Western Elites Spruik Media Freedom While Torturing Julian Assange In Belmarsh Supermax. But What’s Stanley Milgram Got To Do With It?



While politicians, media and commentators strut the world stage crying ‘press freedom’ an actual journalist from Australia rots in a British prison for doing his job. Clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson weighs in with the science behind why we stay silent.

On Wednesday 10th and Thursday 11th July, the UK Foreign Office and Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a Global Conference for Media Freedom. Politicians and opinion-shapers from around the world gathered in London to discuss how best to promote a “free and independent media”, and ensure the “safety and protection of journalists”, who are “under threat” around the world.

Meanwhile, publisher and journalist Julian Assange languished in Belmarsh supermax prison a short train ride away. His plight failed to rate a mention on the conference agenda, despite the event’s professed concern for journalists in jail.

The opening address by host and UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt focused on “why we must stand with those who seek to report the truth and bring the facts to light”. Hunt stressed that “the strongest safeguard against the dark side of power is accountability”. He added, “real accountability comes from the risk of exposure by a media that cannot be controlled or suborned”. Countries restricting media freedom must pay a price he warned.

Fortunately for Minister Hunt, nobody reminded him that just last month he deemed it “absolutely right” for multi-award winning journalist Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States. There, Julian Assange faces charges under the archaic Espionage Act of 1917, with up to 175 years in prison, for reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Later in the day, while sharing a stage with Jeremy Hunt, human rights lawyer and UK Envoy on Media Freedom, Amal Clooney, spelled out the legal implications of extraditing Julian Assange to the United States. She said:

“The indictment against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has alarmed journalists at newspapers around the world including the New York Times (NYT), the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian because, as the editor of the Washington Post has put it, it “criminalis[es]common practices in journalism that have long served the public interest”.

Clooney’s comments align with those of leading legal minds left and right, including former NYT Pentagon Papers lawyer James Goodale, deputy general counsel for the NYT, former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani and Barack Obama’s Department of Justice.

Given that her remarks were the first mention of Julian Assange all day, Twitter, which had bombarded the conference hashtag (#DefendMediaFreedom) with tweets about Julian Assange, responded.

Throughout Amal Clooney’s statement Jeremy Hunt sat impassively, as though the elephant in the room had not been named. Conference attendees helped him out, by declining to ask him how Amal Clooney’s legal caution squared with his earlier pledge to support the extradition of Julian Assange.

Should the UK comply with the US extradition request, according to Professor of International Law and UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, Julian Assange faces absolutely no chance of a fair trial. What he can expect in the US, Melzer warns, is a politicised show trial, with what Professor Melzer describes as gravely concerning risks of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Risks of a politicised US show trial for Australian journalists jailed on UK soil, however, failed to capture the attention of the Media Freedom conference.

Apart from one Australian journalist’s question about Julian Assange to Peter Greste and a statement from the floor by Reporters Without Borders, Amal Clooney’s single sentence on the subject (as important and informative as her sentence was) appeared to be the sum total of the conference discussion of Julian Assange.

For his part, Peter Greste backtracked on former denunciations of Julian Assange, noting that the Wikileaks founder is part of an ecosystem of “whistleblowing, accountability and publishing of journalism”, which “we need to be protecting as a whole”. The Secretary General of Reporters without Borders added that the case of Julian Assange “has huge implications for press freedom”.

Notably, no-one at the conference saw fit to mention the T-word. Entirely absent from the two days of discussion was the UN Rapporteur on Torture’s assessment that Julian Assange has suffered nearly a decade of psychological torture, for journalism. Nils Melzer reports that Julian Assange has been the victim of prolonged state-sanctioned abuse, as a result of his publishing activities, in the form of “mobbing” by so-called democratic states: the US, UK, Sweden and Ecuador, with the complicity of the Australian government.

Of these five states, the three with the power to end Julian Assange’s political persecution were conference attendees: the US, UK and Australia. Yet none of those countries’ delegates, whether Jeremy Hunt, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Pyne or the US State Department representative, mentioned Julian Assange at all. Nor were they asked any questions on Julian Assange’s case by any journalists in attendance, to my knowledge.

Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne.

The only such question, it seems, came from a journalist who had been denied entry to the conference. Barnaby Nerberka, of RT’s video agency Ruptly, asked Jeremy Hunt for his position on Julian Assange’s freedom en route to the conference. Jeremy Hunt declined to reply.

Once safely inside, having excluded RT and Sputnik from the event, neither Hunt nor any other politicians were under any pressure whatsoever to explain their government’s involvement in the psychological torture of Julian Assange.

A warning to all

The state-sanctioned mobbing of Julian Assange, the likes of which Professor Melzer has not seen in his 20 years investigating torture, has involved abuse of both legal and political process to pursue, harass and defame the Wikileaks founder. This sustained assault has been augmented by a vicious and baseless smear campaign, conducted through the media, to alienate public support and to hound, humiliate and intimidate Julian Assange, including multiple calls for his assassination.

Treatment such as this, Melzer warns, “aims straight at the destruction of your innermost self, albeit without leaving a physical trace… Through relentless over-stimulation, confusion and stress, it eventually causes total exhaustion, cardiovascular failure and nervous collapse”.

So much for the UK Foreign Office commitment to the safety and protection of journalists.

Having endured years of such abuse, Professor Melzer has found Julian Assange to be suffering the inevitable psychological and physical consequences, including severe stress and trauma, to the extent that he may die in prison.


Because in 2010 US forces gunned down 2 Reuters journalists on assignment in Baghdad, before gunning down their victims’ rescuers, and shooting two children who watched, helpless, from a van. Upon viewing footage of the slayings, one US soldier described the killings as typical of “daily routine in Iraq for seven years”.

For reporting this event, and for documenting tens of thousands of other civilian killings like it, by US forces and US authorities, it is Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning who sit in jail. Neither of them charged with harming a living soul. Both of them tortured. For other people’s crimes.

Jeremy Hunt calls this justice. I call it insanity.

It is precisely the kind of behaviour that the UK Foreign Office staged the global conference to denounce. We must “reverse the trend of violence against journalists” the Foreign Office tweeted in the lead-up to the London gathering. “Democratic states” proclaimed Hunt, must “make it an international taboo of the highest order to murder, arrest or detain journalists just for doing their job”.

Unless, of course, those journalists get in the way of Western powers’ plans. As Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning have done.

Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are tortured because those responsible for atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan – and elsewhere – prefer to slaughter and torture behind closed doors. Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are the bodies strung up in the town square, as a warning to all: keep your mouths shut.

Those media organisations and journalists who heed this warning may gain entry to events such as the Global Conference for Media Freedom. Those who ignore it will not.

More importantly, as Amal Clooney and Nils Melzer warn, Assange’s persecution, if allowed to stand, will criminalise the truth and journalism worldwide, leaving those in power to commit their crimes with impunity. This, adds Melzer, will seal democracy’s fate, by ushering “unrestrained tyranny” in through the “backdoor of our own complacency”.

And complacency, as the psychology profession knows, is the bedrock of atrocity and collective violence.

Agents and accomplices

Collective violence, such as torturing a publisher for journalism, requires more than persecuting authorities, mobbing states and media smear campaigns to survive. Those who orchestrate and perpetrate state-sanctioned violence depend crucially and fundamentally upon one other thing. That thing is bystanders.

Atrocity does not take place without passive, complacent, compliant bystanders: citizens watching silently, declining to take a stand, even as their leaders say one thing at global media conferences and do precisely the reverse in the real world.

Julian Assange, pictured in the Equadorian embassy in 2014, with Ricardo Patiño, Ecuador’s then Foreign Minister. (IMAGE: David G Silvers, Cancillería del Ecuador, Flickr)

Passive bystanders are the social pillars of atrocity, fashioned from “kindly people, struggling to evaluate the actions they are agents or accomplices in” writes Professor of Philosophy, Adam Morton.

The infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, who died screaming as neighbours listened on, prompted psychologists to investigate the processes by which kindly people might become agents and accomplices in horror, such torturing a journalist in Belmarsh while elites parse media freedom at exclusive conference dinners, practically next door. A simple and pedestrian psychological culprit emerged, known as diffusion of responsibility.

In numerous research paradigms since 1964, when witnessing an emergency among a group of seemingly unconcerned others, most people will fail to intervene. The more people that are present, and the less alarmed they all appear to be, the less inclined is each individual to act. The ensuing collective stasis is driven partly by a diminished sense of personal responsibility, and partly by conformity, or a reluctance to stand out.

Such prosaic group processes, on display in spades at the Global Media Freedom Conference, can paradoxically make it easier to commit violence before a sea of onlookers than before one or two passers-by. Which is just as well for the elites in London holding Julian Assange bound and gagged in Belmarsh, metaphorically speaking, while listening to Amal Clooney and embracing a joint statement by four Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression, with a straight face.

Peace psychologist Ervin Staub writes, “The passivity of witnesses, internal bystanders who are part of the population… affirms perpetrators and allows the unfolding of the evolution of violence”. He adds, “bystanders are complicit”, their silence fuelling ever graver abuses along a “continuum of destruction”.

And the silence, it must be said, was deafening at the Global Media Freedom Conference in London. Reporting on day 1, major Australian outlets including the Sydney Morning Herald, the ABC and SBS, omitted Amal Clooney’s statement on Julian Assange from their coverage of her address.

In fact, The Canary notes that “ few corporate outlets have covered Clooney’s intervention on Wikileaks” at all, adding, “Clooney actually brought universal values to the Foreign Office’s media freedom event. It was a breath of fresh air at what has mostly otherwise felt like an Orwellian nightmare.”

Silence also reigned over the recent refusal of major Western outlets to publish Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer’s Op Ed “Demasking The Torture of Julian Assange”. Nils Melzer, the world’s designated expert on torture, who also happens to write elegantly and eloquently, was forced to publish his article on the blogging site Medium. ‘Why?’ would have been a pertinent discussion topic at the Foreign Office event.

Likewise, silence surrounded the staggering and ongoing media blackout of a damning leak from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The leak reveals OPCW complicity in the staging of a crime scene to justify military aggression in Syria. In other words, the promotion of fake evidence supporting war. Again.

Why no mainstream media coverage of this explosive leak, other than Tucker Carlson on Fox News? What is going on? Why are truths about war always relegated to independent and alternative media platforms? Is Western establishment media really ‘free’ to depart from official narratives on war? Why not?

Like listening passively to Kitty Genovese’s screams, none of these questions were asked at the Global Conference on Media Freedom. The pro-war requirements of contemporary Western journalism, and the lives and deaths on the receiving end, went undiscussed.

Don’t make me do it

Under certain circumstances bystanders will do more than simply observe. They will participate, helping to perpetrate the atrocity themselves. To investigate who and when, in the early 1960s Stanley Milgram conducted his now famous series of experiments on torture and obedience to authority.

Milgram designed a paradigm in which subjects were led to believe that they were administering increasingly severe electric shocks to a fellow human being, up to and including a lethal 450 volts. Psychiatrists at the time predicted that only a pathological minority, less than one percent, would inflict the maximum shock available.

Milgram found, however, that 65 percent of people were willing to administer electric shocks up to and including the final voltage. All that it took to elicit their complicity was an official-looking man in a white lab coat, issuing stern instructions in authoritative tones. Even the sound of their victims crying out in pain failed to prevent the majority from following orders. Some subjects wept themselves as they complied, placing their deference to authority above their own distress.

The Milgram paradigm has been replicated many times, illuminating the dark side of obedience, whereby “individual morality breaks down in presence of authority”.

Add fearful conformity to the mix (for which McCarthyism is tailor-made), an environment in which brutality is normalised (such as the mobbing of Julian Assange), and dehumanisation (as in the smear campaign against him), and you have what psychologists call an ‘atrocity generating situation’.

