BERLIN — In a week when the Biden administration worked to free a truth teller arrested in Russia, it doubled down on its commitment to punish another truth teller arrested in Western Europe.
“I can confirm we are continuing our efforts to seek the extradition of Julian Assange,” Justice Department spokesperson Nicole Navas Oxman told Poynter on Monday.
The statement was released in a period when pressure to release the WikiLeaks founder has come from many directions, with members of Congress, the British press and a Russian state official all chiming in on Assange’s continued detention in Britain at the behest of American authorities.
The U.S. government has charged Assange with breaking American security laws, despite being an Australian citizen in Europe at the time the laws were allegedly broken. He has been held for four years in Belmarsh Prison.
A wide-ranging collection of press and human rights groups — including Reporters without Borders, the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists — has urged the United States to drop its extradition attempt. The case has been rife with procedural problems, from a violation of attorney-client privilege to a conflict of interest that forced a judge to step aside from the case. In addition, a bombshell September 2021 report from Yahoo News detailed an alleged conversation among American officials discussing the possibility of assassinating Assange.
Assange is most well known for having exposed likely U.S. war crimes in Iraq, using leaked documents and data from army whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
“The effect of the U.S., China, or any other country claiming universal jurisdiction for prosecutions means that investigative journalism — particularly efforts to uncover crimes and abuses of power committed by military or security agencies — is endangered,” said Kevin Gosztola, a founding editor at Shadowproof, a news site focused on American incarceration, labor and military activity, in an email. Gosztola has published a book on Assange.
“States may believe they have the green light to pursue their own political cases against journalists for the purpose of ‘safeguarding’ their government’s state secrets,” Gosztola said. “What may be in the public interest, as in ‘necessary for all citizens of the world to know about that government,’ will be riskier for international correspondents to seek out.”
Working to free a reporter
The U.S. government’s position on Assange was given to Poynter after Gosztola mentioned WikiLeaks while discussing Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was arrested on espionage charges in Russia last week.
“It is appalling for Russia to prosecute a journalist as if he or she is engaged in spying, especially if they have no proof that they were working for an intelligence agency,” Gosztola said. “That said, I would argue that this type of case is exactly why press freedom organizations have been clamoring for the United States government to drop the Espionage Act prosecution against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
“How is what Russia is accusing Gershkovich of doing any different from what the U.S. has accused Assange of doing?”
For many of Assange’s critics, the answer is that while Gershkovich is a journalist with a traditional print outlet, Assange worked outside of a traditional newsroom, albeit in collaboration with some of the world’s biggest news organizations.
Still, Pamela Morinière of the International Federation of Journalists, the largest global union federation of journalists’ trade unions, said Assange is a journalist.
“Julian is a holder of the IFJ International press card, the world’s most recognized press pass for journalists,” Morinière said in an email. “He is a member of our Australian union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. He was the head of news of WikiLeaks. For us, he is a journalist.”
The U.S. government’s push to punish Assange is a matter of the public’s right to know, Morinière said, with his case setting “a dangerous precedent that any member of the media, in any country, can now be targeted by governments, anywhere in the world, to answer for publishing information in the public interest.”
“Debating whether he is a journalist is a distraction from the indisputable fact that he’s being (prosecuted) for committing acts of journalism,” said Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, in an email.
“The First Amendment doesn’t limit itself to protecting card-carrying journalists,” he said. “It says ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ Assange is being prosecuted under a law that not only abridges freedom of the press but criminalizes essentially the dictionary definition of investigative journalism. If that’s permitted by the First Amendment then the First Amendment does not mean much.”
The federal government has argued that Assange’s lack of restraint may have cost the lives of informants and other people in conflict zones.
When I directly asked in recent years for concrete examples of people killed because of WikiLeaks disclosures, however, the Department of Justice has declined to comment, beyond referring to the indictment, which also does not list any examples.
A question of restraint
Much of the debate over WikiLeaks during the Obama administration — which used the constitutionally dubious Espionage Act of 1917 more than all past administrations combined, but still restrained itself when it came to prosecuting Assange — hinged on what was at the time called the “New York Times problem.”
That debate postulated that if the prosecution of Assange set a marker, there would be little to prevent future administrations from prosecuting reporters from The New York Times, as most Times reporters who wrote military and national security stories regularly did most of the actions Assange was accused of doing.
Prosecuting such a publication “would obviously be undesirable,” said a representative for Britain’s National Union of Journalists via email. That’s both because the Times is North America’s most established and trusted news organization, the spokesperson said, and also because “when it was tried in 1971 (USA v. NYT) over publication of the Pentagon Papers, the Supreme Court upheld the NYT’s rights under the First Amendment.”
Critics have also argued that there are significant problems with any system in which protections are afforded solely to government-recognized journalists.
A long journey
In a Twitter post, the Courage Foundation, a legal defense organization for whistleblowers and journalists that seeks Assange’s release, said April 5 marked 13 years since WikiLeaks published the “Collateral Murder” video that depicts the U.S. military gunning down civilians, including Reuters journalists, in Baghdad.
Shortly after that release, Assange was investigated for alleged sexual misconduct in Sweden. Assange and his backers argued at the time that the Swedish investigation was a pretext to allow his extradition from Sweden to the United States. Assange offered to cooperate with the investigation via video interviews from Britain to avoid extradition. Swedish authorities declined those offers.
Sweden dropped the investigation after the statute of limitations expired, by which time Assange was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid arrest for a bail infraction.
“His only choice, when he made the choice, was either to go to Sweden, get put in jail and wind up in the United States, or take the risk that he could get political asylum from Ecuador and, thereby, ultimately, get out of the hands of the United States,” human rights attorney Michael Ratner told Democracy Now at the time.
Others said that Assange had fled a legitimate investigation.
Assange is persona non grata among many Democrats after WikiLeaks released emails from Hillary Clinton in a high-profile spectacle that likely played a pivotal role in the election of Donald Trump. He was also not adored by the Trump administration, however. The federal government under Trump spied on Assange and his lawyer, according to the Spanish newspaper El País, preventing an escape from the embassy to a more friendly country.
If convicted in the United States, Assange faces a prison term of 175 years — a number that other countries have used in propaganda materials disparaging U.S. sentencing practices.
On April 4, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire and director of operations and campaigns Rebecca Vincent were barred at the last minute from entering Belmarsh Prison to meet Assange, despite having been preapproved for the meeting. Among others, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, has expressed alarm at Assange’s health in prison multiple times.
“British authorities have defaulted to secrecy and exclusion rather than allowing normal engagement around this case — from refusing to accept RSF petitions, to making it nearly impossible to access court, and now this,” Vincent said in a release.
“What do they have to hide?”