On February 12, a coalition of human rights organizations and lawyers (including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists) wrote an open letter to the U.S. to drop the case against Wikileaks cofounder Julian Assange. While it was hoped that the new Biden administration would drop the case, it has since decided to appeal the ruling made by U.K. judge Vanessa Baraitser. The ruling, made in early January, was based on Assange’s mental health, and the significant strain living in a high intensity U.S. prison would have on him. The appeal demonstrates the Biden administration’s intent to prosecute Assange for alleged espionage and computer hacking crimes. The indictment against Assange is dangerous. If successful, Assange would be charged under the Espionage act for publishing U.S. documents. This would set a dire precedent for U.S. and global press freedoms.
The letter states, “The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely.” The indictment is related to Assange’s publication of government documents via Wikileaks. However, “News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance.” Assange is essentially being charged for publishing private documents, which is an essential part of the job that journalists and news organizations do.
The charges placed against Assange are problematic. The application of the Espionage Act to silence someone who is neither a U.S. citizen nor a U.S. employee is excessive. Given the similarities between Assange’s activities and journalists the world over, it would set a very real and very dangerous precedent. In the worst possible interpretation, it sets a precedent to use the espionage act against foreign and domestic journalists to silence critique. Biden and the U.S. Justice Department must drop this appeal. The threat to journalistic freedoms far outweighs any potential gain for the U.S. This is not only a threat to U.S. journalists, but also a threat to journalists all over the world.
In early January, Baraitser ruled in favour of Assange, but broadly agreed with the U.S. prosecutors. She stated that Assange’s activities with Wikileaks fell outside the realm of journalism, and the publication of government documents without redaction placed informants at risk. In mid-January, mere days before the two-week deadline, U.S. prosecutors lodged an appeal to the extradition decision. The persecution argued that Assange’s actions went further and were more invasive than standard investigative journalism.
The charges against Assange include one account of computer hacking and 17 separate accounts of espionage. In particular, the prosecutors argued Assange aided and abetted Chelsea Manning in the stealing of the files she later provided to Wikileaks. In doing so, the prosecution allege his actions were more invasive than standard investigative journalism. Manning has refused to admit to this.
Many of the files published relate to illegitimate acts perpetrated by the U.S. military against non-combatants throughout the Afghan and Iraq wars, along with a number of diplomatic cables, and private emails. Prosecutors stated such a ‘reckless’ release of confidential information invariably placed informants and soldiers in danger, although this has yet to be seen.
The appeal by the U.S. government signals the Biden administration is willing to pursue Assange at significant risk to journalistic freedoms. The indictment is an excessive and dangerous interpretation of the Espionage Act, and the appeal should be dropped. If this appeal, and a further indictment were to be successful, it would have catastrophic ramifications for journalism all over the world.
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