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At a critical moment for press freedom globally, urgent calls for a political solution to free Julian Assange

Introduction by Croakey: Julian Assange could be extradited as early as this week to the United States on espionage charges, according to his lawyers.

The Australian Wikileaks founder could face a maximum US jail sentence of 175 years  if a crucial two-day hearing of the United Kingdom’s High Court London on Tuesday and Wednesday (UK time) rejects his application for leave to appeal against a 2022 decision to allow him to be extradited

The hearing will be Assange’s final UK legal hope and comes amid growing international concern about attacks and curbs on journalism in many countries. According to Reporters without Borders, “the toll of four months of war in Gaza on journalism is nothing short of horrifying”, with at least 88 journalists and media workers killed since 7 October (83 of them Palestinian journalists).

Meanwhile, the Covering Climate Now collaboration, a global media initiative, has warned that the criminalisation of environmental defenders has implications for freedom of the press too. “Independent journalism, like peaceful dissent, is an essential pillar of civil society — and the same forces that target one often target the other,” said a recent Covering Climate Now newsletter.

The looming UK High Court hearing prompted a strong resolution from Australia’s Parliament last week, led by Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and, importantly, backed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, calling on the UK and US to bring the pursuit of Assange “to a close”.

Marie McInerney reports below on a #FreeAssange briefing from Assange’s key supporters, hosted last Friday by Australia’s journalism union, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA).


Marie McInerney writes:

Lawyers for Julian Assange have warned that no journalist in the world is safe from governments seeking to avoid scrutiny and accountability if the Australian Wikileaks founder loses his bid for an appeal to the United Kingdom High Court this week and is extradited to the United States.

Key supporters — his wife Stella Assange, barrister Jennifer Robinson, Wikileaks editor-in-chief Kristin Hrafnsson and Rebecca Vincent from Reporters without Borders (RSF) — last week spoke at a briefing for Australian journalists organised by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) about the upcoming hearing, urging media to show the US and UK that “the world is watching”.

However, there’s a risk no-one from outside England and Wales can watch, with journalists and non-government organisations in Australia and elsewhere currently barred from online access to the hearings.

“#Assange is an Australian citizen and a member of #MEAAmedia. It is ludicrous that media and NGOs based in Australia – including his own union! – have been refused access to the live stream,” the MEAA tweeted on Sunday, welcoming the Australian High Commission agreement to advocate to the UK courts authority on the issue.

Below are key takeaways from the briefing.

MEAA briefing on 16 February, 2023

The case against Assange

Assange has been held in London’s high security Belmarsh Prison for nearly five years, since being arrested at London’s Ecuadorean embassy where he had sought asylum since 2012.

The US is seeking his extradition in order to prosecute him under the Espionage Act of 1917, a wartime law that critics like Amnesty International say was never intended to target the legitimate work of publishers and journalists. Facing charges of conspiracy to receive, obtain and disclose classified information, he could be sentenced to up to 175 years in jail.

The charges relate to his role in publishing classified military and diplomatic documents in 2010 that were leaked by former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning (later pardoned by US President Barack Obama), including the shocking video that Wikileaks titled Collateral Murder that showed a US helicopter kill 11 civilians, including two Reuters employees, in Iraq, raising allegations of war crimes.

The Obama administration reportedly rejected the option of a criminal charge against Assange under the Espionage Act, in recognition of the danger to press freedom; however, he was later indicted under President Trump.

His lawyers won their case against extradition in early 2021 on the grounds that it would be oppressive because of his mental health difficulties, autism diagnosis, and the prison conditions he would face in the US,  which they asserted would cause Assange to die by suicide.

The UK High Court in 2022 denied Assange leave to appeal, accepting US assurances that he would not be held in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison.  Amnesty International says these assurances “are not worth the paper they are written on”, .

On Tuesday and Wednesday the High Court will hear Assange’s application to appeal that 2022 decision.

Risk of extradition is “urgent and imminent”

If the High Court rules against Assange’s application this week, “there is no further appeal for Julian in the UK”, his barrister Jennifer Robinson told the MEAA briefing.

The plan would be to then seek an interim Provisional Measure from the European Court of Human Rights, but his team warned that these are granted only in rare circumstances and, in any case, there are fears the British Government might not respect a European court decision.

Stella Assange said her husband could be extradited within 24 hours of this week’s hearing. Robinson wasn’t so explicit about the timing but said Assange’s situation was “imminent and urgent”.

“So if we’re unsuccessful, he could very well be on a plane to the United States, to prison conditions where the medical evidence shows that he will have cause to commit suicide. So when Stella says that his life is at risk, she’s not exaggerating, that is the medical evidence. And that’s how urgent the situation is,” Robinson said.

High stakes for journalism globally

Moderator Karen Percy, president of the media section of the MEAA, said the briefing was organised to reinforce the high stakes of this week’s hearing, for Assange and also for journalists worldwide.

