Who is Julian Assange? Well, for the US government, Julian Assange is a hacker – guilty of publishing highly classified US documents about, amongst other things, Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But for his proponents, colleagues and peers, he is an Australian reporter: charged with the unspeakable crime of doing his job.
The tension between these opposing claims, resulting in endless civil and criminal proceedings, is often considered a key case study in the wider debate surrounding press freedom, and how some countries (while claiming their respect for this principle by writing it down in their constitutions) seem to apply it in a rather arbitrary way.
Assange founded the international organization WikiLeaks in 2006, with the purpose of allowing the public access to sensitive or censored documentation. Since its creation, it has published numerous confidential files, including Amazon’s data centres location and – most notably discussed in this article – highly classified documents from the U.S. Army intelligence, provided in 2010 by the American analyst Chelsea Manning.
Spanning a dozen years, the ongoing judiciary case first began in Sweden where, in 2010, Assange was accused of rape. Arguing this charge was a pretext for the Swedish government to extradite him to the US; in 2012, he sought refuge with the London Ecuadorian Embassy for no less than 7 years. In 2019, Swedish courts dropped the charges against him as the evidence weakened “due the long period of time that has elapsed since the events.” Following this, the Ecuadorian embassy removed diplomatic immunity from Assange and he was subsequently arrested by British forces for bail breaching. Since the US government requested his extradition, this case has been rejected, appealed and re-examined at the High Court, but most recently, the order received approval by the Home Secretary in June 2022 – a decision that is, again, currently awaiting appeal.
This is where we are today. Under the 17 charges Assange is facing, his extradition would likely result in a lifetime imprisonment and possible violation of his fundamental human rights. It is also worth noting that Assange’s lawyers are now suing the CIA for allegedly spying on confidential conversations with their client at the Ecuadorian embassy.
So, what solidifies the relevance of this case in contemporary discussions around media freedom and free press? Put simply, it stands to question the very role of journalism in society and underlines the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behaviour of some Western states. In fact, the Julian Assange case is considered by some to be “the most important battle for press freedom of our time.”
Global politics have proven that, though human rights are supposed to be universal, they are often applied subjectively within and by different countries. Freedom of expression is recognized as a human right, according to article 19 of UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Why, then, is media freedom seemingly considered an exception?
Traditional print and broadcast media is supposed to act as a watchdog of a power that is, in a representative democracy, handed over by the people to elected leaders. It can raise awareness or unveil information upon which citizens will sanction their representatives or institutions. Without it, representation becomes a surrender. At least, this is how advocates of press freedom would put it.
Assange published classified documents about inhuman treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay (a US military prison) and war records, including footage of American soldiers shooting Iraqi civilian from an attack helicopter. The US government argued that this kind of leak was used by US enemies, and that agents’ and nationals’ lives were put at risk. But what about the lives of Guantanamo Bay’s prisoners, or Afghan and Iraqi civilians during the wars? From this perspective, it would appear that the WikiLeaks’ founder was doing his job: releasing proof of acts and policies the US government knew would be widely condemned by public opinion. Why would it have been classified otherwise?
The Julian Assange case is considered by some to be “the most important battle for press freedom of our time.”
Thus, by asking for Assange’s extradition, the US government is undermining the legitimacy of the press as a force for power redistribution and accountability in modern society. If another country, less powerful, had asked for Assange’s extradition, would the UK government have been so eager to approve it? Would have the request even been considered?
Well, one can never say what would have been. But it is likely that the “special relationship” between the US and the UK, along with the tremendous influence of the former, have played their part in Assange’s extradition. And here lies the problem. The more powerful a state, the broader its reach and the more dangerous its potential emancipation from public judgment. If similar states can deny their own principles to silence those trying to hold them accountable, well, this looks like the entrance of a vicious circle.
Louise Jouveshomme is an exchange student, studying natural and political sciences in her home university, and Media and Communication at the University of Leicester. She is interested in politics, scientific misconceptions and discourses about violence.
Feature image: Campaign for Assange’s release