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Journalists beware — telling the truth should carry a health warning 

ATHENS, GREECE - JUNE 20: A group of protestors, holding banners and placards, gather to protest against extradition of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the United States at Monastiraki Square in Athens, Greece on June 20, 2022. ( Ayhan Mehmet - Anadolu Agency )
A group of protestors, holding banners and placards, gather to protest against extradition of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the United States at Monastiraki Square in Athens, Greece on June 20, 2022. [Ayhan Mehmet - Anadolu Agency]

It was no real surprise when Delhi police officers arrested Indian journalist Mohammed Zubair after he outed the media chief of Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for making derogatory comments about Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Sadly, today's political climate has made the business of speaking the truth a precarious one for journalists, regardless of who they are or where they work.

Here in Britain, the moment that Home Secretary Priti Patel signed the extradition order to send Julian Assange to America to face charges under the Espionage Act, she made it even easier for rogue states around the world to kill or forcibly disappear courageous journalists who expose government lies and treachery. Assange's alleged offence, like Zubair's "crime", was merely to tell the truth without fear or favour. If freedom of speech cannot be protected in Britain where we claim to value it so much, then what hope is there for those in other countries?

When shocking state secrets come our way as journalists, it is our duty to make them public. WikiLeaks founder Assange published a treasure trove of US government documents in 2010, including confidential US military records and diplomatic cables, that exposed wrongdoing and, arguably, state-sanctioned murder. Any self-respecting journalist in possession of such an embarrassment of exclusives would have done the same as Assange had they been in his position. To be brutally frank, some journalists went on to make their names on the back of the sensational WikiLeaks material but, unaccountably, they are now shy to stand up in defence of the likes of Assange and the right to freedom of speech that he has so readily defended.

Author and journalist Patrick Coburn believes that some such journalists are too afraid to defend Assange because of state bullying. If so-called bastions of democracy like America and Britain set out so obviously to intimidate journalists, then what chance do those reporters have who live and work under brutal regimes, dictatorships and rogue states?

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When the Biden administration placed the Israeli spyware maker NSO Group on a US blacklist after the company's signature Pegasus spyware was deployed by foreign governments against dissidents, journalists, diplomats and members of the clergy, a chink of light appeared. Nevertheless, the US is still intent on demanding Assange's extradition; hypocrisy is alive and kicking in Washington.

Journalists are a thorn in the side of politicians and governments, but that is our role. We are here to hold to account people in power, and to inform and educate the general public about what is being done in their name or on their behalf. The fact that the Israeli NSO Group has clients across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Hungary and India, speaks volumes about state paranoia in those states.

Saudi journalists will undoubtedly think twice before exposing or criticising the activities of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman who, according to US intelligence agencies in a report declassified by US President Joe Biden, ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Now that strategic alliances are changing in the merry-go-round of world politics, Biden is jetting out to Saudi Arabia next week to persuade the de facto ruler of the Kingdom to pump more crude oil to replace Russian exports and bring down the price. Biden, you may recall, began his presidency by refusing to pick up the phone to speak to Bin Salman. Moreover, Turkiye's ever pragmatic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is new best friends with the Saudi prince. So much so, in fact, that the trial in absentia of the 26 alleged murderers of Khashoggi is being transferred from Ankara to Riyadh. What price justice, eh?

Journalists are having to operate in a world where they face being smeared and discredited, undermined and ridiculed for daring to stand up to governments. I should know. Ever since I handed over leaked GCHQ papers exposing US treachery 20 years ago there have been various attempts to ridicule, sideline and undermine my work. My journalistic status and credibility has been called into question on many occasions.

I would feel so much better about it all if the US and Britain had been held to account over allegations of illegal spying on members of the UN Security Council during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion and war, but all we got was a timely reminder in the 2019 film Official Secrets of Tony Blair's treachery when he was Britain's Prime Minister.

Of course, the real heroes are the journalists on the ground covering the persecution of Palestinians and the brutal Israeli occupation of their land. As we've seen countless times, reporting in that part of the world makes you an Israeli military target, and soldiers seem to be able to shoot at TV news crews and media with impunity. The latest victim was Al Jazeera's veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper as she covered an army raid on the Jenin refugee camp in May.

Meanwhile, a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists says that the number of reporters jailed around the world reached a grim new record in 2021. Editorial Director Arlene Getz wrote: "It's been an especially bleak year for defenders of press freedom. CPJ's 2021 prison census found that the number of reporters jailed for their work hit a new global record of 293, up from a revised total of 280 in 2020. At least 24 journalists were killed because of their coverage so far this year; 18 others died in circumstances too murky to determine whether they were specific targets."

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The Twitter hashtag #IStandWithZubair was trending globally in the Number One slot as international outrage and support erupted for the co-founder of the news portal AltNews after he was arrested on the spurious charge that he had offended Hindu religious sentiments in a 2018 tweet. That anger is still palpable after he was remanded in judicial custody on Saturday afternoon for 14 days. The bitter reality is that if we can't get justice for Assange, the murder of Khashoggi or the assassination of Abu Akleh, then why should India take any notice of the anger at the treatment of Mohammed Zubair?

Good journalists are the watchdogs of freedom and democracy. You don't have to like us, but at least if you see us at work you should know that we are operating in a sector where the truth still matters. Making journalism a crime exposes a weak state in the grip of powerful people who have much to hide, and who fear the truth.

To mark World Press Freedom Day in May, Reporters Without Borders published the 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, which ranked America at 42 in the league table; Britain was 24 while India scraped in at 150 out of 180 nations. America, Britain and India often boast about their democratic credentials, yet their respective positions on this list show that they will persecute journalists in a bid to silence or target them.

Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, is said to have told his followers that, "The truth will set you free." Not, though, in the 21st century, where the truth could cost you your liberty or even your life. Journalists beware: telling the truth should carry a health warning.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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