Extradition of Julian Assange latest in UK crackdown on free press
British politicians will mark World Press Freedom Day next week by debating the safety of journalists and the importance of free speech without any sense of irony.
The government claims to be a “longtime champion of media freedom”, saying independent journalism is “essential” for democracy.
Yet today Priti Patel approved the extradition of WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange to the United States. If found guilty, he could be imprisoned for 175 years.
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This isn’t just an attack on Assange – it has alarming implications for investigative journalism in the UK. And this is part of a war of aggression that Boris Johnson’s government is waging against the free press.
The extradition order follows a long and bitter fight for revenge after Assange exposed US war crimes. It proved that children had been executed in cold blood by American troops and that the authorities had kept secret the number of civilians killed.
WikiLeaks also released a harrowing video showing US Apache helicopters launching an unprovoked attack on innocent civilians, including two Reuters journalists. And documents have revealed how the US military systematically ignored the torture of civilians by Iraqi authorities.
Since then, those in power have wanted to get their hands on Assange. Their anger is so enraged that CIA officials have even plotted to kidnap or assassinate the publisher on the streets of London.
The “Witch Hunt”
The list of crimes with which Assange is now charged includes the “unauthorized possession” of secret documents and their “publication on the Internet”. This is nothing less than a description of investigative journalism – and it will have a chilling effect on the free press.
Some now claim that Assange is not a journalist, but he was certainly considered one at the time. When WikiLeaks started publishing classified information, almost every UK newspaper described Assange as a “journalist” or “editor”. WikiLeaks worked with the Guardian and the New York Times to publish the revelations from the leaked documents.
This continued even after Assange was first charged with sex crimes in Sweden (charges which were dropped when the statute of limitations expired): The Guardian condemned the “witch hunt” against him and accused some critics of being hypocritical. And in America, the New York Times served as an intermediary when Assange wanted to get in touch with the White House.
The judicial process to extradite Assange has been long and complicated, and has been subject to accusations of bias.
The extradition was signed by the High Court by Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett. He is a “good friend” of Alan Duncan, the former Conservative minister responsible for organizing Assange’s expulsion from the Ecuadorian embassy in 2019, where he was trying to avoid arrest. Duncan had previously called Assange a “wretched little worm”.
Meanwhile, one of the key witnesses against Assange turned out to be a convicted pedophile who has since been jailed in Iceland’s highest security prison after being branded a “sociopath” in court.
The War on Journalism
The UK’s efforts to help imprison Assange are part of a wider agenda undermining press freedom.
MPs are currently debating a new ‘national security’ law that could criminalize much of investigative journalism while simultaneously granting immunity to ministers for their involvement in war crimes. The government wants it illegal for journalists to reveal “restricted” official information if they or their organization have ever received funding from a foreign government.
The government also plans to revise the Official Secrets Act, removing the “public interest defense” for journalists who have published leaked materials. Senior journalists condemned the decision as a “threatening threat to freedom of expression”.
And the Online Safety Bill, which would require social media companies to remove harmful content, could inadvertently target legitimate journalism on sensitive topics, it has been warned.
When we at openDemocracy campaigned against government secrecy, Conservative Minister Michael Gove attacked our journalism, describing it as “ridiculous and biased” – until we won a landmark legal victory against it.
Last year, a freelance photographer was arrested after taking pictures of a protest at a Kent asylum camp.
And a government minister has come under fire for attacking a journalist on Twitter, accusing her of “making up claims”.
Britain also doesn’t seem to care much about the state of the free press among its international allies.
In May, Israeli forces shot and killed a veteran journalist with a bullet allegedly made in the United States. Even at Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral, police attacked the pallbearers, nearly knocking the coffin over them. The UK government has called for an independent inquiry into his death, but has said little else on the matter.
MPs will line up on Tuesday to say how much they value press freedom (even though World Press Freedom Day did in fact take place in May). The event is meant to act as “a reminder to governments of the need to uphold their commitment to press freedom”.
But if you want to know how much the government really values a free press, you don’t have to look far. There is a war on journalism. That’s why here at openDemocracy, we work hard to end these attacks on media freedom. And we also need your help.