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"Stink journalism" against whistleblowers

John Y. Jones
John Y. Jones
Cand. Philol, freelance journalist affiliated with MODERN TIMES
JOURNALISM / Professor Gisle Selnes writes that Harald Stanghelle's article in Aftenposten on 23 February 2020 "looks like a statement of support, [but] lies as a framework around the aggravated attack on Assange". He is right. But has Aftenposten always had this relationship with whistleblowers, as in the case of Edward Snowden?


Outside the Storting on 2 June 2015, Aftenposten's then editor Harald Stanghelle, together with the whistleblower behind the Pentagon papers, Daniel Ellsberg, participated in a brave confrontation with Storting President Olemic Thommessen. Stanghelle's post became a biting article in Aftenposten on 12 June 2015 with the preamble: «Norway keeps the world's most important warnings at arm's length. Cowardly and understandable. " But that was then.

If you go into Aftenposten's archive, you will find that the newspaper has made generous use of Assange's and WikiLeaks' material, and set up dedicated engravers to expose WikiLeaks revelations. Aftenposten was proud of the revelations that were published, and rightly so.

Not leaked by Assange

But on January 23 last year, Aftenposten's Trine Eilertsen was in Dagsnytt 18 in debate with Eva Joly. Eilertsen could report that "I do not look at Assange as a journalist. For that, he has methods that no journalist with an ethical backbone would use. He showed this when he dumped all the files without hiding either name or personal information…. ».

No one asked her what background she had to say this. Assange could not claim protection for his statements, Eilertsen believed and revealed a fundamental lack of insight into something as fundamental as freedom of expression. She is the editor of one of Norway's largest newspapers!

However, the newspaper later understood that. The leader on 17 September 2020 states the obvious: «Freedom of speech applies to everyone. » The irresponsible leaks were not due to Assange, but instead to The Guardian journalists Luke Harding and David Leigh in collaboration with Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The world found out about this as early as 2011 (see then-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald in Salon 2 September 2011, and Der Spiegel 1 September 2011).

Daniel Ellsberg recently spoke about ethics regarding Assange to the website Exberliner on January 5 this year: «It is a fact that few have the moral courage to put their careers or interpersonal relationships at risk [by giving notice]…. [But] then you have people like Julian who have the moral courage to face both the legal charges as well as the purely physical dangers. "

Why such an attack on Assange's morals? Only Eilertsen and the newspaper themselves know that, but then Eilertsen has not commented on WikiLeaks after this either. She has not regretted it, as far as I have seen.

Ellsberg further pondered in Exberliner why leading media have treated Assange as they have after they have used "his" material for many years:

"It is unclear to me why they are distancing themselves from Assange. Maybe it's because they want to be respected by their government contacts who provide them with exclusive material, even when this particular material is often fake. "

That a newspaper speaks with two tongues and conveys a distorted, often negative, reality. This is what is called "weasel voice" or "weasel journalism".

"Stink journalism"

But pure factual errors and misconceptions are not journalism's main problem. What is much more serious is exactly what professor at the University of Bergen Gisle Selnes (pictured) has pointed out: That a newspaper speaks with two tongues and conveys a distorted, often negative, reality. This is what is called "weasel voice" or "weasel journalism."

Gisle Selnes photographed by Eivind Senneset. Bergen, 30 August 2017

When journalist Robert Fisk died last year, his colleague John Pilger criticized The Independent's obituary in a tweet on 2.11.20: «Robert Fisk is dead. I want to pay tribute to one of the last great reporters. The word 'controversial' was used even in the newspaper he devoted his life to, The Independent. "

But "weasel voice" or "stink journalism" is not a blackmail technique only reserved for whistleblowers. The website (28.08.2018) draws attention to three pitfalls in all journalism: For example, the writer hides who has taken an action; he can present things that are not documented, and exaggerate.

When important aspects of a report disappear, are colored or exaggerated in the message because the journalist chooses a specific way of expressing himself, we are dealing with "sneak journalism". We are talking about a deliberate twisting of the message in language choices.

Hides the abuser

Let's look at this in a very heated topic area: the Middle East and the Palestine-Israel relationship:

The Economist, describes the May 26, 2018 New York Times' twitter message that Israeli soldiers had killed 24 unarmed protesters the day before. The NYT text read: "A dozen Palestinians have been killed in demonstrations as the United States prepares to open its embassy in Jerusalem."

