On Wednesday, April 20th, the Australian editor and publisher Julian Assange had a seven-minute hearing with a London Magistrates’ Court. During this, the Chief Magistrate announced that he would be sending the decision regarding Assange’s possible extradition to the United States, up to the UK’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel. The hearing was originally meant to challenge a judgment from a December 2021 hearing, which ruled that Assange could be extradited to the U.S. to face charges if there were assurances made about his treatment. Wednesday’s hearings did not result in the ideal verdict for Assange, which would have been an overturn of the previous judgment and having his case sent back to a lower court. Instead, it’s being sent to Secretary Patel, who will make the decision after May 18th.
Assange is set to face eighteen charges and up to 175 years in prison, should he be extradited to the United States, and will be the first publisher ever to be tried under the 1917 Espionage Act. Assange, a co-founder of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks is being convicted because, in 2010, WikiLeaks published thousands of classified documents regarding national security and war, including a video from a U.S. military helicopter that showed the killing of eighteen civilians in Baghdad. Later that year, WikiLeaks posted hundreds of thousands of documents, including diplomatic cables, leaked by former U.S. Army analyst Chelsea Manning. In 2015, WikiLeaks published confidential emails from the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. In December 2017, the United States indicated Assange for military leaks. Finally, in April of 2018, with Ecuador’s permission, he was arrested in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had been living as an asylum seeker and later a citizen, for seven years in order to avoid (completely unrelated) Swedish charges.
Since his arrest in 2018, Assange has been held at Belmarsh Prison, a high-security prison in London. Since then, he has attended numerous hearings, at many of which, his extradition to the United States has been the subject. At a January 2021 hearing, a court ruling found that Assange couldn’t be extradited to the U.S. as it would be detrimental to his mental and physical health, both of which have been in decline since his imprisonment. The December 2021 hearing, which overturned this decision, and Wednesday’s failure to have it reversed are troubling, not just for Assange, who faces a lot of jail time, but globally, because of the precedent that it would set regarding press freedom.
Nearly all theories of democracy assert that a free press is necessary. In a democracy, having a free press is important because it creates vertical accountability, and provides citizens with information that they deserve to have regarding politicians and the activities of their government. By arresting Julian Assange, and charging him, the United States and the United Kingdom are infringing on the freedom of the media. Amnesty International’s Simon Crowther said it best, “Julian Assange is being prosecuted for espionage for publishing sensitive material that was classified. And if he is extradited to the U.S. for this, all journalists around the world are going to have to look over their shoulder[s], because within their own jurisdiction, if they publish something that the U.S. considers to be classified, they will face the risk of being extradited.” By publishing the information that he did in 2010, the people of the United States and the world were informed of the heinous actions of the United States military in the Middle East. This was information that the public deserved to know, especially as military activities, classified are not, are funded by taxpayer dollars. By publishing it, even though it was illegal, Assange allowed U.S. citizens to hold their government and military accountable.
In conclusion, the extradition and prosecution of Julian Assange would set a dangerous precedent for journalism and press freedom worldwide. This same precedent, that a publisher, a journalist, or even a source who uncovered “classified information” and published it (or assisted in its publishing), could be applied to anyone working with information that’s been deemed classified, and they could be equally punished. As two countries, that are designated as being “free” by Freedom House, they need to set the example for press freedom, not arrest and imprison anyone who publishes information they wanted to keep under wraps. Julian Assange is by no means a good man, and deserves to be extradited to Sweden to face sexual assault charges, but doesn’t deserve to be imprisoned in the United States for publishing important, significant information about U.S. Army activities. Assange’s possible extradition and indictment in the United States has disastrous potential for journalists and publishers worldwide, and it’s now in the hands of Secretary Patel, to as British MP Jeremy Corbyn put it, “[recognize her] huge responsibility to stand up for free speech, journalism, and democracy.”