Where Is Julian Assange On World Press Freedom Day? And What’s Torture Got To Do With It?



Yesterday, Dr Lissa Johnson was grateful to speak at a rally for Julian Assange on World Press Freedom Day with Julian’s father John Shipton, broadcaster Mary Kostakidis, former Greens senator Scott Ludlam, barrister Greg Barns and parish priest and human rights activist Father Dave, among other powerful speakers. An edited transcript of Lissa’s speech is below.

Most people don’t know this – most psychologists don’t know this – but the profession of psychology owes Julian Assange and Wikileaks a huge debt of gratitude.

In 2011, when Wikileaks released the Guantanamo Files, a group of psychologists called Psychologists for Social Responsibility had been fighting for years to end psychological involvement in torture at Guantanamo Bay. The psychologists were up against a professional body that took tens of millions of dollars annually from the US military, and had achieved limited success until the Guantanamo Files gave them the evidence they needed to hold the American Psychological Association to account, and bring about ethical reform.

In fact, the state of ethics in psychology owes not just Wikileaks but whistleblowing itself a debt a gratitude. Before the Guantanamo Files, in 2007 CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou lifted the lid on psychologists’ involvement in secret CIA torture black sites around the world, to the profession’s ultimate betterment.

And while it is painful to face up to ugly realities such as these, and easier to shoot the messenger, that pain is nothing compared to the pain of the victims.

It is nothing compared to the pain of the innocent men snatched from their families, and tortured within an inch of their lives – by licensed psychologists. Just as it is nothing compared to the pain of the Reuters journalists and photographers shot dead in the street, as exposed by Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks (which, incidentally, Manning was legally required to do under the Geneva Conventions and code of Military Justice according to legal analyst and former president of the National Lawyer’s Guild, Marjorie Cohn).

And it is nothing compared to the pain of the children who sat watching from a van, alone, strafed by bullets and surrounded by death.

These are but a handful of the tens of thousands of previously unreported killings revealed by Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks in 2010. It is victims such as these upon whom we turn our backs when we turn a blind eye to the persecution of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.

And it has to be said, on this World Press Freedom Day, that the Western mainstream media makes it very easy for us to turn a blind eye if we choose, by normalising and sanitising our collective violence.

As Julian Assange was hauled illegally from the Ecuadorian embassy on April 11th, his years of medical neglect and his months of solitary confinement evident on his face, we all, including our media, faced another opportunity to stand on the right side of history and of torture: this time the torture of a publisher and journalist, for journalism.

By the time of Julian Assange’s arrest, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had been warning for months that Assange’s arbitrary detention may endanger his life. The mainstream media responded by calling him a smelly houseguest.

Julian Assange’s mother Christine warned that her son was suffering a slow and cruel assassination before our eyes. The mainstream media gossiped about his cat litter. The UN Working Group warned that Julian Assange faced a very real risk of serious harm in the United States. Mainstream outlets called his detention self-imposed.

Now that Julian faces US extradition, and a real risk of torture at US hands, with the world’s leading human rights, civil liberties and press freedom groups sounding urgent alarms about the criminalisation of journalism, what is the mainstream media saying?

They are saying that Julian Assange, with all his journalism awards, is not a journalist. Some have called him a “demented looking gnome” and said, as he faces state-sanctioned abuse, “that’ll wipe the smile off his face”.

This is why we need Wikileaks. This trivialising and sanitising of atrocity. This is why we need independent media that doesn’t rely on military dollars, corporations or the good graces of governments to survive.

We are facing a historic crisis of free speech, free press, democracy and rule of law, and yet our establishment media continues waging psychological war on Julian Assange, with baseless, vicious smears. All in order to gain public consent to treat public interest journalism as public enemy number one.

As I have written in New Matilda, this is not journalism. It is not even bad journalism. It is propaganda.

This is the propagandandistic model of “news” that the US national security state seeks to ram down our throats by snuffing out alternatives and prosecuting Julian Assange.

When he was CIA director Mike Pompeo essentially declared as much. In 2017 Pompeo not only pledged that the CIA would “take down” Wikileaks, but that it would also pursue with “great vigour” other “small” media platforms in Wikileaks’ wake. In other words, wage war on independent media.

This is the same CIA that tortured innocent people in sadistic secret black sites around the globe, jailed the whistleblower, paid the torturers $81 million and promoted torture boss Gina Haspel to CIA director.

It is the same CIA that lies as a matter of routine, with “entire training courses” on the subject according to Mike Pompeo.

If we allow Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States, these are the forces that will decide who is free to speak, no matter where in the world, and who is not.

It is not just a war on Wikileaks and Julian Assange, although that is bad enough. It is not just a war on free press and free speech, although that is bad enough. It is tyranny.

In a recent public statement opposing the US extradition of Julian Assange, Psychologists for Social Responsibility warned that prosecuting Julian Assange would weaken vital safeguards against tyranny.

In short, Julian Assange’s extradition would represent the triumph of tyranny over us all.

And one thing psychologists know is that tyranny and atrocity thrive on bystanders. Passive, silent, submissive, obedient bystanders, without whom atrocity cannot survive. So if you care about free press, rule of law and tyranny, don’t be silent. Don’t be complicit. Speak up.

As he was hauled from the Ecuadorian embassy Julian Assange yelled “The UK must resist this”.

We all must resist this.


Dr Lissa Johnson

Dr Lissa Johnson is a clinical psychologist and practice principal in private practice. Prior to becoming a psychologist she qualified in Media Studies, with a major in Sociology. Lissa has a longstanding interest in the psychology of social issues and the impact of social issues on psychology, and is a former member of the Australian Psychological Society Public Interest Advisory Group.