Julian Assange: Freedom of the Press on Trial

By Roxana Baspineiro on January 4, 2021

Julian Assange will be saved from extradition to the U.S. for now, according to the judgment handed down January 4 in the Westminster Magistrates Court in London by Judge Vanessa Baraitser, on the grounds that prison conditions in the U.S. are so harsh that there would be a real risk that the founder and former editor-in-chief of Wikileaks would commit suicide.  The judge ordered his discharge, but the case is being appealed and a bail application will be considered on Wednesday, January 6.  Nevertheless, the judge upheld the majority of the prosecution arguments regarding motives for the prosecution, and discarded the defense arguments.

In this sense, although today’s decision represents a first victory for Assange – and incidentally a moral condemnation of the horrible conditions in the U.S. prison system – the threat represented by this case for freedom of the press world-wide remains present and can be re-activated in the court of appeals.

Journalism under Threat

There are many experts and human rights defenders who agree that what is on trial in this legal case is not only the extradition of Assange and his individual human rights; what the British court decides will also have a direct impact on the situation of journalists throughout the world, since it will serve as an example for anyone who dares to reveal information considered “classified” that might question actions of governments like that of the U.S., leading to self-censorship.  They agree that it is freedom of the press, with regard to questioning and exposing information of public interest, especially when serious human rights violations are involved, that is what is being put on trial in London.

“What we may conclude now is, for journalists and editors in general, is that any journalist in any country of the world – actually any person – who transmits secrets that are not in accord with the U.S government administration can be accused according to the Espionage Act of 1917,” said Carey Shenkman, a U.S. human rights attorney who is writing a book with a historical analysis of the Espionage Act of 1917, during his testimony in the case in September 2020.

Initially, the U.S. Department of Justice alleges that Assange conspired with Chelsea Manning, an ex-army specialist, illegally to reveal hundreds of thousands of records from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, together with a compilation of classified State Department cables (Cablegate.) For this, he was charged with 18 criminal violations, 17 of them under the controversial Espionage Act, passed during the Fist World War, more than a century ago, and used to persecute both spies and political dissidents.

The law has been criticized as unconstitutional by international human rights attorneys due to the fact that it criminalizes receiving and publishing classified information.  The editor in chief of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnsson, called it “archaic,” pointing out that it had never previously been used against a journalist and editor. The indictment against Assange under this law is focused almost exclusively on the type of activities that national security journalists carry out routinely in relations with sources -communicating with them confidentially, seeking information, protecting sources and protecting their identities from being revealed, – and publishing classified information.

“The decision to prosecute Julian Assange on charges of “conspiracy” between an editor and his source or potential sources, and for the publication of truthful information is an attack on fundamental freedoms of the press,” stated Trevor Timm, founder of Freedom of the Press Foundation, which defends the rights of journalists and follows violations of press freedom in the U.S., in his testimony in September.. “Materials journalists often write about and print do not magically land on their desks. They talk to sources, ask for clarification, ask for more information. This is standard practice for journalists,” he declared.

However, the strategy chosen by US prosecutors is choosing to accuse Assange not as a editor but as a hacker -in other words to accuse him of conspiracy and hacking a U.S.government computer server.  And the fact that they are not accusing him of the publication of classified information is probably in order to camouflage the direct attack on freedom of the press, enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, say experts. Publishing information obtained illegally is protected by law in the U.S. but the act of obtaining information by robbery or piracy involving information technology is a crime. “It is a clear press freedom case,” Jennifer Robinson, one of Julian Assange’s attorneys, said recently on Democracy Now. “And the attempts of the Justice Department to take this toward a case of information piracy – conspiracy to commit computer intrusion  – when there is absolutely no evidence of this action on the part of Mr Assange, demonstrates, I believe, their desire to distance themselves from important questions about freedom of the press,”

At Risk: the Right of the Citizens to Be Informed

In 2010 Wikileaks published a series of articles in conjunction with major world press outlets (The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel); these were known as the Afghan War Diary and the Iraq War Logs.  They revealed serious violations of human rights and war crimes committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as torture inflicted on prisoners in the clandestine detention sites of the CIA and the abuses in the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay.

