“Alexei Navalny’s decision to return to Russia after being poisoned was a truly brave and selfless act. In contrast, today’s ruling was pure cowardice and fails to meet the most basic standards of justice. Alexei Navalny must be released immediately.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted the above on February the 2nd 2021.
Who could disagree with him? The poisoning of Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, was an outrageous act and has been linked to Russian security services. The fact that Navalny was jailed on his return to the country only adds to the injustice – and the sense that Vladimir Putin would like his rival silenced.
Leading lights in the UK corporate media were quick to echo Johnson’s words:
One of the Times articles notes that Navalny “came to prominence as an anti-corruption blogger,” but highlights that “he is no keyboard warrior”. Another calls him a “determined anti-corruption campaigner.”
Sound familiar? A tech-savvy blogger out to highlight corruption and government misdeeds?
The name Julian Assange may spring to mind. As we highlighted in our October Edition, Assange has been rotting in Belmarsh prison for over two years – at the behest of Boris Johnson’s government.
A UK judge reached a judgment on his extradition case in early January, decreeing that Assange, an Australian by birth, couldn’t be extradited to America as he would pose a suicide risk. However, his application for bail was denied – on the basis that the US may wish to appeal the ruling.
As Noam Chomsky has noted, the real world doesn’t generate precise paired studies, but it often comes pretty close.
Assange and Navalny is one such study. A truly free press would not treat Navalny and Assange in exactly the same manner, but the broad strokes of their treatment would have to be similar – both figures rose to prominence through disruptive use of evolving online media, both dedicated themselves to exposing the corruption and malfeasance of world superpowers, and both are now facing dubious, high-profile judicial proceedings as a result.
Has the treatment of Assange and Navalny been the same?
The raw data suggests not.
Clicking on the Guardian tag for Alexei Navalny returns 61 articles/videos in January and February.
Clicking on the Guardian tag for Julian Assange returns 14 matches in the same period.
Remarkably, even when we extend this all the way back to the month Assange’s case was heard in the Old Bailey, September 2020, there are only a further 18 Guardian articles on Assange – who, keep in mind, worked with the Guardian to leak the information that led to the US extradition request!
Some of the articles offer tepid support for Assange – “The Guardian view on Julian Assange: do not extradite him” – but this must be considered in the context of a long-running smear campaign against the Australian, summed up in these 44 negative Guardian headlines (compiled by fivefilters.org). It’s also worth pointing out that the “Do Not Extradite Him” article from the Guardian appeared on December the 18th, the day after a number of Assange supporters picketed the Guardian offices!
The Times website returned 54 hits for “Navalny” in January and February. The headlines were notably supportive of the Russian – “Alexei Navalny should get the Nobel peace prize”, “Supporters light up Russia’s cities to keep faith with jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny” and “Marvin Rees: ‘When my pal Alexei Navalny is free, I’ll give him a grand tour of Bristol’”
During the same period, The Times website returned a mere 5 results for Assange and the headlines were hostile – “Julian Assange humiliated and abused me, claims Swedish accuser Anna Ardin in new book” and “Julian Assange is no hero. I should know — I lived with him and his awful gang”.
Note, in particular, the contrast of these headlines with Marvin Rees’ piece on Navalny. The Times chose to feature a personal story in support of Navalny. Two of their five articles on Assange are personal stories attacking him.
Perhaps Assange deserves the smears he has received from The Guardian and The Times. Maybe Navalny is a good guy and Assange is a bad guy?
Everyone knows that Assange was wanted in Sweden to answer complaints of sexual assault. We note that Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has cast doubt on the credibility of the complaints and suggested political interference.
Serious allegations, nonetheless. Does Navalny have any potential skeletons in his closet?
It may surprise you to learn that Navalny has been convicted twice for fraud/embezzlement. Like Assange, he disputes the charges and has suggested political motivations behind them.
Navalny is unable to dispute dubious political statements he’s made in the past. Young Russian writer Katya Kazbek, whose interview on Navalny is worth reading in full, points to outrageous nationalist and racist comments he has never apologised for.
Kazbek states that Navalny “recorded blatantly xenophobic videos where he compared people from South Caucuses to dental cavities and migrants to cockroaches”. There appears to be an anti-Muslim undertone to some of the videos. “I recommend a handgun” said Navalny in one that portrayed him shooting a cloaked attacker shouting “Allahu Akbar”.
Unpleasant stuff. Perhaps The Times and Guardian have overlooked it because Navalny’s cause is righteous and Assange’s is abhorrent?
Leading human rights organisation Amnesty International recently withdrew support for Navalny as a Prisoner of Conscience as they had “given insufficient weight to some of his previous comments which, as far as Amnesty is aware, have not been publicly renounced.”
