"Free Assange! Journalism is not a crime!", declared the Union of Bulgarian Journalists at a UBJ event in defence of the WikiLeaks founder

  • 22.02.2024
  • UBJ
All those present at the event at the Journalist Club held up posters in support of Julian Assange. Photo: Rodolfo Zanoni Gomez

On the evening of February 19, the Union of Bulgarian Journalists (UBJ) raised its voice from the Journalists´ Club in defense of WikiLeaks whistleblower Julian Assange and against his threatened extradition to the US, where he could be sentenced to 175 years in prison for publications exposing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With this event, which brought together many colleagues and guests, the UBJ joined the campaign launched by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) in defence of Julian Assange, who is threatened with a crucial extradition to the US pending the decision of his trial  in London on 20 and 21 February. The decision of the Royal Court of Justice is still not announced but if the lower court decision for an extradition is upheld Assange faces 175 years in a US prison.

The President of the UBJ Snezhana Todorova recalled in her speech at the event in Sofia that our Union has been regularly participating for years in the numerous initiatives of the IFJ and the EFJ in defence of Assange and the freedom of speech threatened by the repressions against him.

She pointed out that the creator of the online platform WikiLeaks, which reveals unflattering truths, has been held in very harsh conditions, under constant physical and mental harassment, in the high-security London prison Belmarsh since his arrest at the Ecuadorian embassy in the British capital on 11 April 2019.

Authorities in the US have charged him with 18 counts of espionage and "conspiracy" for disclosing in 2010 videos and documents of US military and diplomatic cables revealing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the basis of these accusations, cases and appeals have been pending in the UK for five years now over the US request for Assange's extradition.

Snezhana Todorova also stressed that the outcome of the current appeal case on 20 and 21 February is "a matter of life and death for Julian", as his wife Stella Assange warned at a press conference in London a few days ago.
As a journalists' organisation, we share the deep concern of the IFJ and the EFJ about the chilling effect that the prosecution of Assange is having on all journalists around the world, on freedom of speech, on the right of societies to be informed about the truth, on the very foundations of democracy, Mrs. Todorova said.  The cruel ordeals that Assange has been forced to endure for many years now have been heaped upon him because of his 'audacity' in revealing documents about American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The WikiLeaks whistleblower's showdown sends a poisonous signal to the entire world of journalism and outright kills it, showing what can happen to anyone who dares to expose unvarnished truths about a powerful world power.

“Together with many colleagues and citizens around the world, the UBJ demands that the demonstrative crackdown on Assange be stopped immediately. The assault against him is an assault against us all. He is being punished for fulfilling what is the essence of the journalistic mission - to get the truth out. If Assange is being sued for revealing information about war crimes that is of high public interest, then all journalists around the world are being ostentatiously threatened not to let anything like this happen. Fear is being instilled and honest, independent and critical journalism is being gagged. This is unacceptable! We demand the immediate release of Julian Assange! None of us is free until Assange is free!", she said

Snezhana Todorova also read a letter, addressed personally to Julian Assange and his wife Stella, in which the UBJ expresses its support for them. “Dear Julian, you know that you have become a symbol for all of world journalism, for all honest people who value truth, morality and honesty, who admire and are inspired by your courage as a whistleblower for the crimes of a mighty world power. We are well aware of the enormous human cost you are paying for this... We are deeply outraged by the repressions against you which are causing you so much personal suffering and which send an intimidating signal to the entire world journalism and public conscience. We expressed the same position in an address we are sending to the Vice-President of the European Commission for Transparency and Values, Vera Jourová, to the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović, and to the British Foreign Secretary, David Cameron.

We very much hope for a favourable outcome of the court battles and your release! We would love to welcome you to Bulgaria, now free and having inspired many followers around the world!”

In her speech, Snezhana Todorova also suggested that with his contribution to the main mission of journalism - the discovery and disclosure of the truth, Assange is fully eligible for the great award of the UBJ named after the great Bulgarian journalist Joseph Herbst, who was killed in 1925 for fulfilling the same sacred mission. We will discuss this proposal in the UBJ Board, she said. Todorova reminded that Assange has already been honoured with about 40 most prestigious journalistic and human rights awards by various organizations from all over the world, including the Andrei Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament in 1922.  

Snezhana Todorova also noted that the event in defence of Julian Assange was an occasion to raise again the painful issue of the state of journalism and freedom of speech in Bulgaria. She specifically focused attention on the strong and overwhelmingly negative public reaction triggered by the "anti-disinformation" bill proposed by the ruling PP-DB party a few days ago. UBJ expressed its critical assessment of this bill in an official paper. Our Union is ready to organize a public discussion on the issue in order to hear all opinions, she said. The UBJ will always defend the right and freedom of journalists to perform their duty to reveal the truth as their conscience dictates and will always oppose any attempts at censorship in any form.

She recalled that even now in some media outlets in Bulgaria there are attempts to impute to journalists inappropriate professional functions, to intimidate them, to deprive them of a critical voice. Such attempts are often concealed behind the veil of the "fight against disinformation". This is in essence a denial of the freedom of speech, information and thought. "Every single journalist runs the risk of finding himself in Assange's shoes if we all do not unite most resolutely to stop the crackdown on him and against the universalization of these obscurantist methods against all of world journalism”,Todorova stressed.

