True freedom is to reveal the truth without retaliation

by Fr. Shay Cullen

Reporters write a breaking story | Photo by Rivage on Unsplash

Publishing the truth, revealing war crimes, atrocities, murders, and crimes against women and children, and rights advocates are part of the demanding and sometimes dangerous work and duty of media people such as writers, journalists, publishers, editors, and photographers. Many journalists are courageous and pay the ultimate price for revealing the truth about corruption and serious wrongdoing by police, military, politicians, and business people. Frequently, there is retribution for those with the courage to expose evil.

It is reported that 45 journalists were murdered around the world in 2023 alone. The worst year was 2012, when 147 writers and journalists were killed for their work reporting the truth. In 2022, four journalists were murdered in the Philippines. It brings a total of 140 Filipino journalists killed between 2000 and 2022. The Philippines is one of the most dangerous places to be a writer or journalist.

Retaliation for reporting the truth is not uncommon. This past week, the long-drawn-out confrontation ended between the United States prosecutors and Julian Assange, 52, publisher, free speech advocate, and human rights advocate. Julian Assange founded Wikileaks, an online “Dropbox” that welcomes any sensitive secret information, which is then published on the Internet for all to see, read, and republish if they dare.

The biggest challenge to Julian Assange came when the Wikileaks “Drop Box” became overloaded with videos and hundreds of US secret documents on the war in Iraq. In April 2010, he uploaded the classified information that the US intelligence community kept hidden. It showed the shocking video of a US attack helicopter swooping down and opening fire on civilians, killing 11 of them, among them two journalists. Then, the same helicopter attacked a vehicle van that came to help the wounded people. That and other incidents of alleged war crimes started a vast media outrage against the atrocities.

The United States military intelligence agencies were understandably outraged that their military could do such atrocities, and the camera didn’t lie. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was blamed for making it public. That same year, in July 2010, Wikileaks published as many as 91,000 secret US military documents on the war in Afghanistan. Its exposure showed how weak the security guarding state secrets was. So, US prosecutors and intelligence agencies made Julian Assange the number one target. Then Wikileaks released another 400,000 more secret US documents. They contained secret diplomatic cables and the history of the war in Iraq, including alleged war crimes. That sparked a renewed effort to extradite him, convict him, and deter others from doing similar.

“Exposing the truth and promoting justice, whatever the cost, is the challenge everyone must face. The greatest secrets that need to be told are the acts of sexual abuse of children. Only when revealed will the truth set them free.”

He was in the United Kingdom and was served 18 criminal charges by US prosecutors. They wanted him to be extradited to the United States to stand trial, where he would face life in prison or the death penalty under the Espionage Act of 1917. He and his many supporters fought the extradition request, claiming that the United States could protect national security classified secrets but not hide evidence of war crimes and atrocities by its troops. They said the public had a right to know the truth of crimes committed in their name.

Under the US Espionage Act of 1917, criticism of the US government’s involvement in WWI was considered a possible crime. Many claimed that this was a restriction of free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Julian Assange and his lawyers challenged that 1917 law. Didn’t the First Amendment protect non-citizens, visitors, asylum seekers, and migrants? That is the unresolved legal question today. Are constitutional rights only for US citizens?

One of Assange’s leading lawyers, Barry Pollack, said, “The prosecution of Julian Assange is unprecedented. . . In the 100 years of the Espionage Act, it has never been used by the United States to pursue a publisher or a journalist, like Mr. Assange. Mr. Assange revealed truthful, important and newsworthy information, including revealing that the United States had committed war crimes, and he has suffered tremendously.” They would argue to the Supreme Court that Assange was and is protected as a non-citizen by the US First Amendment. If not, no journalist is safe from extradition and trial for criticizing the United States’ actions.

Besides, Anthony Albanese, Australian Prime Minister (labor) elected in 2022, demanded Assange be freed. After more than a year of negotiations, a plea bargain was made. Julian Assange would admit in a US court in Saipan to one single charge of espionage, admitting he got and published US secrets. There, District Judge Ramona Manglona handed down a sentence of five years and two months in prison already served in a UK prison, so he was free to go home, a free man after almost 14 years of fighting for justice.

How precious is the right of free speech to do our duty to speak the truth and expose evil, to fight for justice on all fronts, and never to give up in the face of persecution?

I was sent to the Philippine immigration court by local officials to stand trial after I wrote an article published by Jose Burgos, a brave Filipino newsman, in We Forum in 1983. I exposed the secret child sexual abuse of Filipino children as young as nine years old by US servicemen in Olongapo City. I was acquitted and declared innocent of damaging the reputation of the city.

Only one US officer was charged, but not in the Philippines, as US officials would not allow him to be deported from the US. He escaped Philippine jurisdiction. Amid public outcry demanding justice, he was put on trial in Guam for multiple sex acts against a nine-year-old. He was found guilty and given a light sentence but no jail time.

Exposing the truth and promoting justice, whatever the cost, is the challenge everyone must face. The greatest secrets that need to be told are the acts of sexual abuse of children. Only when revealed will the truth set them free.

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