Assange’s True Predicament Is Protecting Freedom of the Press

June 22, 2022 Updated: June 22, 2022

Commentary 

On June 17, the United Kingdom Home Secretary Priti Patel confirmed that she had approved the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States. The extradition decision has unleashed demands by protestors that Assange be freed from Belmarsh prison, where he has been kept since April 2019.

The protestors maintain that Assange is a journalist and publisher and that, in publishing documents that reveal America’s unsavoury involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has disclosed instances of war crimes, corruption, and wrongdoings. For his supporters, his continued incarceration is a frontal attack on press freedom.

As expected, the fight to free Assange is led by his wife, Stella Moris (they were married while he was in prison) with whom he has two sons, his brother, Gabriel Shipton, and his father, Richard Assange.

Anthony Albanese, when he served as Australia’s opposition leader, signed a petition to free Assange. He is on the record as saying that this saga has gone on long enough and Assange should be allowed to return to Australia.

However, now that he is prime minister, his statements on this matter are more circumspect.

The government intends to continue making consular assistance available to Assange and promises to quietly make representations to the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States but will shy away from demanding the release of Assange.

Australian Government Divided on Assange

The prime minister said on June 20: “There are some people who think that if you put things in capital letters on Twitter and put an exclamation mark, that somehow makes it more important. It doesn’t.”

Thus, there will be no “megaphone” negotiations—an attitude that has angered supporters of Assange because, for them, the time for quiet diplomacy has expired and, as the extradition is looming, immediate vociferous action is needed.

But, in a tell-tale sign that the Australian government is not united in its quest to free Assange, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, has softened the support Assange can expect to get from the Australian government. Specifically, he is of the view that Australia should not interfere in the legal processes of another country.

Epoch Times Photo
Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles (R) listens to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speak to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on May 23, 2022. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

However, Marles’s argument is disingenuous because there are recent instances of Australia intervening on behalf of incarcerated people. A notable example is the Howard government’s intervention to return David Hicks, imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay on charges of being a supporter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, to Australia.

The treacherous trajectory of Assange is well-known. He is the co-founder of WikiLeaks and on Oct. 22, 2010, he released 391,832 documents incriminating America’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the internet. This included abuses by American soldiers and a video of an American helicopter attack in Iraq on suspected militants, who were unarmed civilians and journalists.

The files were stolen by Chelsea Manning, an Army private, and handed over to WikiLeaks. Manning served seven years in jail but was amnestied by President Barack Obama in 2017. Yet WikiLeaks’s publisher, who himself did not appropriate these documents, is still languishing in jail.

Assange’s Plight

Assange fled to the Ecuadorean Embassy in June 2012 to avoid capture and extradition to Sweden where he had been accused of sexual assault—a charge since dropped by the Swedish authorities. Assange was evicted from the embassy in April 2019, and he is now held in the UK’s notorious Belmarsh prison, fighting extradition to the United States where he could spend up to 175 years in jail for computer hacking and espionage.

During the extradition hearings, representatives of the United States argued that the publication of the documents endangered the lives of people, especially those who collaborated with the American military.

Assange’s case is testing the limits and scope of freedom of the press. An earlier event in American history may inform the debate about the alleged activities of Julian Assange: the Pentagon Papers controversy of the 1960s.

The Pentagon Papers, detailing the role of the United States in Indochina until May 1968, were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times which started to publish extracts. Following orders by lower courts to suspend publication of the papers, the American Supreme Court, in New York Times Co. v. United States, a 6-3 decision, allowed the resumption of the publication.

Associate Justice William Douglas characterised the leaked documents as “all history, not future events,” but nevertheless important to the Vietnam debates in Congress. He relevantly stated that: “The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.”

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1971: The cover of the paperback edition of ‘The Pentagon Papers’ by Neil Sheehan, published in the New York Times, revealed government deceit over the conduct of the war in Vietnam. (MPI/Getty Images)

Only Promoting the Need for a Free Press

Assange’s case, however, is not straightforward. The documents were obtained by hacking government computers and, subsequently, WikiLeaks published them. So, the debate is whether a publisher has a right to publish materials that have been illegally obtained by someone else.

Is Douglas’s expectation that people have a right to be informed reasonable in these circumstances?

Is there a higher principle, which allows, or even requires, the publication of documents, which evidence atrocities committed by American personnel in the Middle Eastern wars?

What, if any, are the legal rights of whistle-blowers and their publishers?

One thing is certain. Assange’s continued incarceration does not serve its purpose anymore. This is because his predicament does no longer assist those who want to keep this information, published by WikiLeaks, out of the public forum.

Indeed, in keeping him in Belmarsh prison, Assange’s quest to be released is constantly in the news, thereby reminding people of the importance of freedom of the press in the maintenance of a free, democratic society. In these circumstances, one wonders whether an early termination of the legal proceedings would have more effectively serve the public interest.

His continuing incarceration is doing more to promote a free press than any bill of rights can possibly achieve. The controversy about Assange’s extradition to the United States is a constant reminder of the need to protect whistle-blowers, willing to disclose the corruption and dastardly dealings in society.

Hence, Douglas’s inspirational statement that the press should be protected “so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people” should guide politicians who may influence the outcome of this case.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020) and “The Coincidence” (Connor Court Publishing, 2021).