22 Human Rights Organizations Call for Case Against Julian Assange to be Dropped

22 human rights organizations are now calling on the US Attorney General to drop the case against Wikileaks co-founder, Julian Assange.

The United States government has pretty much thrown everything they could in an effort to have Assange extradited to the United States. Whether it’s hijacking a highly questionable accusation of rape from Sweden, funneling money to a new Ecuadorian presidency to remove Assange’s political asylum, to even spreading false rumors in a bid to demonize Assange. This in response to Wikileaks publishing troves of data that exposed American corruption and criminal wrongdoing.

Yet, in spite of everything the US has done to exact political revenge, Assange continues to remain elusive to this day. Last month, a UK judge blocked the US’s bid to have Assange extradited to the US where, supporters say, Assange is as good as dead.

While many had hoped that the judge would point out that acts of journalism isn’t a crime, the judge, instead, took a different approach. The judge cited the world famous terrible conditions of the American penal system as reason not to extradite. The judge said that the worry is that the prison Assange would ultimately be held at would not be sufficient to prevent him from taking his own life. In recent years, Assange’s mental and physical health has deteriorated to the point where some medical professionals feared that he wouldn’t even survive long enough to make it to his trial in the first place.

Human rights organizations have been watching developments of this case quit closely. Some, including Amnesty International, were even barred from Assange’s hearings. Others, like Reporters Without Borders, called for the release of Assange.

Even though we are awaiting a decision on the American side of the court, the various human rights organizations are not sitting idly by twiddling their thumbs. 22 organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have submitted an open letter calling for the US Attorney General to drop the case. Back in October, the EFF said, “journalism is not a crime”. Now, they are saying that the precedent the Assange case sets is that any journalist could be a target under the Espionage Act. From the EFF:

The prosecution of Julian Assange for charges related to his publications of government documents on the whistleblower website Wikileaks poses a grave threat to press freedom, EFF, Freedom of the Press Foundation and other human rights organizations argue. In an open letter published today, we call on President Biden’s acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson to halt the prosecution and the threat of extradition.

The majority of the charges against Assange relate to the Espionage Act, a federal law passed in 1917 designed to punish espionage. The law’s broad language criminalized those who obtain and/or transmit materials related to the national defense (read the text of the law). While the authors of the law may have intended to keep the scope broad in order to encapsulate a wide range of espionage activities, today that law is being turned against publishers of information that seeks to hold government officials to account for unethical behavior.

As we argue in our letter, prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act raises the specter of prosecuting other journalistic institutions for routine investigative and publishing practices. As we state in our letter, “a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be leveraged—perhaps by a future administration—against publishers and journalists of all stripes.” Both the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act raise serious constitutional concerns, and the selective enforcement of these laws is used to threaten journalists, whistleblowers, and publishers who seek to cast light on government malfeasance.

The open letter is also available on EFF’s site (PDF) and contains the following:

While our organizations have different perspectives on Mr. Assange and his organization, we share the view that the government’s indictment of him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad. We urge you to drop the appeal of the decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court to reject the Trump administration’s extradition request.​2​ We also urge you to dismiss the underlying indictment.

The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely—and that they must engage in inorder to do the work the public needs them to do. Journalists at major news publications regularly speak with sources, ask for clarification or more documentation, and receive and publish documents the government considers secret. In our view, such a precedent in this case could effectively criminalize these common journalistic practices.

In addition, some of the charges included in the indictment turn entirely on Mr. Assange’s decision to publish classified information. News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance.We appreciate that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide national security interests, but the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy.

It is unfortunately the case that press freedom is under threat globally. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we protect a robust and adversarial press—what Judge Murray Gurfein in the Pentagon Papers case memorably called a “cantankerous press, an obstinate press, an ubiquitou spress”​5​—in the United States and abroad. With this end in mind, we respectfully urge you to forgo the appeal of Judge Baraitser’s ruling, and to dismiss the indictment of Mr. Assange.

The worry that the Espionage Act could be used against any journalist thanks to this case is well founded. After all, up until the Assange case, the Espionage Act wasn’t really used against journalists holding government accountable. It wasn’t used with the understanding that journalism plays a crucial role in a democracy. The US government could have easily used this to shut down journalism many times, but generally actively chose not to. This is changing with the case against Assange. If the US government learns that journalists are fair game, what’s stopping them from cracking down on other journalists in the future?

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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