JULIAN Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, is back in the spotlight this week with the commencement of his extradition case in London — a landmark hearing which is
being viewed as a test case for press freedom and the public’s right to know. The US wants Mr Assange extradited to face 17 charges under the American Espionage Act as well as one hacking charge. The charges broadly relate to WikiLeaks’ publication 10 years ago of thousands of US diplomatic cables and data, including information on alleged American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the use of drones and other military strikes in Pakistan. The Australian is also accused of working with former US military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak classified documents and could face a 175-year prison sentence if found guilty. During the first hearing, his lawyers told the London court that the Trump administration was targeting Mr Assange as “an enemy of America who must be brought down” and that his life could be at risk were he to face trial in the US.
There is no doubt that Mr Assange is a contentious figure whose publication of classified documents laid bare America’s abuse of power and human rights violations as well as the corrupt behaviour of other countries. While media and rights groups hailed him as a hero at first, his decision to publish unredacted documents later was strongly opposed even by those who championed his earlier publications. The subsequent controversy in which Mr Assange was at the centre of a sexual assault investigation — as eventually dropped — added to his notoriety and made him even more unpopular. However, the extradition case today has nothing to do with who Mr Assange is and how well liked or otherwise he is. Instead, it is connected to the idea of a free press which enables the accountability of those in the highest echelons of power, at a time when authoritarian figures are relentlessly muzzling and undermining the media. The case against his extradition is strong. His indictment is an effort to criminalise activity which journalists and whistleblowers engage in around the world: the publishing of important information given by people who are not authorised to share it — information which is true and which the public has a right to know. The Trump administration’s disdain for the media is no secret. Extraditing Mr Assange would be a major blow to media freedom, which is an essential component of a healthy democracy, across the world.
Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2020