Recent revelations that the US government is pressuring British journalists to cooperate with the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange are sparking controversy.
It is reported that the US Department of Justice has been pressuring and cajoling some British journalists to help prosecuting Mr. Assange, who is accused of publishing classified US military documents leaked by a whistleblower.
The US government must stop its operations on journalists and rescind its targeted extradition to the United States
It has been nearly five years since Julian Assange started fighting against his extradition to the United States, where he faces charges. He may be sentenced up to 175 years in prison if he is extradited to the US to stand trial for exposing US war crimes.
The US President Joe Biden said at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in April that he would "defend freedom of the press," but was criticized for maintaining the former Donald Trump administration’s indictment of Assange under the Espionage Act.
After a long period of isolation, from exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to solitary confinement in prison, Assange appealed against the UK authorities' deportation order. But the UK High Court refused to hear it. If Assange who is in the worst physical and mental condition ultimately loses his case in the UK, he can take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
However, Assange's family and supporters remain concerned as a British court may still not follow suit even if the European Court issues a non-refoulement order.
In 2010, US military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning handed over to WikiLeaks documents containing evidence of US war crimes. These included the Iraq War Logs. These are field reports of 400,000 cases, which not only detail the unreported deaths of 15,000 Iraqi civilians, but also provide evidence of systematic rape, torture, and murder committed after US forces handed over detainees to notorious Iraqi torture rings.
Manning's documents contain also the Afghanistan war logs. Civilian deaths at the hands of coalition forces are reported to have reached 90,000.
In addition, 779 classified reports, known as the "Guantanamo Files," contained evidence that 150 innocent people were held for years at Guantanamo Bay, and 800 men and boys were tortured and abused.
One of the most shocking documents that Chelsea Manning gave to WikiLeaks was a video titled Collateral Damage. It shows a US military Apache helicopter intentionally killing 11 unarmed civilians, including two Reuters journalists. These actions violated international conventions, including the Geneva Conventions, as well as the US military's field manual.
The Assange's case is the first time that a journalist has been charged under the Espionage Act for revealing government secrets.
Many scholars in law say the indictment sets a dangerous precedent and threatens to undermine the First Amendment and freedom of the press in the United States.
On January 4th, 2021, UK First-tier Tribunal Judge Vanessa Baraitser refused the US request to deport Assange. She found that the poor and oppressive conditions of prisons in the US risked driving Assange, who had extremely poor mental health, to suicide.
After losing at first instance, the US government appealed, and the UK High Court overturned the first instance decision. The US said it would guarantee humanitarian treatment if Assange was deported. However, the US's belated and conditional assurances have raised many questions. Assange has petitioned the High Court to consider the grounds on which Judge Baraitser refused to deport him.
On June 8th, 2023, Judge Jonathan Swift dismissed Assange's appeal, but stirred up a controversy by stating his reasons for dismissal in just three pages of superficial contents, without a proper analysis of Assange's 150-page complaint.
The US Espionage Act charges conspiracy to obtain, receive, and disclose information concerning the national defense without authorization. In addition, Assange is also accused of conspiring to hack into computers, and the accusation is that he did so with Manning to obtain classified information. However, Manning has consistently claimed that she did the hacking alone and passed the information to Assange of her own volition.
Article 4 of the extradition treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom states that "requests for extradition for political offenses will not be granted." The US charges Assange with "obtaining and disclosing US government secrets in a manner that compromised the security of the US government," which his lawyers indicate is a political offense.
Experts say it is clear that if Assange had exposed war crimes or human rights abuses by the government of a country like Russia, prosecution for such disclosures would have been considered that against a political crime, thus violation of the treaty, and unacceptable.
The First Amendment in the United States guarantees "freedom of the press". It is not because journalists are privileged, but because citizens have a right to know what is happening.
The prosecution of Assange will only serve to discourage journalists from actively doing their job as watchdogs for the public.
Freedom of the press is particularly important in situations where covert government activities and decisions are undemocratic. Prosecuting journalists for disclosing classified information can suppress such work that informs the public of issues related to public interest. As a result, the press will no longer be able to fulfill its critical role as a watchdog for the public, and its ability to provide accurate and reliable information will be adversely affected.
The European Court of Human Rights has made it clear in its articles that it shall protect the right to life and prohibit torture and cruel and inhuman treatment. Assange's deportation would be a direct violation of these.
It is alleged that the Trump administration and the CIA plotted to assassinate him while Assange was living in exile in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Given that these government agencies were willing to go to such lengths even while Assange was under the protection of an embassy in the UK, there should be concerns that similar illegal actions will be taken against him if he is extradited to the US.
Assange is currently awaiting a ruling on whether his appeal will be accepted.
Assange is recognized for his role in stopping further human rights abuses and sacrifices by uncovering international violations and facilitating accusation and investigations into government wrongdoings. However, human rights advocates who expose such crimes often become targets of political retaliation and prosecution, and this phenomenon is reminiscent of actions commonly seen under communist regimes.
It is strongly urged that the US government realize its mistake and drop the indictment of Julian Assange.
/ Park Jung-kyu, Chairman of Free Press Forum (CEO of WikiLeaks Korea)