Assange hearing outcome could set an “alarming precedent” for free speech


Justice for Assange campaign protester outside a court hearing in 2010. Photograph: Nadia Cosentino

Assange’s partner, Stella Moris, is remaining resolute despite his extradition hearing decision being less than a month away and him being held in a prison that has recently had a Covid-19 outbreak.

Speaking over the phone to Index, Moris discusses the hearing’s details and what it could mean for the future of freedom of expression. And she talks about the deep implications it has had for her and her young family.

“Obviously it is very difficult. I speak to Julian on a daily basis unless there is a problem. [But] he is in prison. Soon to be for two years. He has been there for longer than many violent prisoners who are serving sentences. All in all, he has been deprived of his liberty for ten years now,” she told Index. She adds:

“The kids speak to their father every day; we try to normalise it as much as we can for them. But of course, this is not a normal situation and our lives are on hold. It is inhumane and shouldn’t be happening in the UK.”

The current hearing – which will decide whether there are grounds for Assange to stand trial in the USA – should reach a conclusion on 4 January. A trial in the USA (should the decision go against Assange) will have major ramifications for free speech and whistleblower journalism.

The WikiLeaks founder is charged with conspiring with US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning and hackers from groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec to obtain and publish classified information. Each of the 18 charges laid by US authorities, if Assange is extradited and convicted, carry a maximum penalty of 10 years. The allegations brought forward under the 1917 Espionage Act, alongside one other under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, mean Assange could face up to 175 years in prison – effectively a life sentence. Manning was initially sentenced to 35 years, but under the Obama administration her sentence was commuted to less than seven years.

It is easy to get sidetracked about the current extradition hearing and get into arguments about whether Assange is a journalist, whether he is guilty of other crimes or whether the publication of the documents brought harm to anyone involved. Instead people’s attentions should focus on the precedent that will be set should the case go to trial in the USA.

As it stands the case is unprecedented. No publisher has ever been tried under the Espionage Act, which itself was essentially created for spies imparting official secrets either for profit or otherwise. This is perhaps a direct contradiction of rulings of the courts in the UK. In December 2017, the UK’s information tribunal recognised WikiLeaks as a media organisation, in direct contradiction to the view of the US State Department. Australia’s media union, the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance, also presented an honorary member card to Assange’s Melbourne-based lawyer.

Amidst the noise of the separate matters around the case, Moris insists people need to “forget what they think they know” and assess the issues involved.

“There are a lot of assumptions being made over what this case is really about. There are all these sideshows. It is not about people being harmed because the US has admitted it has no evidence to make this argument. It comes down to the fact that the material published was classified. People who care about free speech and press freedom need to forget what they think they know about this case and look at it afresh and understand Julian is in prison for publishing. This is not something that democracies do.”

“Are they saying what he published was not in the public interest? They say that is irrelevant. They can’t deny [what he published] wasn’t in the public interest because he was publishing information and evidence of state crimes, of state abuse, torture, of rendition, blacksites and of illegal killings. What they are arguing is that Julian published information that was secret and therefore he can be prosecuted over it.”

Journalists publishing secret information is not new (nor is pressure for them not to publish) and can often be key to upholding democracy and ensuring states act properly. The Watergate revelations relied heavily on news organisations pressing on with publication despite attempts by the USA to stop them, including the threat of jail time. It proved a significant victory for free speech.

If Assange is extradited and tried the case will impact journalists and the media “for years to come”, says Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns at Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“It feels like many in the media do not see the implications of this case as something that will possibly affect them,” she told Index. “This case will have ramifications on the climates for journalism and press freedom internationally for years to come.”

“This is the first time we have seen the US government prosecute anybody for publishing leaked information. If they are successful, they will not stop with Assange and WikiLeaks. This could be applied, in theory, to any media outlet.”

It’s common for journalists and publishers to cite a public interest defence for disputed documents. It is a centrepiece of a defence case against libel, for instance.

“The information published was certainly in the public interest; it served to inform extensive public interest reporting that exposed war crimes and other illegal actions by states,” said Vincent.

“The Espionage Act lacks a public interest defence. He cannot use it if he is sent to the United States and tried.”

Essentially, what this means is that Assange is being treated as a spy not a publisher. If Assange is extradited and loses his case against the US government, any time classified information is published by a journalist there will be a precedent set that they can be charged and tried as a spy in the same way.

“These sorts of cases are really highlighting the need for more robust legislation that cannot be manipulated to be used against journalists, whistleblowers and other sources. Ultimately, it is the public’s right to access information that is being impacted,” Vincent added.

“You can see this for what it is; this very much feels like a political prosecution by states that are not meant to engage in this behaviour. The reason our states can get away with this is because of a lack of public pressure. A lack of public sympathy has resulted in a lack of widespread public pressure to hold our governments to account.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]