for showing us the truth, then every one of us in the West must reasonably question what information has been held back from us by journalists terrified of being the next Julian Assange.
Until Assange is freed, the Kremlin’s propaganda machines must merely mention his name to plant the necessary seeds of doubt in everything we believe. From this moment, Putin’s disinformation is almost impossible to neutralise.
One of the greatest strengths of liberal democracy is the manner in which elections permit the change of policy; Governments must now listen to the will of the people. If the US wanted to truly distinguish itself from the Orwellian Russian state, it must free Assange, and show the world that not only does the truth matter, it can set us free.
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