Even after the victory of Julian Assange's extradition denial, work still needs to be done to protect freedom of press and investigative journalism. Sara Chessa reports from the UK.
BEING AT THE LONDON Old Bailey Court when Judge Vanessa Baraitser announced her denial to the Julian Assange extradition was greatly emotional for the journalists, activists and members of the public that have been defending him during the years. However, besides the joy for the WikiLeaks founder’s victory, there is the concern for a judgment that fails to protect the national security journalists and investigative reporters, alarming everyone working in the human rights sector.
The theatres in London are closed because of the lockdown, but no show would have been able to create such an amount of emotion as the one generated at the Old Bailey Court by Vanessa Baraitser on Monday, announcing her denial of Assange's extradition to the U.S.
And, really, the feeling was the one that an audience experiences during a dramatic performance with a huge turn of events. Except for the fact that all of it was extremely real and we suddenly found ourselves photographed in a day that will remain in the history books. This is the reason why I will describe it here, but at some point I will have to go backstage and give a big picture of what a tremendous scenario we still have to fight.
What we saw in court
A number of activists were standing outside the Old Bailey, aware that it’s a trial against press freedom and hoping for the judgment to protect Assange’s life and recognise the human value of his work, which nourished the foundations of democracy by making the civil society aware of facts in the public interest. They showed up despite the fact that London was under Tier 4 restrictions (with a “stay home” call), anxiously waiting for tweets from the press room and the public gallery.
And the posts on Twitter started very soon, reporting statements from the judgment that was being read. It punctually contradicted the constellation of witness statements which in September were displayed to the Court just like stars in the universe of human rights and freedom of information. Those bright points of reference were highlighted to protect Assange, but they fell down one by one as if the judge was shooting at them.
At that time, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and WikiLeaks media partners stated in front of the Court that Assange strongly wanted and carried out the redaction of the names on the classified documents he shared, however the judge on Monday said Assange was “willing to sacrifice the safety” of U.S. government informants by publishing their identities in “the name of free speech”.
At that time, Mark Feldstein, Professor at the Department of Journalism of the Maryland University, told the Court that Mr Assange is being prosecuted because “Donald Trump wanted a head on a pike” to discourage investigative journalism. However, on Monday, the Judge stated that she was satisfied that the prosecution of Assange was not a political decision by the Trump Administration, since Trump “repeatedly and publically praised him”.
At that time, Professor Mark Feldstein said the American students at his Department are taught how to acquire classified documents. He also said that the leaking of classified information was “endemic” in America and the leaks reveal the abuse of power since “the days of George Washington”. However, on Monday, the Judge stated that the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder to the U.S. would not breach any bar on extradition for political offences and that Assange activities with defence analyst Chelsea Manning went beyond the normal ones of a journalist.
At that time, witnesses had shown how the CIA spied on Assange and even considered the way to poison him. However, the Judge said U.S. intelligence might have had legitimate reasons to monitor him in the embassy as a possible threat to national security.
Moreover, despite the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer and plenty of qualified voices showing concerns for the lack of respect of human rights that Julian Assange would have faced in the U.S., the judge rather highlighted that “this court trusts that a U.S. court will properly consider Mr Assange's right to free speech”.
And, when the Court was turning into a grey dystopia and no hopes seemed to survive for a “no” to extradition, the judge valued the only defence argument remaining — the psychiatric one, accepting that Mr Assange suffers from autism and clinical depression. And, highlighting that Mr Assange has “the intellect and determination” to get around suicide prevention measures, she denied extradition.
As soon as this was tweeted, the activists outside spread joy in the air, making London and the world brighter because of Assange’s victory. We inside felt the same happiness, but frozen inside the awareness that the journalist we hoped to save was being saved not for the sake of press freedom but, thanks to a terrible medical condition, mainly generated by the fear he has been through from the moment in which he started to fear a possible U.S. attempt to extradite him ten years ago.
The United Nations statements
On more than one occasion, the U.N. called for the release of Mr Assange. Their Working Group on Arbitrary Detention asked for this in 2016, also pointing out that the WikiLeaks founder should receive compensation for the years he spent imprisoned at the Ecuadorian Embassy. Later, when he was arrested in 2019, Nils Melzer called again for his release, stating that in 20 years of dealing with inhumane treatment cases, he never saw a group of democratic states bullying an individual like the U.S., the UK, Ecuador and Sweden did with Mr Assange, on whom he detected all the signs of psychological torture.
Now, Professor Melzer welcomed the denial of the extradition, but he also highlights that it sets an alarming precedent, “effectively denying investigative journalists the protection of press freedom and paving the way for their prosecution under charges of espionage”. By saying this, he is referring to the fact that in 2010, Mr Assange published military documents exposing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Professor Melzer said:
“I am gravely concerned that the judgment confirms the entire, very dangerous rationale underlying the U.S. indictment, which effectively amounts to criminalising national security journalism.”
Why freedom of information defence still needs all our efforts
Here is another actor entering the stage, the United States announcing they will appeal the judgment and, at the same time, welcoming the dismissal of all arguments based on the public interest in the exposure of government misconduct on the prohibition of political offence extraditions and on the U.S. inability to ensure fair trials to national security defendants.
The fact that press freedom and all these arguments were not mentioned as reasons for the denial of extradition implies that they won’t be discussed again during the appeal, where there will only be space for the health condition topics.
On Wednesday, a court in London will be deciding on Assange’s release on bail. He could be freed or he will have to stay in prison until the appeal hearing. However, Melzer has no doubts that “even with a pending appeal, his continued isolation in a high-security prison is completely unnecessary” and “there is no justification whatsoever for preventing him from awaiting the final judgment in a setting where he can recover his health and live a normal family and professional life”.
In the meantime, human rights organisations have to understand how to deal with the dark clouds blown against fundamental rights by a judgment that fails to denounce the persecution and torture of Mr Assange and, according to Melzer:
“...leaves fully intact the intended intimidating effect on journalists and whistleblowers worldwide who may be tempted to publish secret evidence for war crimes, corruption and other government misconduct.”
Emotion lies in possibly seeing Julian Assange free. Hope lies in using the energy of this victory to keep building the difficult path towards freedom of information.
Sara Chessa is a UK-based independent journalist. You can follow Sara on Twitter @sarachessa1.
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