The Julian Assange Trial and the Fate of Journalism

MAINSTREAM MEDIA GROUPS across the world downplayed the hearings of the Julian Assange extradition trial held for four weeks until October 1st in London’s Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, also known as the Old Bailey, a street that finds mention in one of Charles Dickens’ works. The hearings in the US extradition case against the WikiLeaks founder, which started in February, resumed on September 7th after it was postponed in May due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Assange, who was arrested in April last year from the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he had taken refuge since 2012 to avoid an international arrest warrant, is languishing in the UK’s Belmarsh prison after a sentence in May last year.

It didn’t perhaps occur to big media groups that the US had introduced a new change in the trial that essentially criminalised journalism. The Americans brought in a new narrative that Assange’s work was hacking, not publishing. Assange, wanted by US authorities to stand trial in that country, was indicted under the Espionage Act. This new tactic forced Carey Shenkman, a New York-based freedom of speech and civil rights attorney, to make a statement in the court that ‘there has never, in the century-long history of the Espionage Act, been an indictment of a US publisher under the law for the publication of secrets.’ Accordingly, he added, ‘There has never been an extraterritorial indictment of a non-US publisher under the Act. During World War I, federal prosecutors considered the mere circulation of anti-war materials a violation of the law.’

This simply means that the US can prosecute any journalist in any part of the world for publishing its secrets and, worse, if the journalist under trial is a non-US citizen, they won’t get the reporter’s privilege guaranteed by the American Constitution under the First Amendment.

Daniel Ellsberg, economist and former military analyst who was in 1973 charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for leaking the Pentagon Papers, top-secret files on Vietnam that were published in The New York Times, said about the Assange trial, “The American press has remained in denial for 40 years—since my case—that the Espionage Act has wording that could be aimed directly at them. Now they’re staring down the barrel of that Act, which could be used against American journalists and publishers for their journalism.”

Even as Judge Vanessa Baraitser concluded the hearing at the Old Bailey in the US extradition request and announced that the verdict would be made on January 4th, 2021, the prospects of journalism being criminalised using a World War I US law, has raised enormous worries. The charges against Assange carry a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

Suelette Dreyfus, Assange’s co-author and friend, says, “It’s absurd this case ever came to a court of law. The UK government entertained what is, on the face of it, an oppressive and politically motivated request [on the part of the US, whose dirty war crimes Assange brought to public]. Now we have a fight on our hands to stop the US from establishing a precedent that will kill national security journalism worldwide.”

The US intends to prosecute journalists in any part of the world for publishing its secrets. If they are non-US citizens, they won’t get the reporters’ privilege in the First Amendment

During the trial, New Zealand investigative journalist Nicky Hager made his submission before the court, highlighting how journalists work in war zones and in difficult situations—indicating that illegitimising such efforts to flush out truth will destroy journalism. Hager told the court, according to Bridges for Media Freedom, which covered the court proceedings, that journalists covering issues like the Iraq and Afghan wars, had to use confidential sources. He continued, “There are some subjects which are so secret in their content that we cannot work on them to an adequate standard for the public unless we have confidential sources.” Hager added that the WikiLeaks information allowed him to write about the “multi-layered nature” of the Afghan war, and said the war logs leaked by Wikileaks were “the most important material I have ever used in my life.” Wikileaks in 2010 released a secret US military video that showed a 2007 gunning down by Apache helicopters of over a dozen people in Baghdad—including two Reuters staff. The same year, Wikileaks embarrassed the US administration by releasing Afghan war documents, the biggest ever leak in American military history, that brought to the fore details of deaths of civilians and everything that the US rulers wanted to hide from the public.

While the real US motive behind its moves to get Assange extradited to that country is aimed at discouraging leakers and whistleblowers, his lawyers told the court that it was from a book published by Guardian journalists that people could view unredacted leaked documents, and not from the WikiLeaks website. Wikileaks had worked with five media partners to remove anything from the leaked documents that could put lives, especially of American assets abroad, at risk. That Wikileaks put the lives of American sources in danger through the release of such uncensored files is one of the strongest arguments raised by the US. One of Assange’s lawyers told the court in London that when the password disclosure was discovered, Assange had personally phoned the White House to warn them.

Meanwhile, Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson made a statement to the court that she had witnessed a meeting between Assange and Dana Rohrabacher, an associate of US President Trump, at the Ecuadorian embassy in 2017. She was quoted as saying, “The proposal put forward by Congressman Rohrabacher was that Mr Assange identify the source for the 2016 election publications in return for some form of pardon, assurance or agreement, which would both benefit President Trump politically and prevent US indictment and extradition.” A report by The Guardian said that the reported deal would mean that Assange would be offered a pardon ‘if he disclosed who leaked Democratic party emails’ to his site, ‘in order to help clear up allegations they had been supplied by Russian hackers to help Trump’s election in 2016.’ The Trump camp had denied the charges.

Kevin Gosztola, renowned American journalist and author who is also the managing editor of Shadowproof.com, told Open that “the media coverage of Julian Assange’s extradition trial shows why citizens must support independent media and cannot rely on more traditional and well-established media institutions. Most of the daily reporting came from non-traditional or online news media.” He added, “WikiLeaks partnered with dozens of media outlets throughout the world to publish leaked documents. It is remarkable that each and every organisation did not commit a reporter to covering Assange’s extradition trial, given the threat to this type of journalism if the US government succeeds in their prosecution.” Gosztola has covered both the trial of Assange and the court-martial of Chelsea Manning who, while posted in Iraq as intelligence analyst, leaked classified information to WikiLeaks a decade ago.

Dr Niraj Lal, a classmate of Assange at the University of Melbourne and who had known the Wikileaks founder’s early fascination for technology-enabled journalism, tells Open that Assange’s biggest contribution was to expose the paucity of mainstream journalism around the world in its cosyness with structured power. “The lack of coverage of his trial—perhaps the most important test of Western free speech of our time—is further evidence of the access-based, fawning nature of corporate media organisations,” he adds.

Lal notes, “Technically, his far-seeing contribution was to allow a digital equivalent of being able to leave a grey envelope on a park bench, an idea that has since been replicated by most serious news organisations around the world.” It is a pity that an archaic US legislation may just endanger the future of journalism.

First published in Open

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