Support Assange, defend journalism
JULIAN Assange's extradition hearing was the subject of a virtual NUJ meeting on 29 October. Assange faces extradition to the US, where he faces 18 counts under the Espionage Act for his role in the disclosure of Pentagon war logs via WikiLeaks - and up to 175 years in a "supermax" security prison if convicted.
At the time of the meeting, the hearing at the Old Bailey had just finished. The defence and the prosecution were preparing closing statements to be submitted in writing. (Witness statements from the hearing are here.)
There is a judgment due on 4 January. Both sides have indicated they will go to appeal at the High Court if it goes against them. New evidence can be heard at this appeal.
Speakers at the meeting included Jennifer Robinson of Julian's legal team, as well as LFB's own Tim Dawson - he was observer at all of the hearings, both at the Old Bailey and before that at Woolwich Crown Court, for the NUJ and the IFJ.
Also present was Alan Rusbridger, who as then Guardian editor led a coalition together with the New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais and Le Monde to disclose the "WikiLeaks cables" in 2010.
Chairing the meeting was NUJ Assistant General Secretary Séamus Dooley. He observed that "we don't often have a choice" in our "heroes and martyrs" but we do have a "choice on the principles" we choose to take a stand on. To make the meeting via Zoom more manageable, it was for NUJ members only - over 40 joined.
Alan opened by saying that "all those interested in media freedom" should be thankful for the work of Julian and WikiLeaks. He noted a "curious absence of debate about some aspects of national security reporting" particularly in the UK, and a "lack of agreement... about what is public interest". Of the extradition case, he said he found the "muted response among journalists puzzling and disturbing".
Julian, said Alan, "was accused of doing things that people in journalism do too," such as "trying to help Chelsea Manning [his source] conceal her identity... taking measures to conceal Manning as a source" and using encryption. He stands "accused of doing things that are essentially journalistic... many journalists would do the same... I think it is wrong that he was charged in those terms."
And "an Australian journalist in the British courts" is accused of "breaching security laws in the US... think about it." Alan noted that there are many great journalists in Britain writing about Israel's or Pakistan's nuclear secrets. How would we feel if their governments turned up here and demanded those journalists serve time in their jails?
Meanwhile in the UK, notes Alan, for the past two years the Law Commission has been looking at the Official Secrets Act. Its proposal would make receiving or possessing official secrets an offence as well as publishing them, with much longer sentences for breaches of the Act.
Originally there were proposals for a clause that would allow the government of the day to define what national security is. Now there are plans to include a defence for disclosures in the public interest. The Espionage Act under which Julian faces trial in the US has no such public interest defence. "If we stand by and let this happen to him, it will have huge implications" for all journalists, concluded Alan.
Tim noted that the Assange case has been "divisive". President Trump at one point said Assange should be executed, then that he liked WikiLeaks, then that he didn't know who Julian was. Marching to the courts under an NUJ banner in February, Tim was "accosted" both for being "the media" and for "not doing enough".
The charges against Julian relate to "processes that most journalists do all the time... finding ways to pass on information... cover tracks, help sources to understand" what information is useful. Were Julian convicted, said Tim, the effect would be to allow the arrest of anyone whenever they annoy the US government.
Expressing concern at the conditions Julian has been held under at Belmarsh prison - his health deteriorated when he was effectively in solitary shielding in hospital, and began to improve when he was back among the prison population. Tim noted that the 175-year sentence that awaits Julian if convicted would be served in the cell the size of a parking bay; he would be allowed out for one hour a day for exercise, and have no interaction with anyone. In the trial, the lawyers for the US have said that he won't be held in solitary confinement, but their "special administrative measures" regime is solitary confinement in all but name.
Only eight journalists have been covering the hearings in court, others follow it virtually. While there's been "very good testimony" on behalf of Julian, there's been nothing excitingly new. Editors "think people are bored with it". In campaigning on Julian's case, we need to "talk about press freedom and the legal framework," and to take the conversation to the more general population.
Jennifer has been on Julian's legal team since 2010, in that year she "walked him into the police station". She's aware that her legally privileged meetings with Julian have been under surveillance, her legally privileged correspondence with him has been intercepted, and that his legal documents have been seized from the Ecuadorean Embassy.
It is, said Jennifer, a "a dangerous position for the law to define who is a journalist". Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights - implemented by the Human Rights Act in the UK - and the First Amendment to the US Constitution protect journalistic activity. She reminded us that Julian has a press card from his Australian union and an IFJ Press Card, and has won a Walkley Award for excellence in Australian journalism.
She warned us that if his appeal fails, Julian is likely to be deported next year, and is likely to end up in supermax prison where he's likely to take his own life.
The defence team have fought on "abuse of process" arguing that the there is an "ulterior political motive to the extradition".
Trump has called the press an "enemy of the people". There have been (contested) reports that a Congressman turned up to see Julian when he sought asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy and offered him a deal for a pardon. The US government is misrepresenting the facts to portray Julian's actions as criminal offences. Nor does the US affidavit refer to any evidence that harm was done as a result of Julian's actions.
The US Espionage Act has never been used against a foreign journalist before. To rule that Julian should be extradited, the judge would have to demonstrate that his actions would be offences here in the UK too, effectively setting a precedent that would lock the UK into a dangerous interpretation of the Official Secrets Act.
The Australian government "refused to take a strong stance," says Jennifer, which led Julian to seek asylum. Would a Biden victory in the imminent US elections have any impact on Julian's case? Tim said there was a feeling about the Assange case that "Pompeo is behind it" (Mike Pompeo is Trump's current Secretary of State). Jennifer noted that Joe Biden did call Julian a "high tech terrorist", but the Obama administration, in which Biden was vice-president, had declined to indict.
- This article was retro-sub-edited on 1 November.