Solidarity, Assange-style

I first met Julian Assange before he was Julian Assange. Or rather, when he was just becoming Julian Assange. For a few short months our fates were intertwined. And it all started with Index on Censorship.

In 2008, when I was political editor of the New Statesman, I was asked to collect an Index on Censorship New Media award on behalf of WikiLeaks, the organisation Assange founded two years earlier. I duly turned up for the event and was told the man himself had appeared at the caterers’ entrance at the last-minute and my services would not be required. Secretive and not a little melodramatic, I soon discovered this was the way Assange liked to do business. The speech was impressive, expressing how much Assange valued solidarity and his admiration for “syndicalism”, the belief that direct action can drive political change.

I wrote about that evening in my New Statesman blog and Assange noticed another item, where I discussed the newly aggressive approach the law firm Carter Ruck was taking with one of its clients, Nadhmi Auchi, an Iraqi billionaire convicted of fraud in France as part of the giant Elf-Aquitaine scandal. Mr Auchi continues to deny the charges. Newspapers who had written about Auchi’s business dealings were being threatened with legal action if they didn’t remove articles from their websites. Most of them eventually complied rather than face steep legal bills. Assange acted quickly to hoover up everything he could about Auchi and published it on WikiLeaks. It was a bold move because Carter Ruck were playing hardball. When I published a link to the Auchi files on my blog, the law firm threatened to sue the New Statesman.

I recently came across an email from Assange which he sent in November 2008, when he found out the New Statesman was planning to cave. He condemned the magazine for removing the original blogpost and objected to plans to issue a statement saying the articles collected by WikiLeaks (and published by respected journalists in national newspapers) contained significant inaccuracies. He pointed out that this action would in itself be defamatory.

This was solidarity and syndicalism, Assange-style. The New Statesman decided to settle with the billionaire, and I soon parted company with the magazine.

A few months later, a WikiLeaks emissary walked into the offices of a charity I had set up to help young people break into the creative industries on London’s Southbank. He showed me footage of the 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike in which two Reuters journalists and several civilians were killed by a missile from a US helicopter. After a few further discussions, I advised him to talk to major news outlets about this extraordinary story. Shortly after this, WikiLeaks (in collaboration with The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais) began publishing the US diplomatic cables that made Assange’s reputation. It was a new, collaborative way of doing journalism that challenged the way the United States conducted foreign policy. Solidarity and syndicalism in action, perhaps.

We live in different times and Julian Assange finds himself in Belmarsh high-security prison awaiting the result of his final appeal against extradition to the United States, where he faces trial under the Espionage Act. In the interim, he has become a highly divisive figure and much of the solidarity from his former journalistic collaborators has evaporated. He has made serious errors of judgment and attracted some unfortunate allies. His radar for what constitutes genuine dissent has always been questionable. As former Index journalist Padraig Reidy pointed out in an important piece on Assange in BuzzFeed News in 2019: “Assange’s definition of ‘power’ and ‘elite’ often stretched only as far as Western governments and their allies.” Over the years, it has sometimes seemed that the principles of solidarity only worked in one direction. With each new twist in the story, a new layer of support dropped away. When Assange jumped bail and found refuge in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, when he published hacked emails from Hilary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign, when he suggested he was the victim of a conspiracy of Jewish journalists and was found to have employed a Holocaust denier, this all contributed to the picture of Assange as a narcissistic, paranoid self-publicist whose path was littered with the collateral damage of his overblown ego.

The question is whether it is possible to set all this aside and look at the bigger picture or if Assange’s flaws and failings are an integral part of the bigger picture. Meanwhile, those journalists who have worked with him over the years need to ask themselves if his present predicament as a prisoner in the UK’s highest security prison is just desserts or a travesty of justice.

The French free expression organisation, Reporters Without Borders, which has been consistent in its support for Assange, published a useful list of common misconceptions in the Assange case: that he is a traitor to the United States (he is Australian), that he leaked classified information (he published it), that he knowingly put people at risk (the prosecution has struggled to prove harm). But most powerful is the misconception that if he is convicted this will have no wider effect. There is already ample evidence that governments are determined to deter journalists from ever working with the likes of Assange again. The new UK National Security Act has specific measures to increase sentences for journalists working on data leak stories involving official secrets. Add to this the use of the US Espionage Act. Assange would be the first publisher tried under this act and if convicted he might not be the last.

