Julian Assange's new talk show debuted yesterday on the Kremlin satellite channel Russia Today with a whale of a "get:" Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's politically and militarily dominant Hezbollah.
It's been years since Mr. Nasrallah has given an interview to a foreigner. The conversation took place in late February and there should have been plenty to talk about. There's the awkward position that Hezbollah, which styles itself a lion of Arab resistance to Israel, now finds itself in. The group is a client of Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has spent the past year using his army to flatten his domestic political opponents, and of Iran, which has been helping Mr. Assad and recently crushed an opposition movement of its own.
Questions about the UN tribunal which indicted members of Hezbollah last year in connection with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri would not have gone amiss. More general and obvious questions could have been about Lebanese politics, and under what conditions Hezbollah might be willing to give up its private army. Perhaps some challenges on whether Hezbollah is a threat to Lebanon's fragile democracy, or the risks of the sectarian fighting in Syria spilling over the border.
But while Mr. Assange touched on Hezbollah's ties to Syria, his highly deferential and general interview of Nasrallah didn't press him very hard (this was no Mike Wallace vs. Ayatollah Khomenei). Six years ago, Hezbollah's image was soaring in the region as a direct opponent of Israel and of the US. Today's environment is far more complex, with a clamoring for democratic change and Hezbollah closely linked to two of its greatest regional opponents. The word "Iran" wasn't mentioned at all. And the choice of questions, the apparent lack of background knowledge, and Assange's typically flat and robotic delivery, were all reminders that he isn't a professional journalist.
He'd be probably respond that he wouldn't have it any other way. After all, he's repeatedly lambasted the traditional press as an aider and abetter of perfidy. For instance last year he said: "The media in general are so bad we have to question we'd be better without them all together. They're so distortive to how the world actually is that the result is that we see wars and corrupt governments continue on... nearly every war that has started in the past 50 years has been the result of media lies."
At the risk of being branded as hypocrite defender of the "mainstream media" to which I (sort of) belong, to lay responsibility for Vietnam, the scores of wars in post-colonial Africa and the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan at the feet of "media lies" may be a bit of simplification.
But his own avowed disdain for propaganda and branding of himself as a tireless seeker of the truth makes the station he's tied up with all the more interesting. RT is a Kremlin propaganda channel, and its reporting on the Middle East (the area of its coverage I'm most familiar with) isn't merely slanted by the interests of the Russian government. It's often outrageously biased to the point of making things up out of whole cloth. For instance, a string of reports by the station from Tripoli, Libya in July and August of last year made obviously false claims about advances for Muammar Qaddafi's army.
Even as Tripoli was falling, and throngs of celebrating rebels filled the capital's main square (with footage carried live around the world) RT, insisted it wasn't happening. The station's main on the ground reporter Lizzie Phelan made her own biases clear as day on her blog: "While the journalists suffering from cabin fever in Tripoli’s Rixos hotel, publish their dreams that imperialism’s lackies (the rebels/rats) have taken Zawiya, Ghuriyan and Sorman, they are ignoring a decisive moment in the crisis. That is the liberation of the hitherto rebel-held area of Misratah." (No, Misurata was never retaken by Qaddafi's forces).
Assange anticipated complaints about his work with RT. "There’s Julian Assange, enemy combatant, traitor, getting into bed with the Kremlin and interviewing terrible radicals from around the world," Assange told RT, describing what he said would be the line of attack against him. "But I think it’s a pretty trivial kind of attack on character. If they actually look at how the show is made: we make it, we have complete editorial control, we believe that all media organizations have an angle, all media organizations have an issue. RT is a voice of Russia, so it looks at things from the Russian agenda. The BBC is a voice of the British government. Voice of America is a voice of the American government. It is the clashing of these voices together that reveals the truth about the world as a whole."