Though it is true that this material was obtained by legal journalistic methods, as the defense maintains, and is protected by the First Amendment, and although release of the majority of the CableGate material was not initially published by WikiLeaks, but by Cryptome, an on-line digital library based in the U.S. and well known in the information technology community, the U.S. system of justice insisted on carrying out an unprecedented criminal prosecution against Assange.  In fact, they initiated an inconceivable extra-territorial process against a means of communication and its editor,  a citizen of a foreign country.

John Sloboda, co-founder of Iraq Body Count, an independent NGO dedicated to maintaining an up to date count of civilian casualties in Iraq testified in September regarding the importance of the information revealed by WikiLeaks and the work of Assange on the Iraq War reports published in October of 2010.  Ten years afterward, in September and during Assange’s extradition trial, Sloboda testified that a decade later, “The War Logs remain the only source of information regarding many thousands of violent civilian deaths in Iraq between 2004 and 2009.” “Information about civilian casualties should always be made public, “ he added, indicating that the U.S. “was never able to show that a single individual has been significantly harmed by the release of this information,” in reference to U.S. government accusations that divulging this information had put U.S. or Iraqi lives at risk.

Meanwhile, since November of 2010, Julian Assange has been the victim of a tortuous process undertaken by the U.S. and those countries that have been considered allies – the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Ecuador – according to a number of human rights defenders.  This has made it very clear for many that this is a political persecution, since they have made the attempt to link totally legitimate journalistic activities with supposed information piracy or espionage.

“WikiLeaks did what all journalists should do, which is to put the important information before the public so that people can make their own judgments based on evidence about the world around them, and in particular about actions of their governments that show serious state crimes,”  said, Patrick Cockburn, an investigative journalist from The Independent, in his testimony in September.

Therefore, although U.S. prosecutors insist on accusing Assange of being a hacker or spy rather than a journalist, what experts warn us about is that, if this goes to extradition and trial, it will be the gateway for the United States to prosecute and investigate a broad spectrum of journalists on a global scale, leading to self-censorship by journalists and editors, fearful of reprisals.

Jameel Jaffer , executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, emphasized “If the press did not publish classified information without authorization, public debate about war and security would take place in an information environment controlled almost entirely by executive branch officials.” during his testimony at Westminster Court in England.

Basically, the right of the citizens to be informed about what their governments do in their name, threatened.

Shooting the Messenger

Assange has been in almost complete isolation in high-security Belmarsh Prison in London since his arrest in April 2019, after being expelled by force from the embassy of Ecuador when the new president, Lenin Moreno, illegally ended his asylum.

If the United Kingdom extradites him to the United States, he faces 175 years in prison, a sentence added onto the ten years of police and judicial persecution he has already experienced.  And he will possibly be condemned to a maximum-security prison and held under severe conditions, including prolonged periods of strict isolation.

“Prosecuting Mr. Assange for publishing true information about serious official misconduct, whether in America or elsewhere, would amount to “shooting the messenger” rather than correcting the problem he exposed. This would be incompatible with the core values of justice, rule of law and press freedom, as reflected in the American Constitution and international human rights instruments ratified by the United States,” Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, wrote recently in an open letter to the president of the United States, Donald Trump, asking him to pardon the founder of WikiLeaks.

Julian Assange’s partner, Stella Morris, has observed, “This is a fight for Julian’s life. It is a fight for press freedom. Terrible crimes were committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrible crimes were committed in Guantanamo Bay. The perpetrators of those crimes are not in prison. Julian is.”

The United States government requests that Assange remain incarcerated while they prepare their appeal, which is not yet scheduled.  The defense, however, requests freedom on bail, advancing, among other reasons, the terrible conditions in which Assange is held in isolation in Belmarsh Prison.  It is thought that the extradition process may end up in The European Court of Human Rights, and, if so, the decision about extradition of the journalist to the U.S. may still take several more years.

Source: Latin America in Movement, translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau