he UK government has done a disservice to the cause of free speech and democracy by approving the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States. UK home secretary Priti Patel dealt a blow to the decade-long efforts Assange has been making in protracted legal battles to remain in the UK. He incurred the wrath of the US government for revealing to the world the latter’s misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, he has spent the last decade either in hiding in Ecuador’s London embassy or in a UK prison. He is wanted by the US authorities on 18 counts, including a spying charge, relating to WikiLeaks’ release of vast troves of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables which they claimed had jeopardized their lives.
His supporters, on the other hand, plead that he has been victimised for his anti-establishment role exposing US wrongdoings in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. His persecution is being construed globally by many as a politically-motivated assault on journalism and free speech.
The likelihood of Assange’s prosecution in US courts poses a grave challenge to the US First Amendment rights and the ability of news outlets to publish material deemed a threat to national security. Quite rightly has the WikiLeaks issued a statement saying it is “a dark day for Press freedom and for British democracy.” Sharing its reaction to the UK’s decision on Twitter it asserted Assange did nothing wrong. He has committed no crime and is nothing but a journalist and a publisher. The US First Amendment guarantees freedom concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from promoting one religion over others and restricts impinging on the Press or the rights of individuals to speak freely.
The charges against Assange include 17 under the Espionage Act and one under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The ruling overturns a December 2021 decision that declared Assange could not be extradited because subjecting him to US incarceration could increase the risk of suicide. The judge this time has accepted US assurances that Assange will not face solitary confinement and will have access to psychological treatment.
Defending the decision on extradition, the British Home Office stated the UK courts have not found that it would be oppressive, unjust, or an abuse of process to extradite Assange. Also, according to the courts, the extradition would not be incompatible with his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression.
Assange’s legal team has two weeks’ time to appeal. Among the options he has is the argument that the extradition poses threat to Press freedom and he is being made to pay the price for exposing wrongdoing by the US executive branch. Experts on human rights say even if these arguments fail to sway the UK judicial system, Assange can also appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France on the plea that extradition would violate the UK’s commitment to human rights treaties.
Assange was initially indicted by the US Department of Justice for “conspiring” to steal Department of Defence secrets. The carefully crafted case sought to project him as a cybercriminal rather than a journalist propelled by the intent to bring to light the government’s wrongdoings in public interest. However, as the US administration seemingly realised the argument would not hold, the Justice Department last month accused him of violating the Espionage Act, a 100-year-old law against publishing classified information. The new charge had already been levelled against some leakers, but using it against a journalist like Assange would put at risk the US’ reputation for being the world leader in upholding right to free speech. For, it opens the door for journalists anywhere in the world to be extradited to the US for divulging information the US administration deems classified. The hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about America’s Afghanistan and Iraq wars and diplomatic cables were made public by WikiLeaks, working with a chain of newspapers across the world. The use of the Espionage Act to prosecute Assange has a serious implication for journalists’ right to access classified information to enlighten the public on the government’s ill intentioned functioning. This is how democracies seem to function these days.
The British government could have rejected the US request for extraditing Assange as the intention of the latter appears to stifle free speech and expression. Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May had stalled the extradition proceedings of Gary McKinnon, who hacked the US Department of Defence. But, the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has, by conceding the US request for extradition, acted against the interest of Press freedom and the public who have a right to know what their governments are doing in their name.
In fact, it is preposterous to bring the spying charges against Assange since he published classified documents and did not leak them. The legal officers of Barack Obama rightly understood that this would threaten public interest journalism. It was Donald Trump’s team, which behaved in a manner treating the Press as an “enemy of the people”, that took the step.
It will be in the fitness of things that the incumbent US President, Joe Biden, should take the initiative to let Assange continue to inform the public of the government functioning with facts, no matter how he gets them. For it is Biden who recently said the work of free and independent media “matters now more than ever.” However, the ‘system’ in the US is far stronger than any politician. It is very unlikely President Biden can change any attitude in the Justice Department.