Jailing of Assange: An attack on press freedom

Centre for Investigative Journalism
Julian Assange at the Centre for Investigative Journalism's 2010 summer conference in London

It has been nine-and-a-half-years since a shocking video went around the world. It showed American soldiers in a combat helicopter slaughtering 12 civilians on a street in Baghdad, including two journalists from the Reuters news agency. When a man drove up to help the victims, he and his two children were also shot. “Nice, good shoot,” shouted a member of the American crew. “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,” said another.

The recording demonstrated the cruelty of the war in American-occupied Iraq. At the same time, it marked the beginning of another tragic conflict: Julian Assange, the Australian computer nerd and pioneer of data journalism, who rose to world fame with his revelatory platform Wikileaks and the video sequences published there. But exposing bloodbaths, and publishing thousands of secret documents from the US Department of Defense and the US Department of State, was to be his downfall. America’s rulers set to work pursuing him as an enemy of the state and ‘cyberterrorist’, and now his life is at risk.

Since April 2019, the British authorities have been holding Assange in Belmarsh Maximum Security Prison, mostly in solitary confinement. Previously, he had spent nearly seven years under constant observation in exile at the Embassy of Ecuador in London until a new government in Quito yielded to pressure from the Trump government and handed him over to British justice.

Assange had fled to the embassy after the Swedish police demanded his transfer to Stockholm. He was facing questioning in relation to accusations against him of sexual offences. Assange, however, feared extradition from Sweden to the US. Critics called him paranoid and accused him of only wanting to escape the proceedings in Sweden. But Assange was right. Only a few hours after his expulsion from the embassy, the US government sent the extradition request. The Swedish Public Prosecutor’s Office, on the other hand, suddenly closed its investigation.

But now, according to UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer, Assange suffers from “the typical symptoms of a person who has been subjected to mental torture for a prolonged period of time”. This manifests as “severe chronic anxiety states and a post-traumatic stress syndrome”. Nevertheless, British Home Secretary Priti Patel refuses to transfer him to a proper hospital or to end his isolation. “This arbitrariness could cost him his life,” warns Melzer.

Sixty doctors from eight countries wrote an open letter to the British government in November, staring their serious concern that if treatment is not given urgently, “that Mr Assange could die in prison” But these calls for medical attention have gone unheeded.

In itself, this is a terrible injustice which calls into question Britain’s legal system. It is made worse by the fact that there is no legal basis for Assange’s extradition detention. The US government accuses him of espionage and “conspiracy to betray secrets,” but these accusations are contrived and violate the American constitution. Assange has neither used violence nor hacked American government computers. He merely published secret US military documents and helped his informant, former military data analyst Chelsea Manning, to cover up the evidence. Protecting sources is a vital  task for journalists, particularly when sources reveal war crimes, as the New York Times did with the Pentagon Papers leaked by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg – and thus made a decisive contribution to ending the Vietnam War.

The fact that the US government is attacking Assange with the outdated 1917 espionage law “blurs the distinction between journalists who expose government violations and foreign spies who undermine national security,” the New York Times commented. “This deprives the freedom of speech and press, and with it the strength of American democracy itself.”

Assange’s methods are a matter for debate. That he and his team did not black-out  all the names of US government’s collaborators in the Iraq War documents was a blatant mistake and might have put innocent people at risk. Whether it was journalistically necessary to publish Hillary Clinton’s emails during the election campaign and thus help Donald Trump win the election is also questionable. But none of this justifies his arrest and extradition to the US, where he faces an unfair trial and a life sentence. As a result, hundreds of journalists around the world (including the author) have signed a petition “to call for an end to the legal campaign being waged against him for the crime of revealing war crimes.”

Eighty-eight years ago, a journalist was convicted of espionage for uncovering dirty military secrets. In 1931, a German court sent the later Nobel Prize winner Carl von Ossietzky into custody for two years because his magazine, Die Weltbühne, had made public the forbidden armament of the Reichswehr. This persecution of a journalist was a sinister harbinger of the horrible events that followed.

It is therefore all the more incomprehensible that neither the German government nor the EU Commission and the parliaments and governments of the other EU states are intervening against the illegal and inhumane detention of Julian Assange in London. Also noticeably shameful is the passivity of the international media which has profited and raised its investigative profile over the years by using documents released by Wikileaks. Instead of just reporting, they should fight together in the name of press freedom and use their power to call for the release of Assange, even if only in their own interest.

The trial to decide on the extradition of Julian Assange is due to begin in London on 24 February 2020 – provided he is still alive.