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Assange hearings - a case study in court reporting

THE EXTRADITION hearing for WikiLeaks founder and journalist Julian Assange, who faces 17 charges in the US under the Espionage Act, resumes on 7 September. Julian Assange is expected to appear in person at the Old Bailey, after a series of disappointing virtual hearings.

At a protest for Assange

A placard an an earlier protest

It's expected to be a long hearing, with at least two weeks set aside for it. Although the Old Bailey is the Central Criminal Court, this will serve as a Magistrates' Court in this high-profile case.

Julian Assange faces extradition to the US on charges relating to disclosures of Pentagon classified material via WikiLeaks. His case has serious implications for the freedom of the press and public interest journalism. A letter in support of Julian, from 40 journalists' and press freedom organisations, includes among its signatories the NUJ's own General Secretary and that of the International Federation of Journalists - of which the NUJ is a part.

If convicted in the US, Julian Assange faces 175 years in prison for his role in leaking documents including the Pentagon's "Iraq war logs" from the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath. The US Espionage Act allows no public interest defence. The chilling effect Julian Assange's extradition and conviction would have on journalists around the world reporting on war crimes and human rights abuses by the US government would be enormous.

Julian Assange remains in custody in Belmarsh maximum security prison. His lawyers have said that he is vulnerable to covid-19 and that he has struggled to gain access to them through video-conferencing during lockdown. He has already missed hearings due to "respiratory problems". There have been technical issues with him joining virtual hearings at Westminster Magistrates' Court by video link from Belmarsh.

He is expected to be re-arrested at the 7 September hearing to face a new charge lodged by the US government, based on an indictment drawn up on 12 August. This contains further allegations that he conspired with others to obtain US government information by encouraging computer hacking. His lawyer told the court at a 14 August case management hearing that Julian Assange had not yet had a chance to see the new 33-page affidavit against him, and his lawyer described the new charges as "astonishing and potentially abusive".

Virtual post-hearing conferences with lawyers have also been problematic. One after the most recent hearing was, we hear, cancelled due to issues around the timing of lunch breaks for Belmarsh prison officers.

Claire Dobbin, barrister for the US government, was also initially unable to join the most recent virtual hearing in August due to technical issues around dialling in. There were also reportedly technical glitches at an earlier extradition hearing in May, resulting in journalists being unable to hear the audio feed.

The Freelance understands that the NUJ is in talks with Ministry of Justice officials to discuss access issues for journalists. Watch this space for any updates, and also for details of any actions in solidarity.

During full covid-19 lockdown back in May, the NUJ's survey of the effects of the pandemic on journalists included a response from a court reporter who mentioned "admin issues with remote court access".

NUJ members are reminded that journalists expecting to cover any court case should expect to be asked for their Press Card by the Clerk of the Court's office. First check your Press Card is still valid. See here for how to renew a Press Card and here for how to apply for a new one. Expect minor delays in Press Cards being issued due to covid-19 restrictions that affect their processing. We've heard, though, that delays in issuing Press Cards in time of coronavirus have not been long ones.

September's LFB meeting on Monday 14 September is on court reporting. What can be done to ensure court reporting in the public interest continues, especially in the light of cuts to local newspaper reporting and restrictions still in place as a result of covid-era social distancing?

Our speaker is LFB's own Welfare Officer Tim Dawson, also a member of the NUJ's National Executive Council and a former NUJ President. See here for Tim's earlier (pre-covid) comment piece in the Freelance on how court reporting has effectively disappeared from the courts of most county towns.