The psychology profession, of course, intended these insights as warnings, not instruction manuals. In a 2000 paper titled “The Psychology of Evil”, to combat atrocity and collective violence, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo warned citizens to “dissent, disobey, rebel”. Some conference participants, for example, painted a dove with the message “Free Assange” at the centre of a collective mural commissioned by the Foreign Office, to mark the conference end.

Throughout history, Niz Melzer notes, disobedient dissidence has brought about “lasting political change, liberation from oppression, and the empowerment of the people”.

In our hands

Yet here we are in 2019, collectively torturing Julian Assange for journalism, with our collective backs turned on the atrocities that he exposed, while the perpetrating authorities – governments and establishment media – place themselves above reproach on a global conference stage.

All the psychological ingredients of collective violence are in play, rendering populations complacently obedient to the authorities that are torturing Julian Assange, with all that his torture entails.

These are the same authorities that have killed upwards of 1 million people in Iraq alone since 2003, and at least hundreds of thousands of others across the Middle East, while displacing, immiserating and traumatising countless millions more.

That figure for Julian Assange and Wikileaks is zero.

They are the same authorities demanding secrecy, waging war on dissent and raiding journalists offices and homes.

They are the same authorities that dragged Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in April this year, in violation of international law, Ecuadorian law and the Refugee Convention, before throwing him into ‘Britain’s Guantanamo Bay’ for 50 weeks, over the “pseudo-legal concoction” of minor bail infringement. A bail infringement, moreover, that was attached to a closed investigation at the time. An investigation in which no charges were ever laid. And for which Sweden recently declined to re-issue the arrest warrant.

Go figure, as Professor Melzer has aptly observed.

They are also, needless to say, the same authorities that have appointed themselves arbiters of Global Media Freedom, claiming the mandate to define the challenges to journalism worldwide, and frame the solutions.

As these elites grandstand and strut their impunity, award-winning journalist Julian Assange enters his 49th year of life in Belmarsh Prison, battling the effects of years of psychological torture, while simultaneously battling US extradition, alone in his cell without access to a computer for 23 hours a day, unable to adequately prepare his defence as is his human right.

Belmarsh Prison in the UK. (IMAGE: Anders Sandberg, Flickr)

And those of us on the outside watching silently are keeping him there. We are all part of this system of collective violence, whether we like it or not.

If there was any lingering hope that we might divest ourselves of the responsibility to speak up, and trust UK authorities to sort things out, here is another piece of information that has been studiously sidelined by our not-so-free press.

One of the UK judges in Julian Assange’s case is married to a former Tory politician who was named in multiple Wikileaks documents, and who possesses military-industrial and intelligence ties including “to a former head of MI6 who oversaw the ‘sexed-up’ dossier that led to the Iraq War”. His wife, judge Baroness Emma Arbuthnot, has reportedly declined to step down from Julian Assange’s case, despite the obvious conflict of interest.

So much, once again, for the UK Government’s commitment to the safety and protection of journalists.

At the hands of the UK Government and Her Majesty’s pleasure, journalist Julian Assange is in the fight of his life. He cannot fight that fight from Belmarsh Prison alone. He has been immobilised by the states that are persecuting him. Stripped of his human rights. His legal rights. His political rights.

He needs us. He needs those of us with rights and freedoms to exercise them while we still can, to break the cycle of collective violence and fight back.

We have been warned by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer that Julian Assange may die in prison. If he does, with him will go our chance to become a society that doesn’t torture its journalists to death.

The Global Conference for Media Freedom is here to obscure that fact, by lulling us into a state of self-deceptive, self-congratulatory complacency. One of its key functions has been to offer perception-management cover for the states and institutions that are persecuting Julian Assange. That persecution, like a Stanley Milgram experiment, will go as far as we allow it to go.

If there is one thing that the Global Conference on Media Freedom made clear, it is this: Julian Assange’s life, the media freedom it represents, and the lives of those around the world who need their truths told, are in our hands.

If you would like to take a stand against torture and the criminalisation of journalism, you can donate to Wikileaks’ defence fund here. For other actions that you can take see here, here, here and here.


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.