As the trial of Julian Assange gets underway at the high court in London on 27 October, ARTICLE 19 reiterates its call for the journalist and founder of Wikileaks not to be extradited to the United States. If the January ruling is overturned, it will deal a significant blow to press freedom.
“Governments must not unjustly criminalise those who gather news and expose the truth,” said Sarah Clarke, head of ARTICLE 19’s Europe and Central Asia team. “Those who pursue and reveal human rights abuses by the US and other governments, as well as other powerful entities, should not face extradition and prosecution on vague ‘national security’ grounds.
“The Justice Department must drop all charges against Mr Assange. Additionally, US Congress must urgently improve legal protections for all journalists, publishers and whistleblowers.”
The US government launched the appeal after UK Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled in January 2021 that Assange could not be extradited on mental health grounds to face charges of espionage and of hacking government computers under the US’ Espionage Act. She said that if Assange was taken to a high security prison in the US, he was likely to take his own life.
It follows allegations that in 2017, the Donald Trump administration, spearheaded by Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA at the time, had plotted to kidnap Assange, and even assassinate him. Pompeo viewed Wikileaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” and had launched surveillance operations against Wikileaks employees and Assange.
Since his arrest at the Ecuadorian embassy in April 2019, Assange has been held in the high security Belmarsh prison.
ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly raised concerns about criminal investigations into Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, as well as the prosecution of those who were sources of information, including Chelsea Manning.
Human rights organisations were not able to gain adequate access to monitor legal proceedings as independent observers in person or online, constituting a serious obstacle to open justice.
As ARTICLE 19 and other human rights groups have noted, the US’ Espionage Act does not comply with international standards on freedom of expression. Espionage laws should not be used to force journalists to disclose information regarding 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 information they have released.
If the US government fails in its obligations to protect journalists and whistleblowers who bring vital information to the public domain, it will embolden authoritarian governments that prosecute journalists on a routine basis, often on dubious national security grounds.