Julian Assange and the trial against press freedom

The sentence represents a first victory for Assange, but the threat that this case represents to freedom of the press in the world remains intact.

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Julian Assange
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Julian Assange is not to be extradited to the United States, according to the sentence handed down on Monday, January 4, at the Westminster Court in London by Judge Vanessa Baraitser, on consideration that the prison conditions in that country imply a real risk of suicide for the founder and (former) editor-in-chief of Wikileaks.  The judge ordered his release, but the prosecution appealed and a decision will be taken on Wednesday 6. Nonetheless, in her sentence, the judge supported most of the prosecution's arguments regarding the grounds for the indictment and dismissed the defense's arguments.


Therefore, although the sentence represents a first victory for Assange – and in passing, a moral condemnation of the appalling conditions of the U.S. prison system – the threat that this case represents to freedom of the press in the world remains intact and could be reactivated in the court of appeals.


Journalism under threat


Many experts and human rights defenders agree that what is at stake in this legal case is not only the extradition of Assange and his individual human rights, but that the eventual decision of the British courts will also have a direct impact on the situation of journalists around the world, since it would serve, they say, as an warning for anyone who dares to leak information considered "classified" that directly questions the actions of governments such as that of the United States, which could lead to self-censorship.


They therefore conclude that it is the freedom of the press that is on trial in London, insofar as its role is to question and expose information of public interest, especially when it involves serious human rights violations.


"What is now concluded, by journalists and publishers generally, is that any journalist in any country on earth—in fact any person—who conveys secrets that do not conform to the policy positions of the U.S. administration can be shown now to be liable to being charged under the Espionage Act of 1917," said Carey Shenkman, an American human rights lawyer who is writing a book on a historical analysis of the Espionage Act of 1917, during his testimony in September in the London Court.


In principle, the U.S. Department of Justice alleges that Assange conspired with Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. military officer, to illegally download hundreds of thousands of records from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, along with a large collection of classified cables (Cablegate) from the U.S. State Department. For this, he is charged on 18 counts, 17 of which are under the controversial Espionage Act, passed after World War I – more than a century ago – and used to hunt down spies and political dissidents.


The law has been criticized as unconstitutional by international human rights lawyers because it criminalizes receiving and publishing classified information. WikiLeaks' editor-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson, called it "archaic," noting that it had never before been used against a journalist and editor.


The charge against Assange under this law focuses almost exclusively on the type of activities that national security journalists routinely carry out in relation to their sources, communicating with them confidentially, requesting information from them, protecting their identities from disclosure, and publishing classified information.


The decision to indict Julian Assange on allegations of a “conspiracy” between a publisher and his source or potential sources, and for the publication of truthful information, encroaches on fundamental press freedoms, according to Trevor Timm, founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which defends the rights of journalists and tracks violations of press freedom in the United States, during his September statement.


"Materials journalists often write about and print do not magically land on their desks”. Journalists talk to sources, ask for clarification, ask for more information, “this is standard practice for journalists," he underlined.


However, the strategy chosen by U.S. prosecutors is to have chosen to prosecute Assange not as an editor, but as a hacker, that is, to accuse him of conspiring to hack into a U.S. government computer. And if they are not accusing him of publishing confidential information, it is most likely, according to experts, in order to camouflage the direct attack on the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.


Publishing illegally obtained information is protected by law in the United States. But the act of obtaining this information, for example through theft or hacking, is a crime.


"It is a clear press freedom case. And the attempts by the Department of Justice to somehow create this as a hacking case, when there is absolutely no evidence of any hacking by Mr. Assange, I think, demonstrates their desire to move away from the important issues on press freedom," said one of Assange's attorneys, Jennifer Robinson, in an interview with Democracy Now!


The right of citizens to be informed is at stake


In 2010 WikiLeaks published a series of articles, in collaboration with the world's leading media (The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel), known as Afghan War Diary and Iraq War Logs. A series of official US documents that revealed serious human rights violations and war crimes committed by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the torture inflicted on prisoners in clandestine CIA detention centers and abuses in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay.


Although this material was leaked under legal journalistic practice, as his defense claims, and protected by the First Amendment, and despite the fact that the largest Cablegate document leak was not initially published by WikiLeaks, but by Cryptome, a US-based leak site that is well-known in the techie community, the US justice system insisted on conducting an unprecedented criminal prosecution against Assange. Moreover, it launched an unthinkable extraterritorial proceeding against a media outlet and a foreign citizen, its publisher.


John Sloboda, co-founder of Iraq Body Count, an independent NGO dedicated to continuously counting the killings of civilians in Iraq, testified in September about the significance of the WikiLeaks releases and the work with Assange in the Iraq War records released in October 2010.  He noted that ten years later, the Iraq War Logs “remain the only source of information regarding many thousands of violent civilian deaths in Iraq between 2004 and 2009”,


"Civilian casualty data should always be made public," he added, noting that the U.S. "has never been able to demonstrate that a single individual has been significantly harmed by the release of these data," referring to U.S. government claims that disclosure could have endangered the lives of Iraqis or Americans.


Meanwhile, since November 2010, according to several human rights defenders, Julian Assange has been the victim of a tortuous process by the US and countries considered their allies (UK, Ecuador and Sweden), making it clear to many that he is the object of political persecution, given the manifest insistence on linking entirely legitimate journalistic activities with alleged illegal hacking or spying.


" Wikileaks did what all journalists should do, which is to make important information available for the public, enabling people to make evidence-based judgments about the world around them and, in particular, about the actions of their governments, and, of those actions more than any other those that reveal the gravest of state crimes," stated Patrick Cockburn, an investigative reporter for The Independent, during his testimony in September.


So, while US prosecutors insist on arguing that Assange is not a journalist but a hacker or spy, experts warn that, if he is extradited and tried, it would be the gateway that would allow the US to prosecute and investigate a wide range of journalists globally, causing editors and journalists to self-censor for fear of reprisals.


"lf 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," noted Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, during his statement to the Westminster Court.


What is at stake here is the right of citizens to be informed about what governments are doing in their name.


Shooting the Messenger


Assange has been in almost complete isolation in London's Belmarsh High Security Prison since his arrest in April 2019, after being forcibly removed from the Ecuadorian embassy when that country's president, Lenin Moreno, illegally terminated his asylum.


If the United Kingdom extradites him, he would face 175 years in prison, a sentence that would be added to the 10 years of legal and police persecution. And he would possibly be enclosed in a facility reserved for maximum security prisoners and subjected to the strictest regimes, including prolonged solitary confinement.


"… 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…”, U.N. torture expert Nils Melzer recently stated in an open letter to U.S. President Donald Trump, asking him to pardon the founder of WikiLeaks.


"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," denounced Assange's partner, Stella Moris.


The US government is asking for Assange to be kept in jail while it prepares its appeal against the sentence, a process that may last for months.  For its part, the defense is requesting release on bail, and will argue, among other reasons, the harsh conditions Assange is enduring in isolation in Belmarsh prison. The extradition process could end up in the European Court of Human Rights, so the decision on the journalist's extradition to the US might yet stretch over some years to come.



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