Nonetheless, they highlight that “nothing Navalny has said in the past justifies his current detention, which is purely politically motivated. Navalny has been arbitrarily detained for exercising his right to freedom of expression.”
What do Amnesty have to say about Julian Assange?
“You don’t need to know the vagaries of extradition law to understand that the charges against Assange are not only classic “political offences” and thus barred under extradition law, but more crucially, the charges are politically-motivated…
“The flagrantly unfair prosecution of Assange is an example of how far the US will go to “manage” the flow of information about government wrongdoing and thus undermine the public’s right to know.”
Amnesty clearly believe Assange and Navalny have been detained for exercising freedom of speech and that political motivations (of superpowers) are behind their imprisonment.
Amnesty, in short, view Assange and Navalny in a similar light.
The corporate press must be more interested in Navalny then because the Russian state allegedly tried to kill him. The US would never try that with Assange!
Um…think again. One of the most explosive revelations from Assange’s trial (barely reported by the UK corporate media) was that the US allegedly plotted with a private security firm to kidnap or poison Assange while he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
Here’s what US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had to say about Assange:
Fine…okay, here’s my last shot. Media reports suggest that Navalny could serve time in a “brutal penal colony”. Assange has been spared that!
Assange has been held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison for almost two years. He has remained in Belmarsh throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, exposed to a heightened risk of catching coronavirus, while other prisoners have enjoyed early release or special consideration.
Assange has visibly diminished as a result of his ordeal. A group of 117 doctors and psychologists have repeatedly written to authorities calling for an end to “the psychological torture and medical neglect of Julian Assange” and raising concerns about his health and wellbeing. Human Rights organisations and lawyers have done the same.
Nonetheless, even after a judge decreed that Assange is not in a fit state to face even harsher conditions in a United States maximum security prison, he was denied bail and returned to Belmarsh – at the height of the second wave of Covid in the UK.
How, then, do we explain the difference in UK corporate media treatment of Alexei Navalny, a Russian dissident, and Julian Assange, a Western dissident? Why are The Times, Guardian and others vastly more concerned by the injustice facing Navalny than the plight of Julian Assange?
After all, logic should dictate that they are more interested in Assange’s case – UK media can have a say on his treatment but have next to no control over what Russia do with Navalny.
Logic, however, must also allow for the propaganda model’s observation that the corporate press are institutions owned by (and therefore in the service of) Western wealth and power.
From the perspective of Western power Alexei Navalny is exceptionally useful: by opposing and undermining the nationalist Putin he weakens an enemy regime. Navalny, at present, is the most likely replacement for Putin and would be expected to take Russia in a direction more friendly to the West (a la Boris Yeltsin), especially if the West aid him as he strives for the throne.
Julian Assange, in contrast, threatens to weaken Western power by drawing some of its darkest deeds towards the light. Specifically, Wikileaks reveal to the public the things their government and military go to great lengths to keep from them. The corporate media, owned by wealth, sustained by advertising revenue and predominantly staffed by elites, have as much interest in a popular challenge to the status quo as the political and military establishment.
The propaganda model is, therefore, able to explain the otherwise inexplicable: why a supposedly free press would fete a rival dissident but denigrate and smear his closest Western counterpart.
It is not a pretty picture.
If you doubt the thesis of this article consider the below quotes from The Guardian:
“The official government line is that Navalny’s campaigns are espionage and terrorism; that he is a sower of chaos and a corrupter of young minds” (Rafael Behr)
“Russian officials and state media are already busy portraying Mr Navalny as a western stooge” (Leader)
Have you seen any articles in the UK press that do the inverse – effectively describe Assange as involved in “espionage and terrorism…a sower of chaos and corrupter of young minds”? Perhaps echoing incumbent US President Joe Biden’s claim that Assange is a “high-tech terrorist”…
Have you seen any articles in the UK press suggesting that Assange is a “Russian stooge” or that his goal is to undermine Western security? If not then you may wish to spend some time with The Times as they suggest that Assange/Wikileaks “have damaged democracies and aided repressive regimes…documents stolen from Democratic Party servers aided the efforts of Vladimir Putin’s regime to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election…”
What does it tell you about our press when, on one hand, they criticise “Russian officials and state media” for attacking dissidents…and on the other employ exactly the same tactics to attack Julian Assange?
***This article was updated on 2/4/21 to make the following corrections:
- Julian Assange has never been on “trial”. The case at the Old Bailey was an extradition hearing
- The month when the majority of Assange’s Old Bailey hearing took place was September, rather than October, as we initially stated. The number of Guardian articles on Assange during this period has been updated – and is still significantly less than their corresponding coverage of Alexei Navalny
Thanks to Mohamed Elmaazi of The Interregnum for the info
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