No. The BBC, which has many flaws, has an independent board. The Voice of America, far more directly an arm of the US government than the BBC is for the UK, aint perfect, but has demonstrated far more faithfulness to basic facts over the years than RT. These things are simply not equivalent, nor is the Russian state analogous to the democracies of the UK and US, their warts aside.
Assange should know this. A US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks summarized the comments of Jose "Pepe" Grinda Gonzales, a Spanish prosecutor who concentrates on organized crime, this way: "Grinda stated that he considers Belarus, Chechnya and Russia to be virtual "mafia states" and said that Ukraine is going to be one. For each of those countries, he alleged, one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and (organized crime) groups."
Assange, still under house arrest in England fighting extradition to Sweden where he's wanted for questioning over sexual assault allegations, is clearly hoping his new show will be a hit. His organization is struggling for relevance after its dramatic score of a huge archive of US diplomatic cables. Wikileaks hasn't had a secure "drop box," the heart of its enterprise as initially conceived, since the middle of 2010.
Though its collaboration with Anonymous, an amorphous group of hackers, led to the theft and publishing of internal emails from the private intelligence and security company Stratfor earlier this year, that was a bit of dud from the relevance standpoint. Stratfor, though it likes to hype itself as a major player in international intelligence, mostly repackages open-source information for paying clients. Beyond embarrassment for them, there wasn't much there there.
Assange says he has an advantage over traditional interviewers. He told RT his interviews "revealed sides of very interesting and important people that are not normally revealed because they are not dealing with a standard interviewer, they are dealing with someone who is under house arrest, who has gone through political problems that they can sympathize with."
This advantage wasn't obvious in his discussion with Nasrallah, though there was on bit of news. Asked "why have you supported the Arab spring in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and other countries but not in Syria” Nasrallah responded:
"I personally found that President Assad was willing to carry out radical and important reforms. … we contacted even elements of the opposition, to encourage them and to facilitate the process of dialogue with the regime, but these parties rejected dialogue and right from the beginning we’ve had a regime willing to undergo reforms and on the other side you have an opposition that is not prepared for dialogue… what it wants to do is bring down the regime.”
That was the first time Nasrallah has said in public that he's been in contact with the opposition, and encouraged them (as has Russia) to compromise with Mr. Assad. But the moment slipped away. Which opposition groups? How frequent have the contacts been? What's your view of the level of disunity among Assad's opponents? These obvious follows were not pursued.
Assange, to his credit, referred to civilian casualties in Syria, and asked if Hezbollah has a "red line," a specific number of casualties, at which point it might withdraw support from Assad. Nasrallah responded that Al Qaeda, a Sunni group and ideological opponent of the Shiite Hezbollah, has sent fighters to Syria and complained that while "Certain Arab countries are prepared to have a political dialogue (with Israel) for ten years non-stop, they won't give one or two years or even a few months for a political solution in Syria."
The interviewer then turned to the question of Al Manar, Hezbollah's television network, which has been blocked in the US since 2004 because the group is on the State Department's designated terrorist list. Asks Assange: "The United States is blocking Al Manar from broadcasting ino the US at the same time the United States claims that it is a bastion of free speech. Why do you think the US government is so scared of Al Manar?" Nasrallah answers that "they want to tell people that Hezbollah are terrorists (and) we don’t have the very basic right to defend ourselves.”
Assange follows that up with this hard-hitting question: "As a leader in war, how did you manage to keep your people together in the face of enemy fire?” This generated the predictable and usual generalities.
His final question was, in many ways, the most intriguing -- and certainly not one that a working journalist would ever think to ask a politician whose organization is called "The Party of God." It says a lot about how Assange sees the world.
"You have fought against a hegemony of the United States," says Assange. "Isn’t Allah, or the notion of a god, the ultimate super-power, and shouldn’t you as a freedom fighter also seek to liberate people from the totalitarian concept of a monotheistic god?”
Nasrallah's answer, in summary, is that he believes in a benevolent God, that his struggle against the "hegemony" of the US is a moral one that God would support.