Freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE 19 is calling for the UK not to extradite Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange to the United States.
Acting Executive Director Quinn McKew said:
“The extradition of Julian Assange would be a blow to investigative journalism around the world, criminalizing the newsgathering process and having a chilling effect on freedom of expression. It would mean that journalists and whistleblowers who expose human rights abuses by the US and other governments, as well as other powerful entities, are at risk of extradition and prosecution, wherever they are located, on vague “national security” grounds.
“If extradited, Assange would be tried under the US Espionage Act for publishing information that is both accurate and in the public interest, dealing a serious blow to national security journalism in the US and abroad.
“The UK authorities should not be complicit in this attack on press freedom. We also urge the US Government to drop the charges and urgently improve the protection of whistleblowers in the US.”
The US is seeking to extradite Assange to face an indictment with 18 counts that include charges for violation of the Espionage Act and a charge of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion”.
The charges relate to the publishing of classified information through WikiLeaks, which exposed truths about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that had previously been concealed from the public. These included the attack on a Baghdad suburb in 2007, in which two Reuters staff were killed and the killing of hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan by coalition forces. Wikileaks partnered with the Guardian, New York Times and the Washington Post to share many of these stories.
ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly raised concerns about criminal investigations into Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as well as prosecution of those who were sources of the information, such as Chelsea Manning. In November 2013, the US Department of Justice concluded it would not bring charges against Assange because government lawyers said they could not do so without also prosecuting U.S. news organizations and journalists, raising serious First Amendment issues. However, in April 2019, the Department made public a previously sealed indictment against Assange for conspiring to gain access to classified information on a computer. This was then followed in May 2019 with a 17-count indictment under the Espionage Act for seeking and publishing the classified information on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It is the first time that the Espionage Act has been used to bring charges against a publisher. If found guilty, Assange could be sentenced to more than 175 years in prison.
ARTICLE 19 has criticised the Espionage Act for being vaguely worded and not complying with international standards on freedom of expression. Journalists and publishers should not be liable under espionage laws for disclosing information of public interest. Equally, whistleblowers and those who provide information to media outlets should not be prosecuted if there is a strong public interest in the release of the information. By doing so, the US plays into the hands of authoritarian governments who routinely prosecute journalists under the guise of protection national security.
Assange is detained in H.M. Belmarsh, a maximum security prison. The first part of his extradition hearing will begin on Monday January 24 and is expected to last a week. The second part of the hearing will begin on May 18 and is expected to last for three weeks.
For more information, contact [email protected]