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Journalists must pay attention to Julian Assange

press freedom
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court after being sentenced in London, Britain, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

The UK media has long adopted a cynical attitude towards Julian Assange, but recent footage of the Wikileaks publisher’s recent court appearance is prompting many to have second thoughts.

In the latest clip to find its way on to the internet we see Assange squinting, sealed within the tiny compartment of a Serco prison van leaving Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 21 October, trying to adjust to the bright lights shone directly into his eyes at close range. Several hours earlier, a large and loud crowd of supporters had intercepted another Serco van, but all the chanting, cheering and solidarity was in vain  – Assange’s transport was delayed several hours until almost everyone had left.

Assange looked despondent. His lawyers had requested a routine postponement of his main extradition hearing, which was refused, apparently after the prosecution took instructions from US representatives during a 10 minute recess. His lawyers also requested the magistrate schedule time for arguments about the political nature of the charges against Assange, given that the UK-US Extradition Treaty stipulates that if the offence is political, extradition must not proceed.

The fact that for several years Assange’s meetings with lawyers were filmed and streamed live to the CIA was also raised as a critical issue. But to no avail. The magistrate provided a little more time for pre-trial presentation of evidence, but warned that the main hearing would take place as scheduled, in February 2020, and at London’s Belmarsh Prison.

According to eyewitnesses, Assange appeared disoriented and distressed in court, exhibiting the physical and psychological symptoms of someone arbitrarily detained for nine years. UN rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer has put it thus: ‘The evidence is overwhelming and clear… Mr Assange has been deliberately exposed, for a period of several years, to progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the cumulative effects of which can only be described as psychological torture.’

Assange completed his sentence in Belmarsh maximum security prison for bail violations on 23 September – thus completing his punishment for applying for and receiving political asylum. For many years, we heard that Julian was in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden, despite the fact that no country on earth gives asylum to non-citizens to avoid sexual misconduct allegations. As subsequent events have demonstrated, Assange’s fears were more than justified.

Assange broke bail conditions in order to seek asylum from the scenario he now faces: life in prison for publishing. Ecuador granted that asylum because the US obviously intended to prosecute Assange for publishing. This was confirmed shortly after his expulsion from their London embassy, a moment for which the US was poised and ready.

Assange also received asylum because he was ‘without the support of the country of which he is a citizen’  – Australia. While a cross party ‘Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group’ has recently been established in Australia, for the time being his own government remains mute.

The indictments for which Assange is now imprisoned have nothing to do with Sweden, Russia, Trump or his cat. They are a straightforward attempt to prosecute a publisher for committing acts of journalism: specifically the releases of 2010-11 on Guantanamo Bay, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Cablegate. These are the most significant series of public-interest disclosures of our times.

The US Justice Department’s case will hinge on whether it can successfully redefine national-security journalism as a form of espionage. Assange is the first publisher ever to be charged under the Espionage Act, under which it is not possible to mount a public interest defence.

Even those who have spent years demonizing Assange have balked at this lunge of extraterritorial executive power by the US government. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Guardian have expressed grave concern about the charges he faces. UK Special Envoy on Media Freedom Amal Clooney stated at the June Global Conference for Media Freedom, the charges ‘criminalize common practices in journalism’, which the American Civil Liberties Union has warned, ‘establish a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets’.

The indictments for which Assange is now imprisoned have nothing to do with Sweden, Russia, Trump or his cat. They are a straightforward attempt to prosecute a publisher for committing acts of journalism

Some have tried to claim Assange is not a journalist, but it’s difficult to argue with the US Army’s Counterintelligence Centre’s description of WikiLeaks as a ‘news organization,’ and Assange as a ‘writer’ and ‘journalist’ that had ‘show[n] journalist responsibility to the newsworthiness or fair use of the classified document’. Or with the Australian Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union representing journalists and publishers, of which Assange has been a member since 2009, carrying a journalist’s card.

For his work, he was presented with the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism in 2011, the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, the Economist’s New Media Award, the Amnesty International New Media Award and a dozen others. Even the High Court of the United Kingdom in its ruling of 2 November 2011, described Julian Assange as ‘…a journalist, well known through his operation of WikiLeaks’ in its opening line.

For this journalism, he is held, alone for more than 20 hours a day in a cell on the health ward of Belmarsh, only just able to receive documents from his lawyers. Years of unsympathetic and hostile treatment from his peers have left him almost as alone in the public realm as he is now in Belmarsh. And yet it is on this man, resilient but much weakened after a decade of unrelenting pressure, that the future of the freedom to report, and to read, rests.

What have we learned from WikiLeaks?

Here is a sample of WikiLeaks releases, covering many institutions, issues, governments and countries, each provided by a whistleblower who trusted this platform to publish in order to bring about reform of how political, corporate and media elites operate. Each release has shared genuine information about how governments, companies, banks, the UN, political parties, jailers, cults, private security firms, war planners and the media actually operate when they think no one is looking:

The charges – listing them like this makes clear for which releases he is charged and the penalties for various activities associated

Julian Assange faces 18 charges

1 Conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act: 10 years

2 Violating the Espionage Act by Manning’s obtaining Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (GITMO) Files: 10 years

3 Violating the Espionage Act by Manning’s obtaining Cablegate: 10 years

4 Violating the Espionage Act by Manning’s obtaining Iraq War Logs: 10 years

5 Attempting to receive and obtain classified information: 10 years

6 Unlawfully obtaining and receiving GITMO Files: 10 years

7 Unlawfully obtaining and receiving Cablegate: 10 years

8 Unlawfully obtaining and receiving Iraq War Logs: 10 years

9 Causing unlawful disclosure by Manning of GITMO Files: 10 years

10 Causing unlawful disclosure by Manning of Cablegate: 10 years

11 Causing unlawful disclosure by Manning of Iraq War Logs: 10 years

12 Causing Manning to communicate, deliver and transmit GITMO Files: 10 years

13 Causing Manning to communicate, deliver and transmit Cablegate: 10 years

14 Causing Manning to communicate, deliver and transmit Iraq War Logs: 10 years

15 ‘Pure publication’ of Afghan War Diaries: 10 years

16 ‘Pure publication’ of Iraq War Logs: 10 years

17 ‘Pure publication’ of Cablegate: 10 years

18 Conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFFA): 5 years 


Felicity Ruby is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. WikiLeaks is one of the case studies in her research. Naomi Colvin works on whistleblowing research and policy at international NGO Blueprint for Free Speech.




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