The US's pursuit of Julian Assange threatens media freedom

Assange's extradition to the US would set a chilling precedent for those who publish leaked or classified information.

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    WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, UK, January 13, 2020 [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]
    WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, UK, January 13, 2020 [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

    The last time I saw Julian Assange he looked tired and wan.

    Dressed neatly in casual business attire, the WikiLeaks founder was sitting in a glass-enclosed dock, at the back of a court adjoining Belmarsh high-security prison in London, flanked by two prison officers. 

    I had travelled from the United States to observe the hearing. He had travelled via a tunnel from his cell to the courtroom.

    On Monday, Assange will be in court again, for the resumption of proceedings that will ultimately decide on the Trump administration's request for his extradition to the US.

    But it is not just Assange that will be in the dock. Beside him will sit the fundamental tenets of media freedom that underpin the rights to freedom of expression and the public's right of access to information. Silence this one man, and the US and its accomplices will gag others, spreading fear of persecution and prosecution over a global media community already under assault in the US and in many other countries worldwide.

    The stakes really are that high. If the United Kingdom extradites Assange, he would face prosecution in the US on espionage charges that could send him to prison for decades - possibly in a facility reserved for the highest security detainees and subjected to the strictest of daily regimes, including prolonged solitary confinement. All for doing something news editors do the world over - publishing public interest information provided by sources.

    Indeed, President Donald Trump has called WikiLeaks "disgraceful" and said its actions in publishing classified information should carry the death penalty.

    The chilling effect on other publishers, investigative journalists and any person who would dare to facilitate the publication of classified information of government wrongdoing would be immediate and severe. And the US would boldly go beyond its own borders with a long arm to reach non-citizens, like Assange, who is Australian.

    The US government's relentless pursuit of Assange - and the UK's willing participation in his hunt and capture - has now landed him in a prison typically reserved for seasoned criminals. It has diminished him both physically and emotionally - often to the point of disorientation. Breaking him by isolating Assange from family, friends and his legal team, seems part and parcel of the US's strategy - and it seems to be working.

    You do not need to know the vagaries of extradition law to understand that the charges against Assange are not only classic "political offences" and thus barred under extradition law, but more crucially, the charges are politically motivated.

    The 17 charges levelled by the US under the 1918 Espionage Act could bring 175 years in prison; add a conviction on the single computer fraud charge (said to complement the Espionage Act by dragging it into the computer era), and you get another gratuitous five years. Assange is the only publisher ever to bear the brunt of such espionage charges. 

    There is no doubt that the charges are politically motivated under this US administration, which has all but convicted Assange in the public arena. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed that WikiLeaks is a "hostile intelligence service" whose activities must be "mitigated and managed". The flagrantly unfair prosecution of Assange is an example of how far the US will go to "manage" the flow of information about government wrongdoing and thus undermine the public's right to know. 

    Assange was on Barack Obama's radar, too, but the Obama administration declined to prosecute him. Current US Attorney General William Barr, however, has turned out not one, but two indictments since 2019, the latest at the end of June. That second indictment was a surprise not only to Assange's defence team, but to the crown lawyer and the judge who were also taken unawares by the new indictment.

    Earlier this year, sitting 20 feet away from Assange, I was struck by how much of a shadow of his former self he had become. He did spontaneously stand up several times during that week of hearings to address the judge. He told her he was confused. He told her he could not properly hear the proceedings. He said barriers in the prison and in court meant that he had not been able to consult with his lawyers. He was not technically permitted to address the judge directly, but he did repeatedly, flashes of the aggressive tactics used in the past to advocate for himself and the principles he has espoused. 

    If Assange is extradited it will have far-reaching human rights implications, setting a chilling precedent for the protection of those who publish leaked or classified information that is in the public interest.

    Publishing such information is a cornerstone of media freedom and the public's right to access information. It must be protected, not criminalised.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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