Julian Assange is so wrong about so much. He has made many terrible mistakes. He is, in some ways, the agent of his own misfortune. But he taught journalists that some stories are so important that they need international collaboration to put them into the public domain. He was not wrong about the importance of solidarity.

‘There simply is no moral high ground anymore’ – Stella Assange

Julian Assange’s fight against extradition to the USA is entering its final stages. Speaking to Index on Censorship, Assange’s wife Stella says that “this really is the endgame”.

Her concern that time is running out follows the June decision by British High Court judge Jonathan Swift that her husband’s case should not be allowed to go to appeal, a decision she calls extraordinary.

The USA has been seeking to extradite Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to face charges relating to the leaking of hundreds of thousands of documents to international media in 2010 and 2011 about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, detainees in Guantanamo Bay and diplomatic cables. The documents had been sent to him by the US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

The story took a new twist when Assange, an Australian citizen, entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face rape and sexual assault allegations. Ecuador’s then president Rafael Correa granted him asylum. The Swedish cases were eventually dropped. In 2019, Assange was evicted by the Ecuadorian government.

It has since been revealed that Assange was illegally monitored while in the embassy and that senior CIA officials in the Trump administration discussed options to kidnap and even assassinate Assange.

After Assange’s arrest on leaving the embassy, purportedly for breaching his bail conditions, the US government began extradition proceedings.

In January 2021, district judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled against his extradition on the grounds that “the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” a decision that the US government appealed. That December 2021, the High Court ruled that Assange could be extradited after US authorities made assurances over how he would be treated in prison. In June 2022, the UK’s then home secretary Priti Patel approved the extradition.

Assange appealed to the High Court but Swift turned down the appeals saying it was “no more than an attempt to re-run the extensive arguments made to and rejected by the district judge”.

“Julian has only one option left now which is to ask two Court of Appeal judges to reconsider Swift’s decision,” said Stella Assange. “The good news, if you can call it that, is that this time the decision will not be issued behind closed doors. There will be a public hearing. If the two judges affirm Swift’s position, Julian will not be able to go to the Supreme Court. It will be the end of the road in the UK.”

The date of the public hearing is likely to be announced this week.

With time running out, Assange’s supporters have launched the Day X campaign to encourage supporters to protest at the hearing.

“On Day X, I am asking everyone who can to come to the High Court to support not only Julian but also press freedom and the public’s right to receive truthful information, which are being trampled on,” said Stella Assange.

If he is extradited, Assange faces charges under the Espionage Act, for which there is no public interest defence.

“The outcome is a foregone conclusion, particularly as the US has already argued before the British extradition judge that Julian will not ‘enjoy’ Constitutional protections for free speech under the First Amendment because he is not a US citizen and he was not in the US at the time of the receipt and publication of the information,” said Stella Assange.

Meanwhile, the Australian government is ramping up its efforts to get the US government to drop the extradition request. The current Australian government opposes his imprisonment, often citing the four and a half years he has been imprisoned to date without conviction. This week, it was revealed that 63 members of Australia’s House of Representatives and Senate had called on the US government to drop the extradition request. In a letter of support, the politicians said they were “resolutely of the view that the prosecution and incarceration of the Australian citizen Julian Assange must end”.

“Other Australian lawmakers cite the fact that he is accused of nothing other than acts of press freedom that are being recast as crimes (receiving, possessing and communicating information to the public). They also highlight that the source of said information, Chelsea Manning, is free whereas the publisher, Julian, remains imprisoned. There is a disconnect that sits very badly with the Australian temperament, where fairness matters a great deal,” said Stella Assange.

The US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy has made comments on Assange’s case which have led to speculation that there may be scope for a plea deal. If so, this would be announced when the country’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese makes an official visit to the USA in late October. Some are suggesting that the comments may have been made to placate the Australian public, who are strongly supportive of the campaign to drop the extradition request.

