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‘Media Freedom’ Campaign Pushes Magnitsky Sanctions – But Ignores Case of Julian Assange


IMAGE: Julian Assange and his former lawyer Amal Clooney.

Nina Cross
21st Century Wire

At a meeting in Chatham House, London, last week, a ‘High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom’ announced their recommendations on ‘how to better protect journalists and address abuses of media freedom in line with international human rights law.’  The announcement shows the true nature and at least one purpose of the media freedom project set up last year by the former British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt and Canada’s Chrystia Freeland – to promote of an alliance in economic warfare using Magnitsky sanctions.

At the meeting, Amal Clooney, celebrated human rights lawyer, appointed by Hunt last year to be the UK’s media freedom envoy, described various cases of journalists being persecuted around the world including the recent case of Glenn Greenwald, accused by a public prosecutor in Brazil of criminal misconduct related to Greenwald’s anti-corruption investigation into ‘Operation Car Wash.’  However, absent from any mention was Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whom Amal Clooney had represented several years ago, and who, only a few miles away, was languishing in maximum security Belmarsh prison, without charge, held under an US extradition order after being indicted by President Trump’s Department of Justice on 17 counts under the Espionage Act of 1917. His extradition hearing begins one week from now.

It is especially strange given that in the days leading up to this recent Chatham House meeting, that the European Council condemned the prosecution and extradition trial of Assange, the leader of the British government opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, stood in the House of Commons and strongly opposed extradition, denouncing it as a threat to journalism.  It is unlikely this blatant omission of Assange’s case was by mistake, and can therefore be assumed it was airbrushed by design.

If Assange is extradited to the US, and then found guilty, it would have monumental effects on the freedom of speech. It would set the stage for any journalist or publisher anywhere in the world, who dared expose any US crime and corruption – to be subjected to criminalisation, extradition and imprisonment in the US.  It would give global jurisdiction to Washington over dissenting journalists. However, instead of addressing this hugely significant case, the Media Freedom confab was promoting a form of economic warfare known as Magnitsky sanctions, currently deployed by Washington to be a creative ‘extra’ used for targeting individuals in addition to broader economic sanctions used to target populations and governments. It’s important to note that like the Media Freedom campaign, Magnitsky Sanctions are also neatly packaged in seemingly innocuous human rights rhetoric.

Magnitsky sanctions can be imposed unilaterally by a country like the US, so they provide a way around obstacles like UN Security Council vetoes. However, they may soon be imposed collectively, essentially through a US-UK-EU axis reflecting their shared foreign policy and political alliance, and NATO objectives too.  In theory, this could be a good idea, but only if these were applied fairly to all parties and without prejudice. Theoretically, they could be used to target officials in the Israeli military the next time a Palestinian reporter is shot dead in Gaza, or to target the governor of a Ukrainian prison where a Russian journalist has been held on spurious allegations, but history shows this is unlikely.  The most likely targets will be individuals in countries where the Western alliance has shared geopolitical interests. For Britain, this will mean targeting individuals in countries such as Russia, Syria, Iran and Venezuela – and where the US and Canada have already imposed individually targeted sanctions in some cases.

The Magnitsky narrative, Bill Browder and British foreign policy

There are Magnitsky provisions in the UK’s 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act or SAMLA, that provide a framework for waging economic warfare on individual foreign targets under a range of pretexts framed in human rights rhetoric, ostensibly  “Gross human rights violations”. These have their roots in the US 2016 Global Magnitsky Act which followed the original 2012 Act.

The narrative which underpins the whole Magnitsky story was built upon a web of allegations made by American financier Bill Browder (image, left) who claims that Sergei Magnitsky, a “Russian lawyer” (in reality he was only an accountant) who worked for Browder in Moscow, was persecuted for ‘blowing the whistle’ on corrupt government officials, before dying as a result of state-sponsored abuse while in prison. This version and the details of events have been challenged by numerous competent and qualified critics of Browder.

As it turns out, Browder himself is wanted for massive fraud in Russia, and has also been linked to the UK Foreign Office information warfare program known as the Integrity Initiative.  Aside from being the go-to pundit for all major corporate media outlets, he has been given access to the legislatures, including repeatedly being given a platform in the House of Commons to help frame British policy towards Russia.

