Why Julian Assange’s victory does little to help the cause of press freedom
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Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, on Monday won his battle against extradition from the United Kingdom to the United States. The surprise decision by a London judge prompted joyous scenes outside the court—but also warnings about the protection of the free press.
For his role in the leaking of U.S. military secrets, the 49-year-old Australian faces a range of Espionage Act charges. According to Assange’s supporters—and many of his detractors, too—his case marks an important moment in the fight for press freedom.
However, Monday’s decision did not end up turning on the question of whether what Assange had allegedly done—conspiring with the whistleblowing soldier Chelsea Manning to access diplomatic cables and videos depicting the killing of civilians in Iraq—was protected as free speech.
Instead, London District Judge Vanessa Baraitser halted Assange’s extradition because of his mental health.
Clinical experts confirmed that he poses a significant suicide risk and would be likely to kill himself if placed in solitary confinement in the U.S., as would likely be the case—the “single minded determination” produced by his “autism spectrum disorder” is a major factor here, the judge said. So extraditing him to the U.S. would be “oppressive” and therefore illegal.
On the substance of the case, Baraitser said Assange’s alleged role in helping Manning crack a Defense Department computer password went beyond journalistic activity, and would also have been illegal under U.K. secrecy laws. She also rebuffed claims by Assange’s supporters that the charges against him were politically motivated.
The U.S. will appeal against the ruling. Meanwhile, Assange’s lawyers will reportedly apply for bail on Wednesday.
“Politically motivated process”
“We welcome this decision on the grounds that he will not be extradited because of his serious mental-health issues, but we are very concerned about the substance of the decision,” said Rebecca Vincent, a campaigner at Reporters Without Borders, outside London’s Old Bailey Court.
“We disagree with the judge’s assessment that this case is not politically motivated, that it’s not about free speech. We continue to believe that Mr. Assange was targeted for his contributions to journalism, and until the underlying issues here are addressed, other journalists, sources, and publishers remain at risk.”
Amnesty International also welcomed the fact that Assange will be spared extradition, but the organization’s Europe director, Nils Muižnieks, said the charges “should never have been brought in the first place.”
“The fact that the ruling is correct and saves Assange from extradition does not absolve the U.K. from having engaged in this politically motivated process at the behest of the USA and putting media freedom and freedom of expression on trial. It has set a terrible precedent for which the U.S. is responsible and the U.K. government is complicit,” Muižnieks said in a statement.
While the U.S.’s Espionage Act has been used a dozen times to charge government workers for sharing classified information with journalists, it had until the Assange case not been used to charge a journalist or publisher.
But thanks to Monday’s decision, the Assange case won’t be able to advance to a precedent-setting stage, Freedom of the Press executive director Trevor Timm noted approvingly after Monday’s decision.
WikiLeaks’ publication of the U.S. diplomatic cables and military footage took place in 2010, and the Obama administration was quick to say it wanted Assange prosecuted.
However, it was only in 2019 that the Justice Department unsealed its indictment—under the Trump administration, and after Assange had spent seven years taking refuge in Ecuador’s U.K. embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex-crime allegations. (The Swedish authorities subsequently dropped that investigation.)
Although his intelligence chiefs saw WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” Trump himself was quite a fan, having repeatedly praised Assange’s crew for its publication of hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 election campaign.