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The US Condemned Stalin’s Prosecution of Journalists. Now It Uses His Playbook.

The prosecution of Julian Assange in 2023 mirrors the prosecution of journalist Bill Oatis during the Cold War.

People protest in Piazza della Repubblica to demand the freedom of Julian Assange, with banners, placards and silhouettes depicting the journalists in prison, on April 11, 2023, in Rome, Italy.

Two of my colleagues — Evan Gershkovich in Moscow and Julian Assange in London — languish in prisons for doing their job: keeping you informed. Russia and the U.S., knowingly or not, are following Joseph Stalin’s press playbook. A case in point: the Stalinist persecution of U.S. journalist William (Bill) Nathan Oatis in Cold War Czechoslovakia, which mirrors the contemporary prosecutions of my colleagues.

To Bill Oatis, as to Assange and Gershkovich, journalism was less a job than a vocation. He worked on school newspapers from the age of 12 and dropped out of college in 1933 to take a job at his hometown newspaper, the Marion, Indiana, Leader-Tribune. From there, he moved to the Associated Press (AP) bureau in the state capital, Indianapolis. (His managing editor, Drysdale Brannon, recalled, “He was a factual reporter and probably the most conscientious man who ever worked on the staff.”) Diverted from journalism to the Army for three years during World War II, he returned to the AP, first to its New York news desk, then to London and in 1950 to Prague, Czechoslovakia, as bureau chief.

The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, in common with the Soviet Union’s other satellite states, was consolidating its monopoly on power. The Státní bezpečnost (St.B) secret police, auxiliaries of the Soviet Ministry for State Security (MGB), had expelled the AP’s two previous bureau chiefs for “unobjective reporting.” Remaining Western correspondents were targets of rigorous surveillance.

One of Oatis’s first stories broke the news that Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinsky had come secretly to Czechoslovakia to dictate Stalin’s propaganda guidelines to the Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers’ Parties (Cominform). It was a scoop. His next scoop was a report that former Foreign Minister Vladimir Clementis had not defected but was under arrest.

In 1951, three local AP staffers disappeared. Oatis protested their arrests on April 20. Three days later, he too was dragged to the St.B secret police headquarters. His subsequent ordeal mixed Kafka’s The Trial with Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. The interrogator badgered, starved and humiliated him, demanding to know why Oatis would not reveal his sources. Oatis answered, “It’s against the ethics of journalism.”

Oatis endured eight-hour daily interrogations. One grilling dragged on uninterrupted for 42 hours. Longing to end the nightmare, Oatis signed a “confession” that amounted to nothing more than an admission that he had gathered information not officially issued by the state. It was Journalism 101. To Prague’s Stalinist regime, journalism — i.e. reporting facts the government preferred to conceal — was a crime.

Prosecutors indicted Oatis for revealing “state secrets,” defined under Article 75 of the Czechoslovak Penal Code of July 12, 1950, as “everything that should be kept secret from unauthorized persons in an important interest of the Republic, particularly in political, military or economic interest.” Punishment ranged from 10 years to life.

After 72 days without consular or legal access, Oatis stood trial. State Prosecutor Josef Urvalek declared that Oatis was “particularly dangerous because of his discretion and insistence on obtaining only accurate, correct, verified information.” The absurdity of condemning, rather than commending, a reporter for “obtaining only accurate, correct, verified information” eluded Presiding Judge Jaroslav Novak. Oatis and his three Czechoslovak codefendants, having been assured that their confessions would spare them life imprisonment, recited zombie-like responses that had been rehearsed over the previous weeks. (An audio recording of the proceeding, in English and Czech, is available on the Czech National Archives website.) On the 4th of July, Judge Novak delivered his verdict — guilty; and pronounced sentence — 16 to 20 years for the Czechoslovaks and 10 for Oatis.

The State Department fumed on August 20, 1951: “According to the statutes under which he was convicted, espionage can be interpreted as the acquisition or dissemination of any information not officially made public by the Czechoslovak Government. Thus, all the normal newsgathering routines of a reporter could be described as ‘espionage activities.’”

The issue that unites Oatis, Gershkovich and Assange is not only the prosecution of journalists for doing their jobs. It is censorship of everything the state believes we have no right to know.

On March 5, 1953, Stalin died at his dacha near Moscow. His demise, combined with the installation of new presidents in Washington and Prague, permitted trade negotiations that led in May to the pardon and release of Oatis, but not of his colleagues.

Seventy-two years on from Oatis’s trial, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), successor via the KGB of Stalin’s MGB, arrested 31-year-old Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich. Gershkovich became the first American correspondent arrested by the Russians as an alleged spy since the end of the Cold War. In a replay of the Oatis case, the accusations against him describe not espionage, but basic reporting. The FSB boasted: “It was established that E. Gershkovich, acting on the assignment of the American side, collected information constituting a government secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.”

