ARTICLE 19 is concerned about continuous attempts to prosecute Julian Assange, founder and publisher of Wikileaks, for his work through the organisation, and about the recent detention of Chelsea Manning for her refusal to testify against Wikileaks. We believe these are efforts to criminalize whistleblowing and the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression, and will potentially create a chilling effect for the media and whistle-blowers at a global level. The US government must respect the right to freedom of expression in both cases, and ensure that anyone can publish information about serious human rights violations without fear of reprisal and prosecution.
In November 2018, it was reported that the US prosecutors had obtained a sealed indictment against founder and publisher of Wikileaks, Julian Assange. A US federal court document, in an unrelated court filing, provided evidence that the US Department of Justice plans to seek Assange’s extradition from the United Kingdom. Previously, US officials have acknowledged that federal prosecutors have been conducting a lengthy criminal investigation into WikiLeaks. There is a potential that that Assange could be charged under the vaguely worded and overly broad WWI-era Espionage Act.
Additionally, on 8 March 2019, Chelsea Manning, the former US Army intelligence whistleblower, was held in contempt of court and remanded into federal custody for refusing to answer questions relating to her 2010 disclosures to WikiLeaks, at a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia, USA. She has previously served seven years in prison for her whistleblowing activities. She is to be jailed until she testifies or until the end of the existence of the grand jury.
ARTICLE 19 believes that these actions against whistleblowers Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning violate protections for the right to freedom of expression under international human rights standards and under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. We are concerned that these set a historically dangerous precedent in the United States and globally.
Organisations such as Wikileaks represent an extension of the media’s function as a public watchdog, by receiving information in the public interest from confidential sources and making it available to the public. This is particularly important for information about gross human rights violations, corruption, fraud, mismanagement, and illegal corporate practices. WikiLeaks and similar organizations have become important forums through which the public are alerted to such disclosures. They have also inspired new forms of non-traditional media that have diversified the means through which people share and receive information.
ARTICLE 19 believes that the prosecution or detention of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks staff and collaborators under the Espionage Act, or other related legislation criminalising whistleblowing, would be an improper use of these laws. To date, there has never been a prosecution of a publisher in the US for publishing truthful information to the public. Such a prosecution and the extradition for purposes of prosecution might amount to censorship of media at a time where transparency and the public right to know should govern the government’s relationships with the media and the public.
International standards stipulate that whistle-blowers who reveal serious wrongdoings in the public interest should benefit from full legal protection, as long as they released information in the public interest and with the reasonable belief that the information they have disclosed is substantially true and is evidence of wrongdoing. This protection should be granted even when the disclosure might be in breach of the law or a condition of employment. ARTICLE 19 has previously called for the improved protection of whistle-blowers in the US under these standards.
UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/2 on the safety of journalist stipulates that states must stop abusing legal frameworks to arbitrarily arrest or detain journalists, and release those in detention. It also notes that journalists are not safe if they face the threat of imprisonment for their reporting. The use of the Espionage Act to target Assange and Manning for their legitimate whistleblowing activities would amount to a violation of this standard.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the US Government to refrain from prosecution of Julian Assange and anyone else in relation to Wikileaks publishing activities, and cease any efforts to seek his extradition. The Government must also immediately and unequivocally drop the case against Chelsea Manning and release her from detention.