Editorial | Let Mr Assange be
Jamaica’s media and their journalists should be deeply disquieted by the decision by Britain’s Home Affairs Minister Priti Patel to extradite Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks, to the United States to face espionage charges.
The prosecution of Mr Assange, as this newspaper has previously asserted, and now Ms Patel’s decision, are serious blows to press freedom and, thus, a threat to democracy.
WikiLeaks, essentially, is a digital media organisation that specialises in uncovering and disseminating large data sets of the kinds of information that governments would prefer to keep secret. It often works with other media organisations globally in collating and analysing the information it uncovers.
For instance, The Gleaner was among the network of media that 11 years ago published information from diplomatic cables sent by the US Embassy in Kingston to the State Department, which gave insights into how Washington’s envoys here interpreted the actions of Jamaica’s political institutions and the players within them.
The charges on which Mr Assange is to be extradited – unless he somehow causes Ms Patel to have a change of mind – stem from the accusation that in 2010 he helped the former US soldier and intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning, to intrude on computers to steal classified information from the US government.
The thousands of documents exposed by Ms Manning related mostly to America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2013, Ms Manning was court-martialed, convicted and sentenced to 35 years in jail. However, three years later, former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence to seven years, including her time in lock-up before trial. Effectively, Ms Manning earned immediate release.
Donald Trump’s administration, which succeeded Mr Obama’s, decided to pursue and prosecute Mr Assange under America’s espionage laws. If he is convicted on the 17 charges, Mr Assange could be jailed for up to 175 years.
PUBLIC INTEREST JOURNALISM
Fundamentally, though, Mr Assange was engaged in public interest journalism. Because of the Chelsea Manning-WikiLeaks exposure, Americans know, for instance, that at least 66,000 civilians died in Iraq – numbers that were not reported. But as is often the case when the spotlight is placed on the misbehaviour or poor policy choices of governments, officials become chagrined.
Yet, the United States, on balance, is better off because of the revelations. The scrutiny was a call to transparent and accountable government and for moral governance. That could only be good for America’s democracy. In which event, Mr Assange and WikiLeaks performed a key function of a free and independent press – being the watchdog of government.
In this regard, it is important to separate Julian Assange the individual from the journalist and publisher who employs the techniques and technologies of the digital age to unearth information and hold the powerful accountable.
However, by most accounts, Julian Assange is not the most pleasant of personalities. He, apparently, can be self-absorbed and wilful. In some quarters, too, he has received an unsympathetic assessment for hiding out for seven years in Ecuador’s embassy in London, largely to avoid being sent to Sweden on rape charges, which were eventually dropped.
Further, some US Democrats also lay some of the blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Mr Trump in America’s 2016 presidential election on WikiLeaks. The organisation published damaging emails by senior officials on Mrs Clinton’s campaign. Sympathy for Mr Assange in Democratic Party circles, therefore, is likely to be slim.
PRINCIPLES AT PLAY
But Mr Assange’s personality, or dislike for him, ought not to matter. Neither should grudges against him influence the actions on either side of the Atlantic. The large, fundamental principles that are at play here relate primarily to what citizens expect of their governments, how those with power should behave, and the press’ role in holding them accountable.
Mr Assange has spent more than two years in jail since being forced to leave the Ecuadorian embassy, having been convicted for a bail offence and detained over the extradition issue. Britain’s Supreme Court has said there are no legal concerns about how he will be treated in the United States, if extradited.
A lower court had ruled against extraditing him because of fears for the fragility of his mental health. With the Supreme Court’s ruling, Ms Patel says she has no basis for preventing the extradition.
We do not agree. For this, fundamentally, is a political matter on which Ms Patel can impose herself. She must be reminded of this – loudly and clearly. At the same time, it is in the interest of journalism and the free press that Mr Assange is supported in pursuing all, and any, legal avenues that are still open to him.
Better yet, the Americans should end Mr Assange’s prosecution and persecution.
President Joe Biden has invoked the ideals of a free press a lot since coming to office. In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr Biden has lectured Russia and Vladimir Putin on the merits of a free press and democracy. He can provide a concrete example and give his lectures greater weight by telling his Justice Department that prosecuting Julian Assange is un-American and that the extradition request should be dropped.