What had he done? First, he acted like any other reporter to learn how many casualties were coming back from the Ukraine front: He went to hospitals. Having covered many wars myself, I can attest that this is standard operating procedure. Gershkovich observed Russian military ambulances delivering numerous wounded, more than the government was admitting, to medical facilities in Belarus. Next, he interviewed Russians near the Russia-Ukraine frontier about their fears of the war spreading. Then, in the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg, he sounded out public opinion on Wagner Group mercenaries. Again, just good, old-fashioned journalism. It was in Yekaterinburg on March 29, 2023, that the FSB seized him. He has been behind bars in Moscow ever since.

The secret police in the FSB’s grandiose Lubyanka headquarters — where their predecessors tortured and murdered generations of suspects — must regard Gershkovich’s reporting as a challenge to their narrative of events. Gershkovich didn’t spy, but he upset the spies.

The prosecution of Gershkovich had precedent, not only among Vladimir Putin’s predecessors going back to czarist times, but in the actions of the Biden administration. Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had already warned that the U.S. prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would set an example to others: “If the U.S. can prosecute a foreign publisher for violating our secrecy laws, there’s nothing preventing China, or Russia, from doing the same.” Prosecuting Gershkovich fits comfortably in the legacy of Stalinist show trials that put William Oatis in the dock. That tradition alone apparently justifies” the U.S. government’s treatment of Julian Assange.

The U.S. indictment of Assange for 18 violations of the 1917 Espionage Act eerily echoes the charges against Oatis. Where the St.B secret police accused Oatis of revealing “information that should be kept secret,” the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) alleges Assange obtained and disclosed “information that has been determined by the United States Government … to require protection against unauthorized disclosure.” Governmental reputation rather than state security was at stake in both cases. To take one example, when an Apache helicopter crew fired on a crowd in Baghdad on July 12, 2007, the Pentagon claimed it had killed a dozen terrorists. Among the so-called terrorists were two Iraqi Reuters journalists. While most of the media accepted the military’s account at face value, a few demanded access to the Apache’s video record. The Pentagon rebuffed Freedom of Information Act requests for the footage, and there the story might have died. But Chelsea Manning leaked the video known as “Collateral Murder,” and WikiLeaks showed it to the world.

The Apache’s camera showed no insurgents on the ground, but the crew fired at the crowd below. One of the crew joked, “Ha, ha, I hit them.” His colleague replied, “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.” They then fired on a wounded civilian as he crawled towards a rescue vehicle. On learning two of those shot were children, one of the crew said, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into the battle.”

Written documents that Manning provided to Assange further undermined the U.S. account of its actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider “war on terror.” Despite denials, the U.S. “rendered” — “kidnapped,” in nongovernment speak — men on dubious evidence and dragged them to other countries to be tortured. Compliant regimes like those in Egypt and Romania were better able to hide torture than countries like Sweden and Canada, where torture was illegal and from which the suspects were “rendered.”

It abused detainees at Guantánamo. It violated the U.S. Constitution’s “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” WikiLeaks did not threaten anyone’s safety, but it did alert the public and Congress to the dangers of unrestricted abuse of power. It also aided historians and other journalists to give a more accurate picture of our times.

The DOJ added a charge of “conspiracy” against Assange for attempting “to conceal Manning as the source of classified records.” Conspiracy? What journalist reveals his sources? William Oatis reminded his interrogators, “It’s against the ethics of journalism.” The Department of State condemned Czechoslovakia in 1951 for treating “all the normal news gathering routines of a reporter” as espionage. In 2023, it is demanding Assange’s extradition to the U.S. to be tried as a spy for gathering news. Can it be that the State Department, as it accused the regime in Prague in 1951, “fears truth, hates liberty, and knows no justice”?

The issue that unites Oatis, Gershkovich and Assange is not only the prosecution of journalists for doing their jobs. It is censorship of everything the state believes we have no right to know. Censorship by state and church has done more to deprive humanity of knowledge and to stunt creativity than any other method of control. Knowing that prison awaits you if you expose state crimes in the U.S. or propaganda lies in Moscow has an inhibiting effect. Many journalists will not, indeed do not, take the risk.

The novelist Hani al-Rahib explained to me in 1987 how it worked in his country, Syria: “The regime is confident that inside each one of us, there is that necessary policeman who works for the government and censors himself without government interference. We have been terrorized into growing this policeman within ourselves.”

Historian Erin Maglaque has written how centuries of Catholic censorship in early modern Europe spawned self-censorship, lamenting “the art and literature that was never made, the religious and scientific ideas that remained unwritten — unthought, even — because of the existence of the Index [of Prohibited Books], the congregation [of the Faith], and the Inquisition tribunal.” Stalin’s secret police, and their contemporary incarnation in the Russian Federal Security Service and the U.S. national security state, stand in the Inquisitorial tradition of deciding what you and I may (and may not) read and therefore know. It is for that Gershkovich and Assange suffer the anguish of isolation in their dungeons.

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