Julian Assange, the Australian founder of the infamous website WikiLeaks, appeared in a British court in early January to attend a hearing as to whether he would be extradited to the United States. The United States has been rather adamant on his extradition, trial, and near certain conviction for his involvement in publishing American military related documents which violated espionage-related laws. Assange has spent much of his recent life in either prison or in self-imposed confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy thereby making extradition a diplomatic nightmare. Citing the past decade’s worth of mentally debilitating living situations as well as numerous thoughts of suicide already, Reuters reports that Judge Vanessa Baraitser denied the American request for extradition on the grounds that suicide would be more likely than not for Assange given the almost certain nature of his future imprisonment should extradition occur.
Assange’s case is a pinnacle example of where freedom of speech and freedom of the press can ride a fine line for governments when the freedom to speech can directly lead to the endangerment of others. For Assange, the publication in question is a 2010 report of American military action that occurred in 2007, where Apache helicopters opened fire in Baghdad killing a dozen people, including two innocent Reuters news staff. Due to the lack of reporting on this event, WikiLeaks and Assange took it upon themselves to make this public, as well as thousands of other classified intelligence documents, thus violating espionage laws and endangering American soldiers.
The polarizing nature of weighing freedom of speech against military intelligence, as is present in the Assange case, has led to inconsistent policy on what to do about Assange. This story began during Barack Obama’s presidency to which he determined that America would not seek to prosecute Assange due to the dangerous precedent it could set for freedom of speech and investigative journalism, as reported by Reuters. However, under the Trump administration, America has been actively pursuing extradition since 2019, and Judge Baraitser’s ruling to not extradite Assange will be appealed by America.
Trump’s stance on WikiLeaks appears to be one of the most dangerous parts of this story due to the ever-changing rhetoric about the company. In 2016, Trump praised WikiLeaks for leaking thousands of emails regarding general election opponent Hillary Clinton. This is dangerous when paired with the reality of the active pursuit of Assange juxtaposed to praise of the company; it creates the sentiment of illegal-activity-is-okay-when-it-suits-me, which can arguably encapsulate the whole Trump administration. It will be important to watch as to whether or not the Biden administration’s policy returns to Obama’s non-prosecution stance.
Assange has been receiving more and more support from various nations saying that his work was essential to freedom of speech, with even Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador offering Assange political asylum which would end the extradition saga should he go to Mexico.
Judge Baraitser’s assessment that Assange would be at an even greater risk of suicide should he be extradited to America is correct. The reality of Assange’s future is laid out by Reuter’s where they speculate that a trial would not be fair and would result in Assange being placed in near-isolation in a maximum-security prison. This takes a toll on even the strongest of minds let alone the one that has already been living in self-imposed isolation. If it is Assange’s life that must be considered first and foremost, then stopping the relentless pursuit of him would be the best step forward. The documents that were published are no longer relevant and no longer pose a threat to American soldiers or other covert operations, as such the precedent set would be that justice will be given under any circumstances even after ten years.
This is a dangerous path to go down for a country that has been built under the supposition of free speech. As such, the best path forward would be to return to the Obama-era policy where prosecution will not be pursued. Should WikiLeaks violate espionage laws again a better path forward may be to go after the site and not the founder through the court system to ensure legitimacy.