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Jeremy Hunt, Tommy Robinson and The ‘Press Freedom’ Propaganda Troupe

Nina Cross
21st Century Wire

There is no doubt that Jeremy Hunt’s Global Media Freedom conference in London last week was framed in irony due with its exclusion of two Russian news outlets, Sputnik and RT, but also because of its proximity to HMP Belmarsh where award-winning journalist Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, is held in arbitrary detention. But Hunt was not the only one dubiously claiming to champion press freedom. On his way into Belmarsh, Stephen Yaxely-Lennon aka Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the extreme rightwing ethno-nationalist group the English Defence League, made the claim that he has been ‘convicted of journalism.’  While calls for ‘press freedom’ being made by the Assange, Hunt and Robinson camps may appear to reflect each other, in actuality the gulf couldn’t be wider.

There has been much discussion on the underlying role of Hunt in his global media freedom project. One plausible role description is that of controlled opposition.  By employing the rhetoric of press freedom, Hunt can engineer ‘soft power‘ tools of journalism overseas which serve the UK government’s geopolitical interests, while at the same time using the pretext of fighting disinformation he can also engineer ways to censor dissenting journalists at home. And indeed disinformation and overseas funding were central themes of his conference. One of Hunt’s luminary guest speakers was Luz Mely Reyes, whose Venezuelan media outlet Efecto Cocuyo has received funding from the UK government and is vehemently anti-Maduro.

Such a highly publicised campaign is also designed to create an illusion of good governance at a time when the UK government, under the international spotlight, is engaged in actions undermining the freedom of journalists.

SEE ALSO: BBC Media Action: Overseas Subversion From Broadcasting House

Hunt recently claimed he would not stand in the way of Assange’s extradition to the US, an act even his famous media freedom special envoy, Amal Clooney, warned against during the conference, a claim that flies completely in the face of everything he claims he’s committed to in support of press freedom.

Hunt’s actions amount to nothing short of collaborating in the attempt to criminalise journalism:

Measuring Hunt’s media freedom rhetoric against his government’s actions

Hunt’s claims to protect media freedom simply do not tally with his own government’s actions.  Recommendations by the Law Commission following its Review of the Official Secrets Act are due to be released this year.  Its recommendations have been described  as a “full frontal attack on whistleblowers” that would lead to prison sentences of up to 14 years and expand the definition of espionage to affect the people receiving the information, in other words journalists and publishers.

Regulation to online content is expected to be introduced soon. The Society of Editors has outlined its fears regarding the government’s Online Harms whitepaper clause around “disinformation”:

The Society is particularly concerned where the proposed law attempts to prevent disinformation and fake news. Who will decide what is disinformation? It does not take too much imagination to see the eventual creation of some sort of Orwellian ‘Department of Truth’ emerging from a badly-thought through piece of legislation, no matter how well meaning.”

The government packaged its plan to regulate online content effectively as a duty of care document:

“7.31 Importantly, the code of practice that addresses disinformation will ensure the focus is on protecting users from harm, not judging what is true or not. There will be difficult judgement calls associated with this. The government and the future regulator will engage extensively with civil society, industry and other groups to ensure action is as effective as possible, and does not detract from freedom of speech online.”

In effect, such rhetoric around disinformation is already like something out of the ‘Department of Truth’ telling us we must be protected from thinking certain things.  And we are to trust in the organisations selected by the government to ensure those things we are told are ‘the truth.’

And while waiting to see the outcome for freedoms that go to the heart of journalism, speech and expression, we are forced to witness the continued abuse of Julian Assange by Hunt’s Tory government. Clearly, Assange is being abused for his role in exposing truth about the corrupt and powerful: this provides the public with undeniable proof that Hunt’s supposed “media freedom” campaign is a crude deception. In reality, it is a project to weaponize journalism for the purposes of gaining political leverage at home and abroad.

Riding the media freedom wave

It is against this backdrop of Hunt’s media freedom conference and the incarceration of Assange that we now hear Tommy Robinson decrying his persecution for his ‘crime of journalism.’

