On Monday November 28, the 12th anniversary of the “Cablegate” release of over 250,000 US diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks by Chelsea Manning, the editors of the New York Times, the Guardian and three other newspapers who worked on the cables as media partners — Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País — sent an open letter to the Biden administrationcalling on the US government “to end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets,” because “[p]ublishing is not a crime.”
As the editors stated, “The Obama-Biden Administration, in office during the Wikileaks publication in 2010, refrained from indicting Assange, explaining that they would have had to indict journalists from major news outlets too. Their position placed a premium on press freedom, despite its uncomfortable consequences. Under Donald Trump however, the position changed. The DOJ relied on an old law, the Espionage Act of 1917 (designed to prosecute potential spies during World War I), which has never been used to prosecute a publisher or broadcaster.”
As they added, “This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press. Holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of a free press in a democracy. Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalized, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker.”
The united front presented by these five newspapers — some of the most prominent in Europe — was, to be blunt, long overdue, as Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been imprisoned for over three and half years in Belmarsh maximum-security prison, as he challenges his extradition to the US. A united front should have been presented by these newspapers — and others who worked with WikiLeaks — as soon as he was seized, on April 11, 2019, from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he had been granted asylum almost seven years before.
Calling for Julian Assange’s release since 2019
Immediately after Assange was seized, I wrote a Facebook post pointing out how “[t]hose who leak information, like Chelsea Manning, need protection, and so do those in the media who make it publicly available; Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as much as those who worked with them on the release of documents — the New York Times and the Guardian, for example,” and I urged everyone who had worked with WikiLeaks “to make sure that they all fight as tenaciously as possible to prevent Julian Assange’s extradition to the US.”
To highlight these publishers, I also posted a link to all of WikiLeaks’ “Co-publishers, Research partners and Funders” on their website, including myself, because I worked with WikiLeaks on the release of classified military files from Guantánamo in April 2011.
Within days, the US Justice Department unsealed an indictment against Assange, and I subsequently posted an article unambiguously declaring, Defend Julian Assange and WikiLeaks: Press Freedom Depends On It, following up, when espionage charges were announced in May 2019, with an article entitled, Stop the Extradition: If Julian Assange Is Guilty of Espionage, So Too Are the New York Times, the Guardian and Numerous Other Media Outlets, in which I quoted supportive journalists and media organizations, as well as Chelsea Manning, who issued a statement saying that she accepted “full and sole responsibility” for the 2010 WikiLeaks disclosures, and the UN Rapporteur for Torture, Nils Melzer, who had visited Assange in Belmarsh and who subsequently became so concerned about his treatment at the hand of the US and UK authorities that he wrote an entire book about it, The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution, which was published in February this year.
I also repeated my call for “everyone concerned with press freedom — with, in the US, the cherished First Amendment — to declare unconditionally that the charges are wrong, and that the UK should not extradite Assange to the US,” but it was troubling that some prominent media outlets, while allowing critics of the extradition to comment, maintained an unhelpful position themselves. On May 24, 2019, for example, the Guardian published an editorial focusing on the sexual misconduct charges against Assange in Sweden, which were subsequently dropped, stating that he “should stand trial for rape” in Sweden, and also calling him “an unattractive character who has quarrelled with almost all his former supporters,” a claim which, even if true, had no relevance whatsoever to the injustice of prosecuting a publisher for publishing government secrets that it was in the public interest to have revealed.
I repeated my call for the UK to stop his proposed extradition to the US in October 2019, when preliminary hearings regarding his extradition began in London, and continued to call for the extradition to be dropped in February 2020, in an article entitled, A Call for the Mainstream Media to Defend Press Freedom and to Oppose the Proposed Extradition of Julian Assange to the US, when I particularly focused on efforts by former Daily Mirror editor and Guardian journalist Roy Greenslade to encourage British newspaper editors to present a united front to oppose Assange’s extradition.
When the extradition hearings began in earnest, at the Old Bailey in September 2020 (having been delayed by Covid), I again posted an article, The Ongoing and Unjustifiable Persecution of Julian Assange, in which, once more, I pointed out that, “if a case were to be made that Assange and WikiLeaks were engaged in criminal activity, then so too were the publishers and editors of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and all the other newspapers around the world who worked with Assange on the release of these documents.”
During the hearings, I also submitted a statement to the court on Assange’s behalf, based on my assessment of the importance of the Guantánamo files, and took part in a film, “The War on Journalism: The Case of Julian Assange,” directed by Juan Passarelli, as well as undertaking numerous radio interviews, and in January 2021, after the judge unexpectedly refused to allow the extradition to proceed, ruling that Assange’s life would be at risk in a US Supermax prison, I urged the Biden administration to drop the extradition request. Instead, however, a year ago two High Court judges overruled the lower court’s decision, accepting risible US assurances that, if extradited, he would not be held in suicide-inducing conditions.
2022: the tipping point?
As Julian Assange’s long legal limbo has continued throughout 2022, it has been difficult to imagine how he continues to keep his hopes alive. It was inspiring when, in March, he married his fiancée, Stella Moris, in Belmarsh, with their two sons present, but it was almost unbearably poignant when, afterwards, she emerged from the prison to cut the wedding cake without him, and, soon after, held a wedding reception in central London, at which, once again, he was noticeably absent.
In June, then-home secretary Priti Patel formally approved his extradition, but in August his lawyers appealed against the December 2021 ruling, once more holding out the hope that the extradition can still be halted, and in October it was obviously heartening for everyone involved in the case that 5,000 people turned up in London to surround Parliament in a Human Chain, and that other events took place around the world, including a Human Chain around the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. and another in Melbourne.
Now, however, this open letter from the five newspapers that worked with WikiLeaks on the release of the US cables — in which personal slights and discredited claims have finally been abandoned — will hopefully increase pressure on the Biden administration, especially as the Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, called this week for a resolution to the case.
In the Australian Parliament, the independent MP Monique Ryan, who said that public interest journalism was “essential to democracy” and declared that Assange’s freedom “will only come from political intervention,” asked Albanese, “Will the government intervene to bring Mr Assange home?” to which he replied, ”I have raised this personally with representatives of the United States government. My position is clear and has been made clear to the US administration — that it is time that this matter be brought to a close.”
As well as Albanese’s contribution, Assange’s lawyers have also submitted an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton told Reuters that “he believed the US authorities would want to avoid the case going before the ECHR, as the European media and public were more sympathetic to his cause than those in Britain or the United States,” as the news agency described it.
“I would imagine the US wants to avoid that,” Shipton said, “trying to extradite a publisher from Europe for publishing US war revelations when the US is asking Europe to make all sort of sacrifices for the war in Ukraine.”
With the UK appeal also due to be heard in the new year, now would be a good time for the Biden administration — and Attorney General Merrick Garland — to reflect on what they think they’re doing, pursuing Donald Trump’s vendetta against Julian Assange, which was aimed, I can’t help thinking, less at Assange himself, and more at threatening journalists in general. It amazes me — and depresses me in equal measure — that, nearly two years into Biden’s presidency, this malignant and unjustifiable extradition request still hasn’t been dropped.