Julian Assange is an Australian publicist, media personality and politician, who set up the website Wikileaks in 2006. In 2010 Wikileaks published a series of groundbreaking leaked materials, including footage pertaining to alleged war crimes in Iraq, and Cablegate, a vast trove of confidential US embassy communications. It was the scoop of the year, and the leaks played a role in igniting the Arab spring. Wikileaks at first collaborated with major media institutions when publishing, but later posted the unredacted cables openly at its website – thereby allegedly putting sources of the US government at risk.
Assange was indicted for crimes under the Swedish rape statute in 2010 and detained in Great Britain in 2010. After posting bail, he sought refuge in the Embassy of Equador. While there, he hosted a show for Russia Today, the Russian state’s propaganda outlet. In 2016 he posted emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) by Russian hackers, allegedly in order to influence the US presidential elections in favor of the Republican candidate, Donald J. Trump. The US government later indicted a number of agents from the Russian foreign intelligence service, GRU, for breaking into the DNC servers, and alleged that the hacker Guccifer 2.0, who gave Assange the stolen emails, was an operative of Russia. In 2019 the Swedish prosecutors dropped the charges against Assange, stating that the time passed since the relevant events 2010 had weakened the evidence (i.e. witnesses’ recollections).
Assange’s ties to the Russian government, Wikileaks’ promotion of conspiracy theories (such as the pizzagate affair), its lax curation of sensitive information and unwarranted publication of sensitive personal information that do not have public interest – there are many issues of controversy surrounding Mr. Assange. He may not be a clear-cut champion of human rights and freedom of expression, even though Wikileaks have made substantial contributions to informing the public. However, Assange’s public activities have always been very similar to journalism. As such, prosecuting him could by extension represent the criminalization of media and journalists in general.
In 2019 Assange was evicted from the Embassy of Equador, detained and sentenced to a year in prison for evading justice by jumping bail. In 2019 and 2020 the Trump administration charged him with counts under the 1917 Espionage Act, for publishing leaked materials. The indictment was unusual in that the Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 175 years of prison, had previously been used against government officials who had disclosed or stolen classified information. However, Assange was not bound by an oath of loyalty to the US government, but essentially functioned as a journalist when he published the leaked material he received from the whistleblower and former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
Assange was also charged with conspiring to hack government computers, but not for any crimes relating to the 2016 elections. The US asked for Assange’s extradition, but the request was turned down by a British judge in early 2021 because of health concerns for Mr. Assange. The U.S. have appealed the decision and the matter is expected to be decided in the UK High Court in October.
- The Norwegian Helsinki Committee believes the UK court should consider the indictment in light of international standards of media freedom and reject the extradition request.
- The Norwegian Helsinki Committee further appeals to US justice authorities to drop the charges under the Espionage Act against Julian Assange. They could set a dangerous precedent that could open for prosecutions against publicists and journalists who publish leaked materials, including classified information, for the sake of sharing important information with the public.
The publication of leaked materials is a normal and important journalistic practice if it is in the public interest. However, the Assange indictment does not take this crucial fact into account, and consequentially opens for prosecution of journalists and is a threat to publishing freedom in the US and worldwide.
More updates: Read about how Mr. Assange might be extradited to the US from the UK here.