Sunday 18 February 2024

Now Is A Time To Stand

There are a lot of political prisoners in Russia, and sometimes they die young in conditions that are liable to bring that about. Or sometimes, they are murdered. We shall never know which befell Alexei Navalny, but he was not famous in Russia, and his views were decidedly unpleasant. In opposing the imprisonment of dissidents, consistency is in order. Most obviously, The Guardian editorialises:

It is not a secret that Julian Assange can divide opinion. But now is a time to put all such issues firmly to one side. Now is a time to stand by Mr Assange, and to do so on principle, for the sake of his freedom – and ours. There can be no divide over the attempt by the United States to have the WikiLeaks founder extradited from Britain to face charges under the US Espionage Act, which reaches a critical stage in London this week. The application embodies not just a threat to Mr Assange personally. It is also, as this newspaper has consistently argued over many years, an iniquitous threat to journalism, with global implications. It poses the most fundamental of questions about free speech. On these grounds alone, Mr Assange’s extradition should be unhesitatingly opposed.

In 2010, WikiLeaks published revelatory US government documents exposing diplomatic and military policy in the Afghan and Iraq wars. Four years ago, during the Trump presidency, the US justice department issued a WikiLeaks-related indictment of 18 counts against Mr Assange. It charged him with multiple breaches of the 1917 Espionage Act, a statute that originally clamped down on opposition to America’s entry into the first world war. In recent years, though, the act has mainly been invoked against leakers.

Earlier targets included the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who passed documents to the New York Times exposing US government lies about the Vietnam war. Those charges were eventually dismissed, but it was a close-run thing. The Espionage Act contains no public interest defence. A person charged under it cannot present evidence about the content of the material leaked, cannot say why they did what they did and cannot argue that the public had a right to know about the issues.

Those restrictions are no more acceptable in Mr Assange’s case than in Mr Ellsberg’s time. The free press still matters. Journalists sometimes depend on whistleblowers. The relationship between them is particularly delicate and important in cases where national security is invoked. When the unequalled global power of the US is involved, the stakes are especially large.

But even national security, and certainly the national security of a global superpower, cannot in every single circumstance invariably override the public interest in publication and the right to know. That was the core issue in the Ellsberg case, as it also was in the WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden cases. In Espionage Act prosecutions, however, that public interest argument is always muzzled.

This week, Mr Assange’s lawyers will seek leave to appeal against the extradition decision made in 2022 by the then home secretary Priti Patel. If he is extradited, and unless the UK relents or President Biden intervenes, he faces a criminal trial in which his arguments will be silenced, and a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for each of the Espionage Act charges. If convicted, he could be locked away for his lifetime.

The implications for journalism are every bit as serious. This newspaper’s journalism, and that of potentially every newspaper based in the US or an allied country, would be at risk too. If the prosecution succeeds, the New York Times lawyer in the Pentagon Papers case has said, “investigative reporting based on classified information will be given a near death blow”. That prospect is on the line in the courts this week. A society that claims to uphold freedom of the press cannot possibly remain indifferent.


  1. Better late than never.

    1. The Guardian has been, well, not as bad as most of them, anyway.