A double helix of free speech and press freedom

There were two seismic events last week with the release of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange after a plea deal with the United States and the start of the proceedings against the Wall Street Journal’s correspondent Evan Gershkovich, who was falsely accused of espionage in Russia.
They are like a double helix, two linear strands that run opposite to each other but makeup what might be called the DNA of free speech.

One of these strands, Assange is a publisher and an activist who clearly worked in a close alliance with Russia to leak an avalanche of classified information that compromised U.S. national security and provided intelligence that was used against America by its enemies.

Then, through a court proceeding with due process, Assange pleaded guilty to one charge of violating the Espionage Act and was a freeman for the first time in 12 years, just arriving today back in Australia with family. Assange claims he is a journalist, but many would strongly disagree. Apart from where one stands on that, I do believe that the documents Assange published in partnership with major news organizations, such as the Guardian and the New York Times, which challenged American lies and revealed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, were shaped into news stories that provided an important public service and deserved protection under our constitutional right to free speech.

The other is Gershkovich, who is a fully credentialed journalist with a reputable news organization registered in Moscow and he was doing his job when he was apprehended off the streets on vague charges of espionage that have never been formally presented in any Russian court. The proceedings against him will be held in secret without any semblance of due process. It is a sham, not a trial. As a working journalist wrongfully detained, Gershkovich deserves full support from anyone who cares about press freedom. He is not an activist, nor did he break any laws. He is a journalist doing his job, and he deserves to be free.

Both of these stories are distinct, but they are bound together by the force of Russia. Assange allied with that dark power and its decades of perfecting the art of misinformation, disinformation and a bludgeoning of a free press. Gershkovich, on the other hand, sought to shed light on Russia through his reporting and he has paid a heavy price for that through a wrongful detention.
As these two stories unfold, it will be important to remember that free speech and press freedom are different strands that run parallel to each other, but that does not mean they are the same in their individual chemical makeup.

If there is one person I wish I could call tonight, it is my friend and a hero of mine, the late Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon insider who violated the Espionage Act in 1971 by leaking the Pentagon Papers which revealed how the American people had been lied to for decades by their government about the US role in Vietnam. Ellsberg leaked the documents to the New York Times and the Washington Post and eventually the information came pouring out.

Ellsberg, who was also charged under the Espionage Act for his whistleblower role, turned himself in and was willing to face 115 years in prison for what he did. Yet, he was always careful to point out that, sadly, the truths he revealed did not stop the war in Vietnam. But, as fate would have it, the publishing of that truth did end up ensnaring President Nixon in a plot to discredit Ellsberg by ordering a break-in of his psychiatrist’s office which many Watergate experts would argue is the real reason why Nixon, with a plan to expand the war, was ultimately forced to resign.

When Nixon’s craven plot to discredit Ellsberg was revealed through the tapes Nixon recorded in the Oval Office, Ellsberg was exonerated due to what the judge ruled an obstruction of justice in his case by Nixon.

I wish I could talk to Dan about this day. But we don’t have to guess what Ellsberg would think of the release of Assange. Before he died almost exactly one year ago, Ellsberg had repeatedly called for Assange to be free ever since he was first charged in 2019 and described the case against Assange as a perilous threat to a free press on par with his case when the government sought to prosecute him and sought an injunction against the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In a landmark case in 1972, the public’s right to know won out over the attempt by the government to suppress the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers is as complex as the double helix structure that makes up DNA.

As I remember it, I had to really struggle to get a B- in biology in high school. Despite my lack of facility for science, for some reason, I was fascinated by the human story of Watson and Crick and how the two Nobel-Prize-winning scientists’ discovered the structure of DNA as a helix with two distinct strands that serve as a template for each other and can keep reproducing, the essence of life.

Okay, I have over-extended my metaphor far enough. And I have way outrun my very limited knowledge of the double helix, but I know that the two distinct threads of Assange and Gershkovich stories are now woven together by yesterday’s fateful day and we need to be vigilant to see what they will create or recreate in the way of freedom of information.

In my calculus, freedom of information and the role of a free press in bringing it forward are a double helix all their own, and the essence of the life of a democracy.