“No offer has been made by the United States. Julian has won awards for his extraordinary contribution to journalism so if the United States government considers journalism to be a crime then he is guilty and has many more press and integrity awards to show it,” said Stella Assange.

With the US elections on the horizon, the window of opportunity is closing for Julian Assange and his supporters

“Under Biden, under the guise of continuing an initiated indictment, the administration has reached a new catastrophic low by creating a new normal by failing to undo the political prosecution of the previous administration and keeping a journalist imprisoned for years and years. Julian’s role in exposing corrupt and illegal practices committed by his jailers has lowered the bar for political prosecutions targeting the press the world over. There simply is no moral high ground anymore,” said Stella Assange.

She argues that her husband’s situation is used as justification by authoritarian regimes that imprison journalists.

“It is undeniable that the intrinsics of Julian’s case are so shocking it is something one would expect from the worst dictatorships. A thin patina of ‘process’ cannot obscure the fact that he is facing 175 years for groundbreaking journalism, that the only agencies who will decide on the conditions and degree of isolation that he will be held in if he is sent to a US prison, pre- and post-trial, are the same agencies that were elaborating plans to kill him while he had political asylum at the embassy, that is to say, the CIA,“ she said.

Despite the road rapidly running out, Stella Assange still feels that her husband can avoid extradition. She said:

“The fact that this is a political case gives me hope that individual agency, on the streets, through press freedom groups and those who have the ear and the conscience of those in power, will come together to end this. Julian needs to come home and all that needs to happen is for people to individually and collectively live up to our principles. A society cannot be free, open and democratic without a free press, and press freedom is incompatible with imprisoning Julian Assange.”


Letter to US Attorney General on Julian Assange

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue,

NW Washington,

DC 20530-0001

October 15, 2021


Attorney General Merrick Garland:

We, the undersigned press freedom, civil liberties, and international human rights advocacy organizations, write again to share our profound concern about the ongoing criminal and extradition proceedings relating to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Julian Assange in 2014, photo: David G Silvers/CC BY-SA 2.0

In February, members of this coalition wrote to the Acting Attorney General, urging that the criminal charges against Mr. Assange be dropped. We now renew that request with even greater urgency, in light of a recent story in Yahoo News describing alarming discussions within the CIA and Trump administration before the indictment against Assange was filed. The Yahoo News story only heightens our concerns about the motivations behind this prosecution, and about the dangerous precedent that is being set.

As we noted in our earlier correspondence, the signatories to this letter have different perspectives on Mr. Assange and his organization. We are united, however, in our view that the criminal case against him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad. We were disappointed that the Department of Justice appealed the decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court to reject the Trump administration’s extradition request. Especially in light of the recent news report, we urge you to drop that appeal and dismiss the underlying indictment.

As we explained in our earlier letter, journalists routinely engage in much of the conduct described in the indictment: speaking with sources, asking for clarification or more documentation, and receiving and publishing official secrets. News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance.

We appreciate that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide national security interests, but the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy. In our view, a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be used against publishers and journalists alike, chilling their work and undermining freedom of the press.

Major news organizations share this concern. The charges against Assange have been condemned by virtually every major American news outlet, even though many of those news outlets have criticized Mr. Assange in the past.

In light of these concerns, and in light of the shocking new reporting on the government’s conduct in this case, we respectfully urge you to drop the ongoing appeal of Judge Baraitser’s ruling and to dismiss the indictment of Mr. Assange. Respectfully,

(in alphabetical order)

Access Now

American Civil Liberties Union

Amnesty International USA

Center for Constitutional Rights

Committee to Protect Journalists

Defending Rights & Dissent

Demand Progress Education Fund

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Fight for the Future

First Amendment Coalition

Free Press

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Human Rights Watch

Index on Censorship

Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University

National Coalition Against Censorship

Open The Government

Partnership for Civil Justice Fund

PEN America

Project on Government Oversight

Reporters Without Borders

The Press Freedom Defense Fund of First Look Institute

Whistleblower and Source Protection Program (WHISPeR) at ExposeFacts[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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]