William Horsley, International Director of CFOM, Centre for Freedom of the Media, University of Sheffield
The legal actions against Julian Assange have far-reaching implications for the public’s right to know, but also for public trust in journalism and the workings of international justice.
The arrest in London of Julian Assange and the possibility that he may be extradited to face criminal charges in the USA raise vital questions about the proper role of the press in serving the public’s right to know. There is also a strong public interest in safeguarding the right of whistle-blowers. But Assange’s disregard for the ethical tenets of journalism and the unresolved sexual offences accusations against him make this more complex than a simple contest between press freedom and government secrecy.
Global public opinion is divided for or against Mr Assange because of the publication by Wikileaks of vast amounts of US military and diplomatic secrets, and Donald Trump’s self-serving praise for Wikileaks after it published Democratic party emails that damaged the candidacy of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US election. How the various charges he now faces are handled by authorities in the UK (for breaking his bail conditions when he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy 7 years ago) and in Sweden and the USA will be a crucial test of his actions and of the independence of those systems of justice from undue political influences.
The publication of the so-called ‘war logs’ from the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, obtained by Wikileaks from Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning, a military intelligence analyst, and published in coordination with leading US and European newspapers, served a crucially important public purpose by revealing shocking abuses including the video which Wikileaks called ‘Collateral Murder’. It showed the crew of a US helicopter targeting and killing unarmed civilians in a Baghdad street. Among the dead were two Reuters journalists. The video shone a spotlight on the Pentagon’s routine attempts to conceal that and other incidents which human rights groups say might amount to war crimes.
But later Julian Assange recklessly published thousands of US diplomatic cables on the Wikileaks website without editing out the names of vulnerable people such as Afghans who had worked for the Americans, possibly putting their lives at risk. And his actions in releasing hacked Democratic Party emails and allegedly promoting falsehoods to discredit Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign led many of his former supporters to denounce his actions.
There are many uncertainties about how each strand of this situation will develop — including the allegations of sexual offences made against Assange in Sweden dating back to 2010 and the American bid to extradite him to face a charge of conspiring to break into a Pentagon computer to steal classified data. Assange’s lawyers fear that if he is sent to the USA additional charges may be brought there leading to very severe penalties. They say, too, that he would not get a fair trial in America because his case is so politicised.
Much is at stake for journalists and the future of the public’s trust in journalism as a force to hold state power to account. Julian Assange chose self-promotion and causing maximum embarrassment to the US over the rigours of journalism that is demonstrably in the public interest. And his actions have contributed to the drafting of laws in many countries to strictly regulate online platforms, with severe penalties for non-compliance, to make them assume responsibilities as publishers for the material they display.
The publication of the Afghan and Iraqi war logs was seen by many as a landmark in the struggle for press freedom and the public’s right to know what the government is doing in its name, like the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s and Edward Snowden’s revelations about unlawful surveillance activities by the US and other intelligence agencies in 2013. However, as the New York Times wrote, a clear distinction must be made between “journalists exposing abuse of power through leaked materials and a foreign agent seeking to undermine the security of the USA through theft or subterfuge.”