The WikiLeaks founder fulfilled a fundamental mission of journalism: He made misconduct known to the public. Should the U.K. extradite him to the U.S., journalists worldwide will no longer feel safe.
Dec. 10, 2021 will be remembered in the history of press freedom. Not, however, because the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a journalist for the first time since 1935, but rather because from this day forward, journalists around the world will no longer feel safe. The London High Court decided last Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may be extradited to the U.S., where he faces up to 175 years in prison. The 50-year-old Assange is accused of having published secret material related to U.S. military operations. Documents and videos were leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, who was working for the U.S. Army at the time. They show that U.S. soldiers in Iraq killed innocent civilians, that U.S. Secret Service agents tortured people in Guantanamo Bay, and that U.S. politicians lied about the war in Afghanistan.
With the release of these materials, Assange and the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks that he founded have fulfilled a core mission of journalism: They have reported and revealed the misconduct that powerful politicians and military officers wanted to hide from the public. In the U.S., Assange was charged in absentia under the Espionage Act — a World War I law that was passed to prosecute spies and saboteurs. American authorities are now using it to seize a journalist, hacker and publicist.
Assange as a Precedent
Assange is not even a U.S. citizen; he is Australian. WikiLeaks is also not an American organization. The only connection to the U.S. is that Assange publicly disclosed the blatant misconduct of American politicians, military officers and Secret Service agents. Numerous media companies around the world — such as The New York Times, The Guardian, Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung — have also reported on these or similar scandals using classified documents.
If the decision stands on appeal in the U.K. Supreme Court and the U.S. successfully extradites Assange and manages to lock him up for decades, they will create a dangerous precedent. They have thus put journalists in danger all around the world.
In Prison, Just Because She Is a Journalist
The danger exists because if the American government can do it, why shouldn’t the Chinese, Russians or Iranians? When the self-proclaimed “beacon of democracy” arrests and extradites journalists abroad with the help of allied nations, what is to stop other countries from doing the same thing? Who could honestly prevent China from persecuting and silencing reporters around the world who report on state secrets, such as the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang?
It is a bitter footnote to history that the London High Court approved Assange’s extradition on international Human Rights Day, of all days — on the day ithat Filipina journalist Maria Ressa and her Russian colleague Dmitry Muratov accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. In her acceptance speech, Ressa said, “Every day, I live with the real threat of spending the rest of my life in jail because I’m a journalist.”
In the future, this will no longer apply only to journalists in the Philippines, but to journalists all over the world.