"Has perished"? Did they die of old age? commented a vigilant reader. 'Havedied' quickly became a plague on Twitter. The Economist described the NYT's twitter message as "weasel voice". The message reduces the seriousness of a grotesque act while ensuring that the incident has been covered. Then you are far into the fraud. Then it stinks.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald commented on the NYT report as follows: "Most Western media have become adept – through years of practice – at describing Israeli massacres in passivity to hide the abuser. But the undisputed master of doing this has always been – and is – the New York Times. "

Stink journalism can demonize and glorify, uplift and bring down, but first and foremost it must manipulate. It has an underlying intention that is easy to reveal to those who know the facts of the case, but remains hidden from those who do not. It pretends to enlighten, while actually hiding. It's anti-journalism.


I became curious about how Aftenposten covered the same incident. We could have chosen many other newspapers, but payment walls prevented entry for this journalist, so Aftenposten saw.

When Aftenposten's article «This was how it was on Friday. Now it can get worse. " May 14, 2018 read at the breakfast table, the morning-weary reader will shake his head at these rebellious Palestinians who constantly threaten Israel. It does not say "Palestinians are ugly, Israelis are kind," but that is the message. Aftenposten writes: "Israel's army fears" that it may even "get worse!". The activists "burn car tires", have "shot stones with slingshots", "sent kites with petrol bombs", "used pliers on the border fence".

Aftenposten's article can tell that there are "dozens killed and thousands wounded in Gaza demonstrations". But several of those killed are "militants." They are "killed." Israeli officers are quoted as saying, "most of the deaths are due to sudden bending of protesters, ricochets or bombings." Aftenposten is not even ironic in its rendering. It is as if one hears an echo of explanations such as "the prisoner unfortunately fell out of the window and died".

It is not the military in armored tanks with sharp-edged weapons against unarmed youths and civilians that worries Aftenposten's journalist. No, there is the possibility that "the conflict will escalate". The Israeli army is prepared to "fight this and keep the people of Israel safe," it said in a statement from the army, "writes Aftenposten.

But was not the opening of an embassy the theme? The protesters are 110 kilometers away from the new embassy, ​​which by the way is the old consulate. Are they threatening the embassy, ​​since this is covered in the same article?

On this one day, May 13, 2018, 24 (probably 60 according to The Economist) unarmed youths, children and civilians, some youths equipped with slingshots and stones, demonstrated on the other side of a five meter high fence, shot and killed by heavily armed soldiers in reinforced cars, tanks and with automatic weapons. Aftenposten could have written this.

Aftenposten's irreplaceability

It is this "weasel voice" technique that is also used when Aftenposten describes the whistleblower Assange with the seemingly benevolent leader «Julian Assange should be released»17 September. So nice, I thought, Aftenposten in the Stanghelle variant of 2015 is back! Then I see that this is in fact a new upheaval of injustices, which together gives the reader a very unflattering picture of the WikiLeaks leader. But for safety's sake: Aftenposten believes that "Julian Assange should be released".

The fact that thousands of documents went unedited is due to the journalists Harding and Leigh in the newspaper The Guardian and not Assange. This was known as early as 2011.

So how does Aftenposten use "weasel voice" on Assange in the leader on 17 September? On the one hand, they frame the description of him with negative hints, accusations, and draw vague, destructive scenes. On the other hand, they reduce, trivialize, or omit what may be good or beneficial:

  • WikiLeaks is criticized for publishing "material provided by Russian hackers". This is a conspiracy theory that has been rejected by American law and researched by the intelligence veterans of the group VIPS, founded by Daniel Ellsberg. In Consortium News July 24, 2017, they denied that the Wikileaks material was hacked by Russians. For technical reasons, the material had to be leaked internally from a local PC. That conspiracies roam free year after year without documentation is no excuse for Aftenposten to pass them on.
  • "The starting point is a load of documents WikiLeaks published in 2010," the leader says. These are documents that Aftenposten itself has brought forward, and which Assange has carefully edited. That thousands came unedited going astray, is due to journalists in the newspaper The Guardian and not Assange. This was already known in 2011. Aftenposten has never criticized the journalists Berg, Harding and Leigh (see Glenn Greenwald in Salon 2 September 2011, and Der Spiegel 1 September 2011)
  • The leader reduces the seriousness of what Assange and Wikileaks have revealed, such as the film Collateral Murder. Aftenposten writes that the film showed that the Americans «killed 11 people». It would have been more appropriate to write "helicopter pilots who laughed, killed and injured children, fathers, ambulance personnel and journalists".
  • You will not find words like war crimes, crimes against humanity, violations the Nuremberg Trials mention, which would be timely characteristics of American actions in e.g. Collateral Murder.
  • Assange is "controversial", he has published "graded material", he is "accused of conspiring".
  • Not a word about the Swedish and British authorities being accused by Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Inhuman Treatment, of wrongfully persecuting and harassing Assange for almost 10 – ten – years without even being justifiably accused of anything criminal ( mentioned in several places in MODERN TIMES's Alert Appendix).
  • Not a word that Assange has done his duty like any journalist.

And what about the coverage of UN reporting by Special Rapporteur Melzer? Aftenposten's Kristoffer Rønneberg has described him in 17 small column lines on 6 June 2019. Melzer is the UN's special rapporteur against torture under a convention where Norway is a signature country. Rønneberg calls Melzer a "UN envoy", who "to a certain extent speaks for the 47-year-old" and puts the accusations against the Swedish and British authorities for having carried out "mental torture" in goosebumps.

See also Meltzer's report to the UN in the appendix, and see what Aftenposten has never reported on in a decent way. And consider whether readers should have the right to know.

False accusations

Aftenposten is not alone against Julian Assange. Morgenbladet has, for example, contributed a colorful caricature of Assange with a long lying nose, drawn by Marvin Halleraker, as an illustration of a article by Hilde Sandvik 5 January 2018, with a text that does not even try to discuss anything about lies. But the hints of stink journalism clearly work satisfactorily in Morgenbladet.

Professor Selnes has timely criticized Bergens Tidende for the newspaper's treatment of Assange. True he writes that the Bergen newspaper is "slightly more honest" than Aftenposten, since they have supported Assange in a leadership position. I'm not so sure.

One of the most devastating things for Julian Assange is the untrue accusations that he dumped thousands of unedited documents with sensitive intelligence material online without considering the consequences for those who are exposed.

It was Harding himself who printed the password to the WikiLeaks files in his book and thus made sensitive, unedited material available to everyone.

On 24 November 2014, Bergens Tidende interviewed The Guardian journalist and author Luke Harding about just such publication of unedited documents. "Was it smart of him [Snowden] to deliver the files to newspapers like The Guardian, instead of doing like Assange and posting everything online?" journalist Eirin Eikefjord wanted to know.
Harding replies: "I think that was part of his [Snowden's genius. The strategy also fits his goal: Snowden does not want to destroy the intelligence world, he wants to reform it. " Clearly, albeit indirectly, Harding says that Assange wants to "destroy the world of intelligence", and that one of the methods was "to post everything online".

The problem is that Eikefjord in her preparations for the interview, as a minimum, should have read Harding's book about Assange: And then she should have realized that it was Harding himself who printed the password to the WikiLeaks files in her book (see below) and thus making sensitive, unedited material available to all. Harding also does not say anything about his own role in this to Bergens Tidende.

Assange edited carefully

Today, we know, from Daniel Ellsberg's diploma, among others, that Assange's practice was precisely to be careful about editing before publication, or to let newspapers, such as Aftenposten, do the editing. And that Assange, in despair of seeing the code in Harding's book, sent a warning to US intelligence, which did not respond to the inquiry. In light of this, Eikefjord's interview reveals either improbably poor journalistic practice or blackening against better knowledge.

Eikefjord and Bergens Tidende must at least know about this today, seven years later. We have investigated whether Bergens Tidende has sent Assange and the readers an apology. We have not found anything, but we are happy to make reservations that it is something we may have overlooked.

Today, anyone who wants to can still read the code in Luke Harding and David Leigh's book Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy (2013), see facsimile:

Facsimile from Harding / Leigh's book Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy. On the advice of journalist and close friend of Assange, John Pilger, we choose to skim the code, even though it has been available to the public for over 7 years.
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