Robinson said Assange is “being prosecuted for basic public interest journalism, cultivating sources receiving information and publishing it to the world, exposing wrongdoing and criminality”.

She quoted an open letter from editors and publishers of The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, DER SPIEGEL and El Pais, published late last year, which called on the US Government to drop the prosecution of Assange, warning that criminalisation of the work of journalists weakened democracies.

Robinson said: “There’s no other way around it, it is the death knell of national security and public interest journalism in the United States and around the world.”

Wikileaks editor in chief Kristin Hrafnsson said no journalist anywhere in the world would be safe if the case against Assange succeeded; it would not be the last time that the blunt instrument of the Espionage Act, which does not allow a public interest defence, would be used against journalists.

“It cannot be understated how important this case is for the future of press freedom,” he said.

Commenting on the case, Professor Virginia Barbour, Editor in Chief of The Medical Journal of Australia, said it had “profound implications for journalism, including health journalism”, a critical pillar of democracy globally.

“In addition, the health effects on Assange of his prolonged imprisonment, which would only be worsened were he to be extradited, are cause for huge concern,” she told Croakey.

Meanwhile, an editorial in The Guardian today said the prosecution of Assange is “an iniquitous threat to journalism, with global implications”.

“If the prosecution succeeds, The New York Times lawyer in the Pentagon Papers case has said, ‘investigative reporting based on classified information will be given a near death blow’,” their editorial said. “That prospect is on the line in the courts this week. A society that claims to uphold freedom of the press cannot possibly remain indifferent.”

US officials and others have countered that Assange is not a journalist or publisher. They include former ABC journalist Peter Greste, who was imprisoned by the Egyptian government: “Journalism demands more than simply acquiring confidential information and releasing it unfiltered onto the internet….”, he said in 2019.

Greste has since called for Assange’s release, saying “enough is enough”, and also written that the way the US is prosecuting him “has serious implications for press freedom more broadly that nobody who believes in democracy can ignore”.

Amnesty International has warned that Assange’s extraditiion would “criminalise common journalistic practices and permit the US and possibly other countries to target publishers and journalists outside their jurisdictions for exposing governmental wrongdoing.

The MEAA says Assange exposed wrongdoing and criminality when Wikileaks shed light on civilian deaths and possible war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. “That was clearly journalism in the public interest,” it has said, noting that WikiLeaks received the Walkley Award in 2011 for Outstanding Contribution to journalism.

Rebecca Vincent from Reporters without Borders (RSF) said the case is “absolutely” about journalism and media freedom. She said the RSF recently published “12 of the common misconceptions” in Assange’s case, to try to address “unhelpful noise”  that undermined his case or portrayed him in a poor light.

Chilling effect

Kristin Hrafnsson said it was obvious that “the persecution of Julian Assange is aimed to have a chilling effect on other journalists, [to ensure they] shy away from exposing embarrassing or harmful secrets of government”. That  especially applies to national security reporting, which “is more and more important nowadays”.

He said that chilling effect is already visible, including in the 2020 Australian Federal Police raid on the ABC over stories which reported allegations of unlawful killings and misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, as well as the imprisonment of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia, charged like Assange with espionage.

Following the weekend’s news of the shocking death of Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, US President Joe Biden mourned Navalny’s courage and commented that “even in prison he was a powerful voice for the truth”.

Stella Assange tweeted in response: “An interesting statement while journalist Julian Assange, who published truth inconvenient to the US and the West, currently rots inside Belmarsh High Security prison while he fights extradition to the US.”

Grounds for appeal

Robinson detailed the grounds for Assange’s appeal. They include:

• That it should be a bar to extradition for him to face prosecution and punishment for his political opinions about the importance of transparency and holding governments to account — “the entire ethos behind Wikileaks and, indeed public interest journalism”. This involved exposing “widespread evidence of criminality on behalf of the United States government, including war crimes and torture”, she said.

• That, by using the Espionage Act for the first time in US history to criminally prosecute a publisher, the US is crossing a new legal threshold, extending criminal law in “unprecedented and unforeseeable ways” which violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

• That his prosecution amounts to a grave violation of his right to free speech and is dangerous because US prosecutors will argue that Assange does not benefit from US First Amendment free speech protections because he is an Australian citizen. “That should concern every single journalist anywhere in the world,” Robinson said.

• That he will not get a fair trial in the US, because of public comments made by politicians and high ranking US officials, but also because the location of the trial, in Virginia, would mean jurors would be drawn from  government contractors, intelligence agents, etc.

• That the extradition treaty allows the US to add additional charges once Assange is in the US, which could expose him to the death penalty.

Political solution is needed

Given any legal solution offered this week would likely see Assange kept in prison still for years, Stella Assange said the only prospect for him to be freed in the short-term “is a political solution”, and one that needs to come before the US presidential election gets any closer.

She welcomed the “very strong signal” sent by last week’s Australian parliamentary resolution and subsequent comments by Albanese, saying “two-thirds of the Australian Parliament is