There are a number of important questions regarding the legality of these Magnitsky sanctions.  These are not agreed by the UN, but rather, are used as foreign policy tools of powerful states, and can be used collectively for politically-motivated reasons.  Simply put, these are a means of bypassing any international arbitration or similar mechanisms designed to uphold international law – despite claims that they are ‘in line with international law.’  They are also likely to be used exclusively by an alliance of the most powerful nations against developing countries who have no such equivalent apparatus or ability to hold these world powers to account.

What’s more, despite the claim during the meeting that they do not affect large numbers of people, testimony shows this is not the case. As of May 2019, the US had 7,967 sanctions in place against various persons and organisations, a number which continues to grow every month. What’s rarely if ever discussed in the West is how targeted sanctions have wide-reaching effects on innocent people who have very little or no recourse to justice. As for evidence of abuse used to justify sanctions, it has been shown that this is often very poor, and even at times something as spurious as a newspaper article (essentially, any item of propaganda) can be cited as ‘evidence’ of supposed human rights violations or ‘corruption.’

Despite the Media Freedom panel’s claim that an objective group will examine evidence against potential new sanctions targets, why should we think the scrutiny needed for justifying sanctions for the abuse of journalists would be any more objective or thorough than what’s currently being used to justify other targeted sanctions? It goes without saying that this entire process is prone to politicisation.

Magnitsky sanctions and Kamal Khashoggi

In addition to the case of Julian Assange, another case which defies Media Freedom virtue signalling is that of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His case demonstrates yet another clear case of the double standard of the US and British governments. Following her UN investigation into his killing, Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings – called on States to carry out an international criminal investigation, having found that Khashoggi’s murder constituted an international crime involving 6 violations of international law, and not only that, but Saudi Arabia’s own investigation violated the law. The report states:

“The execution of Mr. Khashoggi raises an egregious underlying set of facts, as well as violations of fundamental human rights as well as of international law…, any state should be able to make claims on behalf of Mr. Khashoggi and the violation of his right to life, to the UN Secretary General (and any other UN bodies).”

Yet despite any state being able to demand justice for Khashoggi (image, left), only Canada showed an interest. Despite all the speeches and rhetoric, Hunt demanded neither truth, nor justice. Like Assange, this case was marked ‘do not touch.’ Instead of pursuing a coordinated criminal investigation that would have involved investigating the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, suspected by both Callamard and the CIA as being the person giving the execution order, the Western allies backed down and protected his impunity.

Regarding the Magnitsky sanctions which were later imposed by the US and Canada on 17 Saudi nationals for their involvement in Khashoggi’s killing, Callamard made the following statement:

“Targeted sanctions against the individuals and/or entities in Saudi Arabia that were likely involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi must continue. However, in view of the credible evidence into the responsibilities of the Crown Prince for his murder, such sanctions ought also to include the Crown Prince and his personal assets abroad, until and unless evidence is provided and corroborated that he carries no responsibilities for this execution.”

The case of Khashoggi shows that powerful governments who employ Magnitsky sanctions will not impose them on real butchers if the butchers are allies, proof enough of how a political, or geopolitical agenda can often govern their use.

Of those 17 Magnitsky sanctions imposed, Callamard had this to say:

“None of the Governments responsible for issuing such sanctions has provided a well-evidenced explanation as to why these particular individuals have been targeted  for sanction … In comparison with sanctions that have been imposed around the world in response to gross human rights violations, the individuals sanctioned in the aftermath of the execution of Mr. Khashoggi are relatively middle to low-level officials and cannot be said to be members of the Saudi leadership. Yet, the execution of Mr. Khashoggi rises to the level of State responsibility.

This may reflect what Magnitsky sanctions of Western allies are meant for:  mainly targeting significant individuals in countries which are non-compliant towards the allies, with little proof needed to justify them being issued, or for scapegoating individuals of little consequence in order to allow more powerful allied actors to save face.

Any effective and credible strategy to protect journalists around the world – should it involve sanctions or not – cannot surely be put together and resourced by those world powers who are complicit in the persecution of a leading dissident and journalist?  If the panel engaged in the reality of the historic case of Julian Assange, they would have to endorse sanctions against both the Johnson and Trump governments, but instead the Media Freedom project appears to be serving as controlled opposition in the West. Even worse, it is providing rhetoric justifying economic warfare by increasingly authoritarian governments, some of which are themselves at war with press freedom.

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

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