After her speech the host of the event Kadrinka Kadrinova, responsible editor of the UBJ website, urged all the attendees to stand up and raise high the posters left on each chair in advance, demanding the release of Julian Assange. Photoreporters took a group photo.

The evening event continued with a contribution by Vassil Sotirov, a respected international journalist and chairman of the International Commission of the Board of the UBJ. "If Assange is a criminal, then all journalists are criminals. He devoted himself to what is the essense of our profession - to inform the public about the truth. Assange is the epitome of how human rights should be understood and defended. He also embodies the struggle for democracy around the world," Sotirov stressed. 

He expressed his regret that no Bulgarian journalist had dared to ask British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who recently visited the country, about Assange's fate.

"The Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, whose death in a Russian prison is the hot world news these days, is also a victim of state repression, of the persecution of dissent in Russia. But Navalny is much talked about now, while Assange is barely mentioned. Why is that? It appears that one is more convenient for someone, the other is not. Our duty as journalists is to raise our voices for the 'inconvenient' Assange, who does not hesitate to reveal the truth. If he is extradited to the US now, it will be the ruining of all journalism. It is of great importance that we have come together today to defend him. Thousands of people around the world realise that this is a fight for all of us, for our democratic rights", Mr. Sotirov said.

Alexander Sivilov - associate  professor of history at Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski" - in his contribution stressed how important it is to realise the significance of the Julian Assange case for journalism and for the diversity of opinion and access to information that is inherent in democracy. He also recalled the case of Edward Snowden, whom he put in a common context with Assange.

"Assange and Snowden have shown us a new level of freedom - an interface where direct access to documents is possible and where nothing can remain hidden any longer. A level that is capable of changing the way of thinking of many. I have become convinced that Assange has gone forward with the clear idea that he wants to change the world, to make it a better place, to provide us with information, which urges us to be proactive and effective in promoting the necessary changes," said prof. Sivilov.

He continued that instead of supporting Assange, the so-called democratic world has perceived him as its enemy, turned against him and sent him to prison without even being formally convicted. Many other people around the world who express dissent are similarly 'silenced' - thrown into prisons, where they wait for years for their cases to be heard. And this is a "disturbing process", Sivilov said.

Referring to the aforementioned visit to Sofia of British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, he also expressed regret that no Bulgarian journalist dared to ask him about Assange. At the same time he noted as "the saddest thing" that Cameron himself had spoken in favour of filtering information for the public, arguing for the same "fight against disinformation". 

Ana Borisova, who lived in Britain for a long time as a student recalled how on 8 October 2022 she specially came back to London to join the World Protest Day for the release of Assange. Londoners took part in the protest with an impressive human chain, taking the British Parliament building in a symbolic "siege", to demonstrate their support for the founder of WikiLeaks.

"Yes, people don't know because the big media are silent. They betrayed Assange. So many journalists have sold their souls for positions and benefits, They don't care what happens to Assange, nor for freedom of the press, nor for the horror in Gaza. Those who remain silent become accomplices," stressed Ana Borisova.

Ana summed up, "So many journalists have turned their backs on Assange... But there are many who have not. It's our collective responsibility to talk about this, to constantly speak out."

The host of the evening Kadrinka Kadrinova, editor-in-chief of the UBJ website, also commented on the shameful retreat of the world's major media from Assange after his prosecution by the US began. The same media outlets that first published the WikiLeaks revelations and made large circulations and large profits out of it, then "forgot" about Assange, and some even engaged in a targeted smear campaign against him.

Kadrinova noted the sad fact of the lack of journalistic solidarity in other drastic cases of journalists. She mentioned the case of the Spanish journalist Pablo Gonzalez, who has been imprisoned in Poland for two years on charges of being a Russian spy, without being provided with any evidence on the serious charge and without no triall having been scheduled. Although Spanish journalists' organizations and Reporters Without Borders have repeatedly spoken out in favour of respect for his rights, the media in Europe have remained largely silent about this case, let alone the media in Bulgaria.

Prominent Bulgarian journalist Velislava Dareva also made an emotional speech, drawing attention to the harsh conditions in which Julian Assange is placed in Belmarsh prison in London - a cell without windows, without the right to a telephone, without TV and radio, without contact with other prisoners, and even his walks are not outdoors, but in a closed room. "I know what it means to be in a cell, how one feels there, I have experienced it from the inside," said Veleslava Dareva, known as the eternal dissident and repressed by all authorities. 

She also made a contrasting comparison with the very different and luxurious conditions in which the neo-Nazi and mass murderer Anders Breivik, who shot 77 children at a youth summer camp in 2011, lives in a Norwegian prison. He has a three-bedroom apartment with a yard, fitness equipment, TV, telephone, internet and all the amenities, yet he is suing the Norwegian state for "inhumane treatment" for keeping him in isolation.

