An Assange on Democracy: Free Speech and Free Press

A new extradition hearing commenced on Wednesday in London’s High Court against the Wikileaks co-founder, Julian Assange. If the USA’s endeavour to extradite him is successful, Assange will face charges of espionage and hacking which could see him face up to 175 years behind bars. If this happens, it would be a grim glimpse into the future of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in our society; the release of Assange is indispensable in maintaining the protection of these freedoms.

The case of Julian Assange began over a decade ago now when, between 2010-2011, he assisted in releasing secret US military documents pertaining to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan via the media outlet Wikileaks – which he co-founded – as well as other sources such as the New York Times. These documents exposed disturbing US activity that was unknown to the public, including a video showing a US Apache helicopter killing a group of unarmed Iraqi civilians and 2 Reuters journalists. As expected, this sent shockwaves through the West and called military intervention in the Middle East into question. The work carried out by Wikileaks revealed more information about those out of favour with the US Governments after another whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, leaked US plans to kidnap or kill Assange. In 2012 he was granted political asylum by Ecuador, as he attempted to escape the charges that would see him held in a maximum-security prison, subject to unfavourable conditions, taking refuge in their London embassy. This is where he would remain for 7 years. In April 2019, Ecuador removed their protection of political asylum and Assange was promptly arrested by British police. Now the only thing standing between him, and the US prosecution is a battle over extradition.

The circumstances of this case make it evident that Assange is meant to feel the full force of the law, but what actually was his crime? The documents revealed by Wikileaks were of significant public interest, exposing incidents of human rights violations and war crimes. Our Democracy is based upon accountability and checks and balances. Journalists and whistle-blowers, like Assange, are a highly important component in the functioning of this. When they take that step to hold actors accountable, it is paramount that they are protected under the principles of free speech, freedom of expression, and media freedom.

This case, however, is about more than Julian Assange, more than extradition, and more than whatever the US government had permitted to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is symbolic and foreshadowing. Whatever the fate of Assange is, the fate of freedom of speech and freedom of the press is likely to follow. If Assange is extradited and prosecuted, an unsettling precedent would be set for journalists, marking up limits on what – and who – they are permitted to write about. A concerning challenge to the future of free speech and free press. If journalists and whistle-blowers are unable to expose the violations of our rights, our privacy, our security, then who can we rely on to hold the most powerful to account when they – almost inevitably – take their power too far? These concerns were voiced by the head of Amnesty International ahead of this weeks’ hearing as he stated, “it is a damning indictment that nearly 20 years on, virtually no one responsible for alleged US war crimes committed in the course of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has been held accountable, let alone prosecuted, and yet a publisher who exposed those crimes is facing a lifetime in jail.”

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to accept that there is some nuance in this situation. Hacking and exposing classified government documents can undoubtedly lead to threats to national security, and the law should be followed even by journalists. Assange himself is no saint – his 2010 sexual assault allegations are proof of this – and his mission to expose US Government secrets may not have been perfect. But this cannot out-shadow his commitment to the truth, to being a journalist speaking in the face of the most powerful state in the world, his commitment to free speech and free press. In a society that places unrivalled importance on these notions, it is imperative that they are protected even when the most powerful become the subject. If we are serious about this, the charges against Julian Assange should be dropped, extradition should be denied, and he should be freed.

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