Assault on media freedom

The Trump administration is looking to extradite Julian Assange on minor charges and then level more serious accusations attracting longer jail terms or even the death penalty.

Published : Apr 24, 2019 12:30 IST

Julian Assange in a police vehicle on his arrival at the Westminster Magistrates court in London on April 11.

Julian Assange in a police vehicle on his arrival at the Westminster Magistrates court in London on April 11.

SINCE the beginning of 2019 it was clear that Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno would revoke the asylum status that his predecessor Rafael Correa had accorded to Julian Assange, the path-breaking journalist and founder of WikiLeaks, in his country’s embassy premises in London. Moreno worked with the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom and meticulously prepared the ground for the final act of betrayal on April 11. Moreno, who was elected on a left-wing platform, was Correa’s Vice President until 2017. He ditched that platform as soon as he got elected.

As quid pro quo  for cooperation in the case involving Assange, the U.S. helped Moreno’s government secure a $4.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan in February in addition to $6 billion from the World Bank and other U.S.-dominated institutions.

WikiLeaks warned in January that the Ecuadorian government had given assurances to Washington that it would turn in Assange. The New York Times  reported that close advisers of Moreno had met with Paul Manafort, who had served as U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign chairman. According to the paper, they had raised the possibility of obtaining debt relief from the U.S. in exchange for Assange’s removal from the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Since 2017, Assange was subjected to mental torture within the limited space he occupied in the embassy. In a statement issued a day before Assange’s arrest, WikiLeaks alleged that he was being constantly spied on. Finally, on the morning of April 11, the Ecuadorian authorities allowed the U.K. police to walk in and arrest a defiant Assange. Six burly policemen were seen dragging out a dishevelled Assange. Seven years without sunlight and exercise had evidently taken a mental and physical toll on the man who staked everything for media freedom. Most experts agree that the arrest was a violation of international law. Since Assange was granted Ecuadorian citizenship in 2017, the arrest also impinged on his citizenship rights. The United Nations has designated Assange as a political refugee protected under international law. In 2016, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called on Sweden and the U.K. to end Assange’s deprivation of liberty.

Seven years ago, Correa granted asylum to Assange in the country’s embassy in London, despite strong objections from the Barack Obama administration and the British government. At the time Assange was on the verge of being deported to Sweden on trumped-up charges involving two Swedish women. The whistle-blower had feared that the right-wing government that was in power at the time in Stockholm would deport him to the U.S., where a secret grand jury was created in 2011 to try him on trumped-up charges under the country’s draconian Espionage Act.

Last year, U.S. authorities inadvertently released the charge sheet against Assange calling for his rendition to face multiple “charges”. 

Chelsea Manning, the U.S. soldier who leaked documents to WikiLeaks implicating the U.S. in serious war crimes, was jailed again in March on charges of refusing to cooperate with the authorities in their investigation of Assange. (She was court-martialled and spent seven years in prison before being pardoned by Obama just before he demitted office in 2016.) Chelsea Manning also said that she had already revealed to the authorities all the information she had about her dealings with Assange.

Among the documents leaked by Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks was the “collateral murder” video of two U.S. Apache military helicopters targeting and killing more than 23 innocent Iraqi civilians in 2007, including a journalist working for Reuters. The video and other graphic evidence of atrocities committed by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan clearly implicated the U.S. government in war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Assange’s lawyer, Barry J. Pollack, confirmed to the media that his client was arrested under a U.S. extradition warrant for conspiracy to publish classified information. The so-called “classified information” relates to the documents and videos relating to U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Journalists round the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges,” Pollack said in a statement. 

Threat to press freedom

Assange’s arrest was widely condemned. The Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnsson, said that Assange’s arrest would go down in history as “a dark day for journalism”. David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, said that “prosecuting Assange will be dangerously problematic from the perspective of press freedom”.

In a strongly-worded statement, the American Civil Liberties Union said the arrest was “unconstitutional and unprecedented, and would open the door for the criminal investigation of other publications”. Bradley P. Moss, an American constitutional law expert, wrote in The   Atlantic  magazine that if Assange could be prosecuted merely for publishing leaked classified documents, then “every single media outlet is at risk of prosecution for doing the exact same thing”.

Virtually the entire spectrum of the U.S. political establishment has been baying for Assange’s blood. Leading the charge are liberal interventionists, among them the leading lights of the Obama administration such as Hillary Clinton and the former Director of U.S. National Intelligence, James Clapper. After Assange’s arrest, Clapper said that WikiLeaks had caused “all kinds of grief” in the U.S. intelligence community. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, triumphantly proclaimed that Assange was now “U.S. property”. 

Sections of the liberal media, including The New York Times  and The Guardian , which once actively collaborated with WikiLeaks, have been calling for Assange’s arrest. The Guardian  even went to the absurd extent of suggesting that Manafort had meetings with Assange within the confines of the Ecuadorian embassy to discuss the leaking of emails relating to Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign. (In 2016, WikiLeaks had released the Democratic National Committee’s emails. The Clinton Democrats and the liberal media had tried their best to connect the leak with the Kremlin. The Mueller Report put paid to that allegation.) 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when he was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had described Assange as “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia”. The unsealed indictment from the U.S. District Court in Virginia, which has the imprint of the Trump administration, charges Assange “with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified U.S. government computer”. During the last presidential elections, Trump was all praise for WikiLeaks for its role in exposing Hillary Clinton’s double standards. He is singing a different tune now. 

The Obama administration also wanted to file charges against Assange and WikiLeaks, but better sense prevailed. The U.S. Department of Justice realised that if Assange had to be prosecuted, then the same yardstick had to apply to publications such as The New York Times , Washington Post  and The Guardian  that published information provided by WikiLeaks.

“The potential implication for press freedom of this allegation of conspiracy between publisher and source is deeply troubling,” said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Trevor Timm, director of the Freedom of Press Foundation, emphasised that requesting more documents from a source, using an encrypted chat messenger, was “not a crime”. He stressed that they were “vital to the journalistic process”.

Death penalty?

The Trump administration has so far filed charges against Assange relating only to computer hacking. This, according to many legal experts, is a ruse employed to give the U.K. government enough leeway to extradite Assange to the U.S. The charge of hacking carries only a maximum sentence of five years in the U.S. and does not attract the death penalty. U.K. laws prohibit the extradition of individuals to countries where the death penalty is on the statutes. 

The Trump administration will try to convince the U.K. government that it will try Assange only on a minor charge, but once he is in U.S. custody, more serious charges attracting longer incarceration or even the death penalty are likely to be levelled against him.

The veteran Australian journalist John Pilger warned that Assange’s arrest was “a warning from history”. Glenn Greenwald, another path-breaking investigative journalist, said the arrest was “the start of the criminalisation of journalism”. Jeremy Corbyn, the U.K.’s Labour Party leader, said that his party would oppose the extradition of Assange to the U.S. Assange was being prosecuted “for exposing evidence of atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq”, he said. Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, stated that Assange was not being pursued for breaching U.S. national security. “He’s being pursued because he has exposed wrongdoing by the U.S. government and its armed forces,” she said. 

However, some 70 Labour MPs have written to the government asking it to extradite Assange to Sweden to face trial on “rape charges”. The Swedish government has said that it is thinking of reopening the case against Assange. His lawyers have said that he is willing to face charges of sexual impropriety if the charges are revived once again.

The surprising move by the Labour MPs came within hours after the demand from the party’s leadership that Assange should under no circumstances be extradited to the U.S. It was presumed that if Labour won the next elections, which could be imminent, Assange’s fortunes could dramatically change for the better.


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