Robinson’s sentencing this month resulted from his live streaming of events outside Leeds Crown Court in May 2018, in breach of a court order banning all media coverage until the end of a series of linked trials involving a sex trafficking  grooming gang. His actions in live streaming defendants outside the court room and continued commenting during the trial could have resulted in a mistrial or, if it had gone to an appeal and the trial deemed unfair, then the defendants’ guilty verdict could have been overturned, thus allowing perpetrators to go free. However, all of this has been dismissed out of hand by Robinson and his supporters, who insist he was only ‘doing journalism.’

Robinson was originally sentenced to thirteen months for this breach immediately after arrest, but subsequently was released on bail following his appeal, with the appeal court ruling that the procedure had been flawed.  In early July of this year, Robinson had his case reheard before another judge and was subsequently found guilty.  On 11th July, during Hunt’s media freedom conference, Robinson was sentenced to nine months in prison, but with time already served. Given that he will serve half the sentence before release, his actual jail time will be more like 10 weeks. He is currently detained in high security Belmarsh prison, where Assange continues to be arbitrarily detained.

Robinson claimed his treatment was an attack on journalism. He even pleaded to Trump’s White House for political asylum in the US.

It is evident by the media circus surrounding Robinson that he’s attempting to ride the ‘media freedom’ wave in order to obfuscate his breaching of court orders in the trial involving Muslim men. Cries of persecution appear much more likely to be those of opportunism.

The comparison ends before it begins 

The Chief Lord Justice ruled that in 2018 the procedure following Robinson’s arrest was “fundamentally flawed,”  pointing out that there were only five hours between his arrest and sentencing.  However, Robinson won the right to have his case reheard and was released from prison on bail.  He was ultimately found guilty of willfully breaching a court order.

In comparison, Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy, unlawfully stripped of his internationally recognised asylum rights, and within three hours was taken to a court, found guilty of skipping bail and sent directly to Belmarsh. What due process did Assange have?

To date, no courts have challenged the extraordinary rendition and state-sponsored abuse of Assange, but have instead legitimised it through arbitrary and selective interpretation that has served the interests of the British establishment and the US government.  The relentless persecution and abuse of Assange by the UK authorities, as described by the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, amount to nothing less than torture: punishment for revealing US war crimes, for journalism.

As the US government, with the help of the UK, actively works to criminalise journalism, characters such as Robinson purporting to promote freedom of the press are more likely to hasten its demise. The public antics of Robinson could just as easily provide the state with an additional pretext to introduce new rules to restrict access to public legal proceedings and information. Conversely, if we are tempted to let down our guard by consenting when authorities deny due process while containing the behaviour of provocateurs like Tommy Robinson, then when they come for those who pose a real threat to the authoritarian state like Julian Assange,  our ability to challenge the system may be further diminished. Thus far, the UK courts have shown no mercy or hesitation in dismissing the human rights of Assange, and so it would be convenient for the state and its media adjuncts to place Robinson and Assange in the same indictable corner.

Asylum in the country attacking press freedom

Robinson’s request to the Trump government for asylum in the US provides more irony, as the former EDL frontman turns to the same powers that are using the Espionage Act of 1917 against an award-winning journalist in Assange – a move widely recognised as an attack on journalism. If successful, and British courts allow Assange to be extradited to the US, then he is likely to spend his life in prison for journalism, and is likely to be just the first. Thus, anyone genuinely concerned about the future of press and speech freedom would not see the Trump government as their genuine protector given it has effectively launched a global attack on journalists who might cross it.

Whether you’re Jeremy Hunt, a very right-wing politician claiming to be ‘fighting disinformation‘, or Tommy Robinson, a chancy far right activist stoking racial tension, the crusade of ‘media freedom’ has become a useful tool. All you have to do is leverage it – in the service of your own narrative.

Author Nina Cross is an independent writer and researcher, and contributor to 21WIRE. To see more of her work, visit Nina’s archive.

READ MORE ASSANGE NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Assange/Wikileaks Files




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