What happens if Julian Assange is tried in the US?

The prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder in the US would have grave consequences for press freedom across the world.

Assange op-ed photo Reuters
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange demonstrate in front of presidential palace in Quito, Ecuador, October 31, 2018 [Daniel Tapia/Reuters]

Last week it became clear that what WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his lawyers have been warning for seven years has already happened: He has been charged in a criminal case in the United States. The fear of being extradited and tried in the US has forced him to seek refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012. 

This news hardly came as a surprise to those of us who have been following his case or have been convinced that Assange’s fate is of profound and historical importance and could define the future of the freedom of the press.

What happens if Assange is tried in US

There are some in the West who are fully convinced that Assange deserves to be tried and thrown in jail for “threatening” US national security and “undermining” its democratic processes. Former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Joe Biden have called him a “terrorist”, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then the director of the CIA, has described WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said prosecuting Assange is a “priority” for him. 

Many have also come to see him as a political player who purposefully sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections, while others consider him a stooge of Russian President Vladimir Putin, although no evidence for this was ever found. It is more likely that Assange’s indictment is coming not as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 US election, but in response to WikiLeaks publishing the biggest leak in the history of the CIA called #Vault7

Whatever Assange’s political leanings or views, his case is not about whether you like him or not, but about freedom of the press. As Edward Snowden rightly said: “You can despise WikiLeaks and everything it stands for. You can think Assange is an evil spirit reanimated by Putin himself, but you cannot support the prosecution of a publisher for publishing without narrowing the basic rights every newspaper relies on.”

If Assange is eventually arrested, extradited to the US and stands trial there, he is almost certainly going to be found guilty – just as Chelsea Manning was – and he would probably end up in a Guantanamo-like prison. His prosecution and jailing would have global repercussions for whistle-blowers, publishers and journalists.

According to US lawyer and civil liberties advocate Ben Wizner at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): “Any prosecution of Mr Assange for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations”. 

In other words, a lawsuit that tries to make it illegal or a form of “espionage” to publish documents would set a dangerous precedent for publishers and journalists who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest. It would endanger the very foundation of free press. 

Why this is important for all of us

We already live in a world in which politics and distribution of information are being profoundly transformed. Not only do dangerous populists and authoritarian leaders come to power by “manufacturing consent”, backed by the use of “perception management” methods by tech companies or organised fake news campaigns, but they also come to power by openly spreading misinformation and concealing information of public interest. 

While it became “natural” for politicians to employ such questionable methods to reach power, it is the job of journalists, the media and whistle-blowers to keep such behaviour in check. Punishing them for doing their job – uncovering uncomfortable truths that those in power would like to keep away from the public – means removing one of the most important checks on executive political power.  

How would we know today of the wiretapping of the Democratic Party headquarters if it hadn’t been for the hard work of American investigative reporters uncovering information the Nixon administration wanted to hide? How would we know about all the offshore accounts and money laundering activities of politicians across the world if a whistle-blower hadn’t leaked the Panama papers? How would we know how many Reuters journalists were killed by the US army in Iraq, as revealed by the “Collateral Murder” video leaked by Chelsea Manning and published by WikiLeaks? And how would we know how the Democratic Party treats some of its most progressive members, such as Bernie Sanders, if WikiLeaks hadn’t released the files from the hacked Democratic National Committee email server?

Assange had in his hands information of immoral political behaviour by a party and he published it. One can argue about timing and political consequences, but it is hard to deny that it was in the interest of the American public to know these facts. The information was not fake or fabricated; it was the truth.

A criminal trial for Assange in the US would be another blow to journalists, the media and publishers who are already suffering from increasing pressure across the world. So far this year, 45 journalists have been killed across the world. 

In March, Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were shot in their home. In April, nine Afghan journalists were killed in a bombing in Kabul: Abadullah Hananzai, Ali Saleemi, Ghazi Rasooli, Maharram Durrani, Nowroz Ali Rajabi, Sabawoon Kakar, Saleem Talash, Shah Marai and Yar Mohammad Tokhi. In July, three Russian journalists were shot dead in the Central African Republic while investigating the presence of Russian mercenaries: Aleksandr Rastorguyev, Orkhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko. And just over a month ago, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in the consulate of his own country in Istanbul. 

Clear signals are being sent to media professionals across the world that doing their jobs could cost them their freedom or their lives. Feeding this hostile environment instead of standing up to it could be dangerous not only for journalists and whistle-blowers but also for all of us.

Walter Lippmann, the father of modern journalism who coined the phrase “manufacturing consent” (which Noam Chomsky made famous in his 1988 book) wrote back in 1919 in a thin volume called Liberty and the News that “there can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies”.

Fighting the extradition of Assange to the US is not just about protecting his individual rights, but it is also about protecting the very means by which we are able to detect lies. It is about protecting freedom of the press and our ability to keep checks on political power.

Whatever you might think of WikiLeaks, it is a fact that as a publisher who protects its sources it has always been detecting and revealing lies. 

And as Lippman wrote in Liberty and the News 100 years ago: “Not what somebody says or somebody wishes to be true, but what is so beyond all opinions, constitutes, the touchstone of our sanity.”  

Without WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, without the courageous whistle-blowers and journalists who are revealing the dirty secrets and immoral acts of powerful regimes, who are opposing or criticising authority, truth would quickly lose value. And it would be then that we would also lose the touchstone of our sanity. 

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