Posted inGlobal Affairs

The case of Julian Assange: A threat to press freedom?

Illustration by Ben Beechener

Julian Assange is wanted for extradition to the US for trial over several confidential documents leaked in 2010 and 2011. Assange is the co-founder of the website WikiLeaks, a platform used to leak files including 250,000 US diplomatic cables. The files were provided by US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning and revealed US targeting of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars that took place in the countries. Recent attempts to extradite Assange to the US have been active since 2019 when he was arrested after spending seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy avoiding extradition to Sweden over allegations of rape. The US then placed 18 charges against Assange, 17 of which are under the US Espionage Act 1917 and could see him serve up to 175 years in prison.

The Assange case has consistently raised questions about journalistic freedom and whether he should be facing charges at all. As of January 2022, there have been significant developments that have led challengers to ask whether this case may set a dangerous precedent.

In December 2021 the UK High Court ruled that Assange could be extradited to the US, following assurances from the Biden administration that Assange would not be subject to extreme solitary confinement or ADX supermax prison. This was after Assange’s lawyers argued he could not be extradited due to fears over his mental health and the risk of suicide.

However, recently District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that there was a “point of law of general public importance” in the Assange case and that the previous judgement had been overreliant on US assurances regarding prison conditions. It was concluded in January that the UK Supreme Court should be allowed to review the case.

Twenty-six peace organisations and over 3000 individuals have signed a statement for the immediate release of Assange this month and praised him for his contributions to global peace. Many organisations have also separately spoken out, including Reporters Without Borders, who argue that the US Espionage Act lacked a public interest defence. The Committee to Protect Journalists have also stated that this case could set a “deeply harmful legal precedent”, a sentiment also echoed by Amnesty International.

While fellow journalists may disagree with Assange’s views on a personal level, many strongly disagree with the case against him for two main reasons.

First, the case could set a severe precedent for journalism. Assange is being prosecuted for leaking confidential files that expose massacres and miscarriages of justice during wars, apparently making the case against Assange one against investigatory journalism. Gavin Millar QC, a specialist media Barrister, argues that Assange did “exactly what a journalist would do” and added that with confidential sources you must establish what information they have, how they can obtain it and if they want to disclose it. Here, Millar is referring to Assange’s relationship with Chelsea Manning and a conversation on the 10th March 2010, within which Assange was accused of “aiding and abetting” Manning to release additional confidential information. The Obama Administration nearly pressed charges against Assange but refrained from doing so to avoid encroaching on the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of the press.

Second, many journalists are concerned that the Assange case distracts from the prosecution of those who Assange exposed. In 2020, The editor of the Daily Express, Gary Jones, has stated that Assange should not be extradited for lifting “the lid on very serious abuses of power and corruption”. This sentiment was echoed in 2022 by former Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who argues that those Assange exposed should be “held accountable for the lives they destroyed and the futures they stole”.

The continuation of the Assange case and the forth-coming Supreme Court verdict casts severe shadows over the freedom of investigatory journalism. Disagreeing with Assange’s views or liking his character on a personal level should not cloud the overarching concerns in this case. If it goes ahead, the extradition of Assange to the US will threaten freedom of the press and set a worrying precedent going forwards.