Recently, famous fashion designer Vivienne Westwood lead a protest for Julian Assange, making an artistic spectacle by dressing like a canary and locking herself in a cage. Julian Assange is the founder of WikiLeaks, an award-winning publication that specializes in releasing large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying, and corruption. He has been facing charges for more than a decade now for publishing classified material with a Grand Jury investigation in 2010. That investigation was eventually dropped because many publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post would also have to be charged. Assange later fled to Ecuador in 2012 with fears of prosecution; the government of Ecuador granted him asylum, and so he entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London. After 7 years, on April 11th, 2019, Ecuador illegally terminated Assange’s asylum, violating the Geneva Refugee Convention. He served 50 weeks in prison for a bail violation after getting arrested, but when his sentence ended in September 2019, he was not released. Currently, he is facing an extradition hearing in September that was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration cites his role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in US history as a major reason for the return of the indictment. Although the Trump administration believes in criminalizing Assange, he is being wrongfully punished as his publishing of classified information is selectively criminalized by the Trump Administration, subsequently deteriorating press freedom in the UK.
Assange’s Wrongful Indictment
Assange is facing 17 counts under the Espionage Act of 1917 and one charge of plotting to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which uses Espionage Act language. “This is the first ever use of such charges for the publication of truthful information in the public interest,” says an open letter calling for the release of Assange in the UK. The Trump administration is biased in charging him because Trump has referred to the news media as the “enemy of the people,” which is already one of the most disturbing assaults on journalism in the US. This case is one of the few times the publisher is charged with the crimes rather than the journalist as Trump has taken further steps than previous presidents, who prosecuted whistleblowers and other journalistic sources, by reproaching the publisher. The Trump administration feels justified in this indictment as they accuse Assange of helping Chelsea Manning (a former intelligence analyst in US Army) unlawfully obtain documents of national defense and then releasing it. This accusation is under the CFAA, which is known for its overly broad wording to charge hackers even of trivial acts. Otherwise, the 17 other charges under the Espionage Act are for publishing classified material, which the New York Times, The Washington Post, and Guardian have done; Assange was not persecuted in 2010 for this reason. The aforementioned fashion designer Vivienne Westwood told reporters, “if they put Julian in a concrete jail, then they’re supposed to put the editors of The Guardian and Der Spiegel and New York Times because they also told the truth. And it’s not a crime to tell the truth.”
Assange is Being Unnecessarily Punished
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Assange’s prolonged 50-week charge for breaking bail is extremely disproportionate as he is placed in near-solitary-confinement level conditions that are usually reserved for war criminals. Confined to his cell for more than 22 hours a day, Assange has been isolated from his children for months now and allowed extremely limited access to his lawyers, drastically hindering his ability to defend himself. He also has a chronic lung condition that is not being considered as he has not been moved since a fellow prisoner contracted COVID-19. This punishment is all for publishing classified material, which—I mentioned before—other publications are guilty of. Perpetual maltreatment of Assange is adding to the decline of freedom of press; so, UK citizens should be worried.
The Charges Hurt Journalism and UK’s Reputation
This attempt to criminalize journalist-source communications and the publication by journalists of classified information is terrifying. Assange being continually persecuted is contributing to a deterioration of press freedom in the UK, tarnishing the UK’s international image (one of UK protesters’ focal worries). News source, Reporters Without Borders, cited Assange’s continuing punishment, his disproportionate 50-week sentence, and UK’s Home Office deciding to allow the US extradition request as factors in UK’s drop in ranking to 35th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. In the open letter calling for the release of Assange, the signatories called on the UK government “to release Mr. Assange without further delay and block his extradition to the US.” They claim it is a measure to save Assange’s life and to conserve the press freedom the UK globally champions.
People in the UK should keep on protesting as the number of supporters is continuing to grow. If the open letter succeeds, the best scenario is if the UK allows him to walk freely in their country, protecting him from the US indictment. As the narrative of freedom falls in both the US and UK (two countries who commit to a freedom narrative), both countries’ administrations should evaluate the importance of press freedom as values in their respective societies as citizens are losing trust. The social capital (the intrinsic value of social networks) that helps individualist, democratic societies thrive is declining even faster as the disconnect between citizens and their government grows. Hopefully, the pandemic gives more time for serious consideration of this extradition and indictment.