Today a top British government official signed orders to send WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the U.S. to face espionage and computer fraud charges for his role in publishing top-secret documents sent by military whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel (essentially their attorney general) approved the extradition orders, issued by a London court back in April, to permit the United States to take custody of Assange and put him on trial for 18 separate charges that have a maximum potential penalty of 175 years in federal prison.
In a statement from WikiLeaks, the organization said, “This is a dark day for Press freedom and for British democracy. Anyone in this country who cares about freedom of expression should be deeply ashamed.”
If the Department of Justice actually follows through and puts Assange on trial, it will be the first time the federal government has attempted to jail an independent publisher rather than a leaker for making classified information available to the public.
Assange has been fighting extradition from London since 2012, initially attempting to evade a Swedish warrant alleging sexual assault (an investigation that subsequently closed). Assange was indicted by the Department of Justice in 2018, and then superseding charges were filed in 2019 accusing him of conspiring with Manning to disclose “national defense information.”
Manning herself served seven years in federal prison for the leaks. She was sentenced to 35 years, but her sentence was commuted by then-President Barack Obama in 2017, and she was released. She was then temporarily imprisoned again in 2019 for contempt because she refused to cooperate with a federal grand jury investigating Assange.
This prosecution is and continues to serve as a stark threat to all of our First Amendment free press protections. I say “all” here because journalism is an action, not just an occupation claimed by people who call themselves “reporters” or “journalists.” The distinction matters because part of the effort to justify prosecuting Assange is to insist he’s not a “real” journalist and that WikiLeaks is not a “real” media outlet. But in reality, anybody who provides information to the public about what is happening is engaging in some form of journalism. There’s no test for “legitimacy” for anybody engaging in journalism to be able to call on the First Amendment’s press protections.
The First Amendment protects the act of journalism. That means the federal government and the Department of Justice should not have the authority to decide who does and does not count as a journalist. We are getting very close to finding out whether the United States will continue respecting such an important (and often misunderstood) component of the First Amendment the further this attempt to imprison Assange goes.
Assange gets another chance to appeal this extradition order within the next 14 days. His attorney has already said the appeal is coming. But the British government and its judges have been pretty clear that they (like the Department of Justice) don’t see Assange’s behavior as legitimate journalism. The only delays in the extradition so far have been because the courts were concerned that he might suffer when locked up in America’s absolutely terrible federal prisons. Once they were assured that Assange would be well-treated, they expressed absolutely no concerns about sending him over.
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