"Meanwhile, Assange is stuck in that hole at Belmarsh and faces 175 years in an American prison. Why? Because he told the truth. Because he disclosed 500 000 completely authentic documents about US crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo. We know about all this thanks to Assange. It is thanks to him, again, that we have seen that shocking footage of US Apache helicopter pilots shooting down civilians in Iraq from the air, including two Reuters journalists. We owe these revelations to Assange. And that's why he's being dealt with," said Velislava Dareva.

She recalled a conversation between the famous journalist Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky and Jeremy Corbyn on the platform "The Belmarsh Tribunal". Amy Goodman says: "We are naive to think that truth is a form of defence”. Velislva Dareva agreed completely and continued with her sad conclusion: “Assange exposed 500,000 authentic documents, but this truth does not defend him, it sentences him to 175 years in prison. Truth is a sword, but it is not a shield. And it never was”.

Dareva also reminded that if the British court decides to extradite Assange, it will be a violation of Article 4 of the extradition treaty between the UK and the US, because it does not allow extradition for political reasons.

"By prosecuting Assange they are telling us all that journalism is a crime, it is a crime to disclose information. Thus the criminals who committed crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan are suing Assange," Velislava Dareva pointed out and asked: What was he killed for?

She also stressed: "Our Western colleagues write that for the first time a journalist who tells the truth will be condemned. But we should remind the similar example of prominent Bulgarian journalist Joseph Herbst, killed almost a 100 years ago. What was Joseph Herbst killed for? Because he told a lie? No, because he told the truth all his life. Yes, Assange deserves the big award of the UBJ named after Joseph Herbst! The silence of our guild about Assange is a disgrace - in the world and at home!"

Velislava Dareva also reminded about the notorious case some months ago, when it was revealed that 7901 journalists from all over the world - among them Bulgarian, and Velislava herself - were put on a list of "scoundrels" on the Ukrainian website "Mirotvorets", and some of those listed on it have already been liquidated. "We are all scoundrels, because we tell the truth and at least some of us are ready to die for it," Velislava said at the end of her speech.

Kadrinka Kadrinova noted that the tragedy in Gaza is also covered by silence. We would not know what is happening there if it were not for the Palestinian journalists who, risking their lives, inform the world about the mass extermination of civilians by Israeli strikes. It is particularly frightening that Palestinian journalists, clearly marked with helmets and bulletproof vests with the words 'Press', are often targeted - and quite deliberately so - precisely to silence their witness reports from Gaza. Some 100 Palestinian journalists have already been killed there.

Borislav Kosturkov also pointed out that the media has indeed written less about Assange recently, but reminded that in 2011 Time magazine included him among the 100 most influential people in the world. "I would like to believe that the British court will prove to be up to the mark of British law in a country where freedom of the press and speech and also the first full-fledged parliament were born. The British Parliament has always been an example of democracy," said Borislav Kosturkov.

He also noted, "We would not be true journalists and decent people if we did not mention another victim of dissent like Alexei Navalny, He was also a prisoner of conscience. We are told that his death in a Russian prison across the Arctic Circle was the result of 'sudden death syndrome'. We do not wish such a fate on anyone. We cannot remain silent. Of course, we must stand by the truth and by Assange."

Velislava Dareva retorted, "There is no money, oligarchs, interests behind Assange. He is an independent personality, no one is backing him and declaring him a saint. And today all the media and Western reactions are in a show of grief for Navalny with a clear political purpose. If Assange dies tomorrow, will it be an advance of democracy for them?"

Kaudrinka Kadrinova in turn pointed out, "Undoubtedly, the topic of Alexei Navalny's death is the hottest these days. We all can't help but be excited, It's terrible when a person dies who was sent to prison for his beliefs. This should not happen to anyone, anywhere. But our meeting today is about something else. We are the Union of Bulgarian Journalists and our biggest concern is the fate of journalism and the threat to freedom of speech globally posed by the case of Julian Assange. We stand behind an individual who has made a significant contribution to journalism's greatest mission - uncovering the truth. Assange was never a politician, but became a political victim. Yes, Navalny is also a political victim, but he himself is a politician who deliberately entered into a political battle. Ours is a supra-political organization and we should not now sink into political disputes and confrontations. It is clear that, in a personal capacity, each of us has his (her) own biases and emotions. But let us put first what unites us - the protection of journalists' rights, of freedom of speech and information.

The crackdown on Assange has been going on for many years in front of the eyes of the whole world. It is not his fault that a part of this world, which does not care about his fate, is putting another person on a pedestal right now. Such measuring of sacrifices is unworthy of ourselves as human beings." 

Afterwards, the 2020 documentary "Assange's Story" was shown at the Journalists’ Club, available on the documentary film platform documentalni.com, where it is uploaded with Bulgarian subtitles. Over the course of 54 minutes and through multiple interviews, the film traces Assange's entire life trajectory, which led him to create WikiLeaks and made him the world's most famous whistleblower, which in turn led to the repressions against Assange. His friends and associates, as well as his father, John Shipton, speak on camera. Facts and details surrounding Assange's story, little known to the general public, are presented in the documentary, which sparked lively discussions.