Nearly a decade after the initial release of his controversial WikiLeaks website, Julian Assange is still a significant point of contention and is now fighting extradition from the United Kingdom to the United States on charges of espionage. Assange first gained notoriety in 2010 after publishing a classified video from the U.S. military on WikiLeaks depicting a 2007 U.S. helicopter strike on Baghdad that killed twelve people. The lawyer representing the United States, James Lewis, argued that Assange is wanted for crimes putting the lives of people from numerous countries, such as Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan at risk, with some of those people disappearing after these leaks. According to Reuters, Lewis said the United States’ attempt to extradite Assange comes “not because he embarrassed the authorities but because he put informants, dissidents, and rights activists at risk of torture, abuse or death.” The United States charged Assange with eighteen criminal counts involving hacking government computers and violating espionage laws. The issue and extradition remain controversial because Assange’s supporters see him as a hero standing up to corrupt government officials, and many argue that the attempts to extradite and try Assange are retaliatory violations of press freedom. According to Reuters, Assange’s lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, said that extradition would lead to an unfair trial and would create a suicide risk, adding that “the U.S. attitude to Assange had changed when Donald Trump came to power” and that the U.S. president wanted to make an example of his client. He said that in 2013 the U.S. government under former President Barack Obama had decided that Assange should not face any action. But that in 2017, after the 2016 election of Trump, an indictment was brought against Assange. As such, the issue continues to be divisive both domestically and abroad.
This problem persists because of its complexity. For the most part, we as a society can agree that freedom of the press is essential and that journalists perform an important service that should be protected. But what happens when that reporting leads to negative consequences or is questionable in its legality? This is the troubling question at the centre of the Julian Assange case. Looking back at history, this has always been an uneasy balance; the same question arose in the Pentagon Papers case. In the case of New York Times v United States, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of press freedom over national security concerns, but the Pentagon Papers were a historical study rather than active military information, making it an indirect parallel. Regardless, the central question is the same. The trade-off between national security interests and press freedom, and popular sentiment in the United States is that Assange crossed this line with his actions. The response of increased attempts to extradite and try him is doing little to diminish tensions as it is riling up a debate that had largely died down by this point, at least in Assange’s case. What further hurts the case of the United States in this particular instance is that attempts to extradite Assange appear as the next in a long line of attacks on the press on the part of President Trump. It is reminiscent of the boy who cried wolf; if the President continues to call journalists dangerous, it becomes routine, so in a situation where there may be a legitimate legal case against one, people are less likely to take it seriously. As such, the sudden resuscitation of efforts to extradite and try Julian Assange end up seeming inherently political, an unintended consequence of the action. This solution fails to address the tensions that exist in that it is not difficult to predict the outcome of a trial of Julian Assange in the United States, and it will be nearly impossible to ensure a fair one. In that way, the remedy is almost worse than the problem, which is why this debate and particular problem persists.
Due to that same complexity of the situation with Julian Assange, it is difficult to provide a real solution. In looking at the situation, there are two distinct components and questions that deserve consideration: the freedom of press issue and the ethical issue. Looking at the former first, the core responsibility of journalists is to act as a purveyor of the truth. It is their job to reveal corruption on the part of leaders and government so that the people may be informed and actively participate in their government, ensuring that it is truly representative of them and their best interests. In that way, what Julian Assange did in publishing these materials through WikiLeaks is a key component of that responsibility. If one cannot effectively raise these concerns through the internal channels, as was the case with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers and Edward Snowden with his NSA leaks, then one is left with little option but to publicly publish those materials through a platform such as WikiLeaks. We must protect the right of the public to be informed, as freedom of information goes hand in hand with freedom of the press. But that is where the second question, the ethical one, comes into play. Releasing the information is one thing, but how it is done is another thing entirely.
In the case of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the released information was historical and contained no current military information, meaning that its release put no one in danger. Julian Assange, on the other hand, did not follow these same precautions. Names of people who helped the United States were included in the publicly released documents, putting their lives in danger by doing so. According to Reuters, some of the information Assange leaked to WikiLeaks was even found in Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, showing the wide reach and effects of Assange’s actions. This is where the primary argument for punishing Assange through the justice system is derived, and it is one that makes sense. The problem is not necessarily the publication of the information, that is part of the rights and responsibilities of a free and functioning press. The issue comes from the inherent danger in not being more zcareful with the inclusion of information that could be dangerous to people outside of the government and officials it was meant to damage. In that way, Assange’s leaks caused unnecessary violence for people to whom it was not intended to do so. “What Mr. Assange seems to defend by freedom of speech is not the publication of the classified materials but the publication of the names of the sources, the names of people who had put themselves at risk to assist the United States and its allies,” United States lawyer Lewis said, perfectly summing up the situation.
In that way, if Assange were to be extradited to the United States, it would be imperative to look at this issue on these two grounds, but this also must serve as a lesson for future journalists. If you are going to take the risk of publishing classified information, that risk must be contained to yourself and to the leaders or government systems to which those materials pertain. It is careless to put other lives at risk through the publication of such information, as Assange did. In that way, we must both protect the ability of journalists and whistle-blowers to reveal information being hidden from the people, but there also must be a real discussion of ethical, safe ways to do so to prevent unnecessary violence to people who are otherwise uninvolved. A free press is essential, but an ethical press is even more critical. Even when doing something illegal, such as publishing classified documents for the greater good, it is still important to be ethical, otherwise the situation becomes immensely more complicated, as is evident with the case of Julian Assange.
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